MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. — Even with the door closed, the sweet smell of blueberries, sage and tender cuts of buffalo permeated the halls of a downtown Minneapolis building. Chef Sean Sherman lingered behind a stove, his hands slow and steady as he drizzled sunflower oil into a hot pan.
“I like to think, What if I was here 300 years ago?” he said, scanning the faces of a group of Native American youths. “What would I eat?”
That question was not only at the heart of a recent reality cooking show filmed for a local nonprofit; it’s also the impetus behind an ambitious restaurant concept Sherman first envisioned seven years ago when he started research to write a Lakota cookbook.
An Oglala Lakota who grew up on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in western South Dakota, he was startled by the lack of information on indigenous diets or even opportunities to visit successful Native restaurants.
“I had no idea,” he said. “I knew it wasn’t just fry bread. I knew Native food was a lot more than that.”
Fast-forward to the present day. Sherman has studied the diets of Native Americans before European influence and assimilation, experimented with precolonized flavors and ingredients and served as the executive chef at a popular restaurant in the Twin Cities. Now the 40-year-old plans to do what few have done: open a purely indigenous restaurant that focuses solely on precolonization Sioux and Ojibwe cuisine.
The restaurant, to be called Sioux Chef, will soon open its doors in the Minneapolis area. Deer, buffalo, rabbits, walleye, trout and duck will make the menu, paired with other local items like juniper berries, prairie turnips, dandelions, chard, kale, spinach and the symbiotic trio that Native Americans have dubbed the three sisters — corn, beans and squash.
It also means little or no white flour, processed sugar or olive oil in the kitchen.
Very little is off limits for Sherman, whose long black ponytail swishes against the back of a chef’s coat as he works. He makes tea out of cedar, spruce, white pine and balsam fir. He garnishes his dishes with microgreens, sweetens corn meal mush with pure maple sugar and cooks with sunflower, hazelnut and walnut oils.
“I’m not pushing healthy food but traditional food,” he said. “It’s traditional food in a modern context, and it just happens to be healthy.”
At the end of the cooking show, he arranges a dish of yellow and purple carrots, a small slab of buffalo drizzled in wojapi berry sauce, fresh greens and corn mush. It’s a far cry from the foods 12-year-old Alexis Crowe said she’s used to eating — macaroni and cheese, enchiladas, chicken, beef and eggs.
“I eat foods with a lot of grease, fried foods,” she said. “I barely eat vegetables. I eat cornmeal sometimes, but it’s out of the box.”