How this Minneapolis chef is reintroducing Native American delicacies to the world

At Owamni by The Sioux Chef, Sean Sherman and his workforce are redefining what “native” means via the lens of Native American custom.

Editor’s Word: On June 13, 2022, Owamni by The Sioux Chef gained the 2022 James Beard Award for Best New Restaurant. A number of the particulars of this story have been up to date to replicate the award.

Eating places weren’t an enormous a part of Sean Sherman’s childhood on Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Although roughly the dimensions of Connecticut, Pine Ridge had no eating places in any respect when Sherman was rising up there, he says. There was additionally just one grocery retailer. This all modified quickly after Sherman moved to the city of Spearfish when he was 12. Inside a 12 months, he started washing dishes and bussing tables at an area steakhouse. Eating places have been a staple all through Sherman’s life ever since.

At the moment, Sherman has been within the meals business for greater than 30 years, with stints at eating places via highschool and faculty, finally cooking French, Spanish, Japanese and different cuisines as a chef in Minneapolis. It wasn’t till round a decade in the past although that he had an epiphany about his work. Sherman, a member of the Oglala Lakota tribe, realized that whereas he may simply title a whole bunch of European recipes off the highest of his head, he knew little or no about Lakota recipes. When he searched on-line, he additionally noticed only a few Native American eating places and cookbooks.

Chef, Sean Sherman in Owamni’s kitchen © Jaida Gray Eagle / Lonely Planet

“It was apparent that Indigenous meals and Indigenous peoples had been simply so largely invisible to the culinary world, although we’re in America, in North America, and regardless of the place we’re there are Indigenous peoples and historical past in every single place,” he mentioned. “I simply actually wished to grasp what are true Indigenous meals and what does that even imply in at this time’s world.”

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Revitalizing custom 

The revelation prompted Sherman to start reconnecting with Indigenous meals and traditions. He spoke with household elders, pored via historical past books, realized how one can determine wild crops and cooked. In 2014 Sherman launched The Sioux Chef, bringing on board Dana Thompson, who turned his enterprise accomplice. Initially a catering firm, The Sioux Chef now focuses on reclaiming and revitalizing Native American delicacies and meals programs. In 2017, Sherman additionally launched The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen, a James Beard award-winning cookbook. 

Dana Thompson at the hostess counter at Owamni
Sherman’s enterprise accomplice, Dana Thompson, on the counter in Owamni by The Sioux Chef © Jaida Gray Eagle / Lonely Planet

Final July Sherman’s profession got here full circle with the opening of the restaurant Owamni by The Sioux Chef, which serves fashionable Native American fare on the Mississippi River in Minneapolis. The foodies of the world seen rapidly: the restaurant won the 2022 James Beard Award for Best New Restaurant.

“We’re actually not right here to make a revenue,” Thompson mentioned. “Our fundamental mission is to make use of individuals, to construct Indigenous entrepreneurs, to get these meals again into the mouths of individuals, to normalize Indigenous meals. That is paramount. So this restaurant is simply this huge labor of affection.”

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Dana Thompson stands in the Owamni by The Sioux Chef kitchen with staff
Dana Thompson, who has Dakota ancestry, joined forces with Sean Sherman in 2014 © Jaida Gray Eagle / Lonely Planet

A brand new definition of “domestically sourced”

Owamni joins a handful of Indigenous-owned eating places throughout the USA targeted on Native or Native-inspired delicacies, akin to Tocabe in Denver, Colorado and Wapehpah’s Kitchen in Oakland, California. The general lack of Indigenous eating places although, each Sherman and Thompson agree, could be traced to the traumatic historical past of colonization and injustice in North America, which has not solely led to a lack of Place of birth and ancestral wealth, but additionally data, together with culinary traditions.

“These meals had been systematically eliminated by pressured assimilation and genocide and the tradition was virtually erased. The truth that we’ve these meals right here is an act of resistance itself,” mentioned Thompson, whose mom is of Dakota ancestry. When their Owamni prospects strive their dishes, they’re doing rather more than satiating their starvation, she says. “They’re actually absorbing tradition.” 

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Hogánša - Cured Pacific Snapper, Salmon Roe, Hemlock, Aronis, Nettle Oil, Sunchoke
Hogánša combines cured Pacific snapper, salmon roe, hemlock, nettle oil and sunchokes © Jaida Gray Eagle / Lonely Planet

With 574 federally recognized Indian tribes, there’s nobody Native American delicacies. Owamni’s menu contains Indigenous meals from throughout North America, with a concentrate on these of the Dakota tribe, which is predicated within the area. The restaurant takes a “decolonized strategy” to its dishes, avoiding cane sugar, wheat, dairy, beef, rooster, pork and different components not initially from North America. As a substitute, they characteristic meals akin to sport, fish, birds and bugs in addition to wild crops and Native American heirloom farm varieties. Owamni additionally tries to purchase components from Indigenous and native meals producers and supply wine and beer from Indigenous, BIPOC and feminine brewers and winemakers. 

Highlights of the colorful dishes served at Owamni by The Sioux Chef
(TOP LEFT) Šiyó: wild rice stuffed quail with currants, rosehip, juniper, sage oil and burdock; (TOP RIGHT) Mniwánča-Waptaye: wild rice sorbet, wojape syrup and hemp milk; (BOTTOM RIGHT) Thaníga: bison tripe and tail, white nixtamal and white candy potato; (BOTTOM LEFT) Owóža: smoked oyster mushroom, carrot, mushroom chip, pickled onion, watercress and preserved strawberry © Jaida Gray Eagle / Lonely Planet

Not a single Coca-Cola in sight

The ensuing menu, which options fashionable interpretations and dishes of Indigenous meals, naturally lends itself to a wide range of diets, together with gluten-free, dairy-free and pork-free. Owamni at present gives a fixed-price tasting menu for $85, with choices that vary from venison tartare and bison tripe and oxtail soup to wild rice dumplings and black bean cake with maple crickets. Sherman says they make their dishes with very particular areas in thoughts, half-joking that Owamni might be one of many solely eating places in Minneapolis with out Coca-Cola merchandise or Heinz ketchup on the tables.

“We simply actually attempt to take an strategy of attempting to pay homage and respect to our Indigenous ancestors by figuring out a whole lot of modern-day Indigenous components and creating a brand new period of what’s fashionable Indigenous meals,” he mentioned. “We simply occur to be extraordinarily wholesome, as a result of all these Indigenous meals are medication to us as Indigenous peoples and you are feeling it once you eat it.”

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Owamni Minnesota's Wačhoničha, Venison, venison tartare, sumac duck egg aioli, leek, purple sweet potato, pickled carrot
Wačhoničha Venison: venison tartare, sumac duck egg aioli, leek, purple candy potato, pickled carrot © Jaida Gray Eagle / Lonely Planet

Regardless of launching throughout the pandemic, Sherman says Owamni has been booked stable each night since opening day. It has additionally obtained plenty of accolades moreover the James Beard Awards recognition, making it onto quite a few lists of the perfect eating places of 2021. Sherman says it’s commonplace for purchasers to fly throughout the nation and typically even from abroad to eat there. On Yelp, the place Owamni has a 4.5-star ranking, some prospects are additionally raving.

“I’ve by no means had Indigenous meals, and even actually thought of the place my meals comes from. Consuming at Owamni was each a pleasant culinary expertise, in addition to a humbling reminder on what we owe to the Indigenous individuals right here and earlier than,” wrote one reviewer on Yelp.  

Another reviewer mentioned: “I used to be capable of eat scrumptious meals, left full and glad and had power afterward. That is how meals ought to make us really feel. As a Lakota myself I tip my hat to you as you might be an inspiration.”

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Co-owner, Dana Thompson with staff at Owamni by The Sioux Chef
A lot of Owamni’s employees members have Indigenous heritage © Jaida Gray Eagle / Lonely Planet

About 80 individuals had been employed when Owamni opened, of whom Sherman says over 70 % determine as Indigenous. A type of individuals is Kareen Teague, the restaurant’s normal supervisor and bar program coordinator. He says that though he’s labored in numerous eating places for over 12 years, Owamni gives him one thing new and distinctive.

“I used to work at a standard Japanese restaurant and I used to be all the time in awe of the respect and fervour the Japanese cooks had for working with their conventional delicacies. At Owamni, I really feel related to the meals via my heritage,” Teague mentioned, who has Anishinaabe heritage. 

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Co-owner Dana Thompson, left, and co-owner and chef Sean Sherman at Owamni by The Sioux Chef restaurant
Sherman and Thomson say that the restaurant has been booked stable each night because it opened © Stephen Maturen / Chicago Tribune / Tribune Information Service/ Getty

Paying it ahead

In 2018 Sherman and Thompson based North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems (NāTIFS), a nonprofit attempting to extend entry to and data of Indigenous meals. Their objective is to create a brand new North American meals system that generates wealth and improves well being in Native communities via food-related enterprises, partly to counter the massive health disparities Native Individuals face. On the coronary heart of the nonprofit is the Indigenous Meals Lab, a kitchen and coaching heart that covers every part from plant and meals identification to how one can run a culinary enterprise based mostly on Native traditions and meals.

NāTIFS can also be working with the USA Division of Agriculture to spice up training on wholesome cooking with Indigenous components and meals out there via the Meals Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR), which supplies meals to income-eligible households. Each Sherman and Thompson grew up on FDPIR meals, generally referred to as commodity meals, together with powdered milk, blocks of cheese and canned beef.

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Smudging the restaurant Owamni by The Sioux Chef with sage from a shell
Earlier than the restaurant opens, an worker burns sage in a shell © Jaida Gray Eagle / Lonely Planet

“I am going to by no means be taught every part about Indigenous meals, however we’re organising constructions and programs to have the ability to protect it and keep it for the next generations,” Sherman mentioned. “We envision finally having the ability to drive throughout the US or anyplace in North America and having the choice of Indigenous meals companies: to have the ability to cease there and to expertise the immense range and tradition and language and tales and meals.”