If you were asked to name three pre-contact Native American dishes, could you do it? Or does your knowledge stop with fry bread? If so, you're not alone. Indigenous recipes and cooking methods have largely disappeared since Europeans first made contact with the Americas.
Sean Sherman, otherwise known as the Sioux Chef, decided to find out why. His research revealed that the disappearance of indigenous dishes coincided with the introduction of the reservation system. Native Americans subjected to the system learned to rely on commodities provided by the government -- including foods high in sugar, salt, and fat.
In the past few years, Minnesota has seen a resurgence in interest in pre-contact foods and flavors. Heid Erdrich published Original Local: Indigenous Foods, Stories, and Recipes from the Upper Midwest in 2013; University of Minnesota grad Jason Champagne teaches cooking classes and nutrition at various Native American organizations throughout the state; and Native-run farms like Dream of Wild Health are using heirloom seeds to grow indigenous produce.
Sherman's new restaurant concept, which is slated for a winter opening, will focus on pre-contact Native American dishes. Meals will be affordable and served family-style, with the exception of bi-monthly chef's nights, when Sherman will prepare high-end indigenous dishes.
We chatted with Sherman about his culinary trajectory, government commodities, and his opinions on Columbus Day's name change.
Hot Dish: When did you start working on your restaurant concept?
Sherman: I started working on this idea quite a few years back. My initial focus was to do a cookbook on the Lakota people, because that's where I grew up. I started researching and there's just not a lot of bulk to the information out there. So then I just kind of devised what I wanted to know, because the cookbooks that I did find about it... they were just not what I was looking for. It was a lot of southwestern based [recipes], which was fine, but had nothing to do with these regions up here. Also, a lot of it was really basic, or there were a lot of fry bread recipes.
I wanted to go back further and really focus on indigenous flavors and techniques and pull that together in a modern sense. The further I started working on it, the more things started opening up. I originally started with studying wild foods in general, always reading a ton of history. Since I've been in Minneapolis, I've gotten to know this region, [and] I quickly started to include the Dakota and the Ojibwe because I realized all the diets were very similar -- they're eating basically a lot of the same stuff around this region. And so when I came up with the restaurant concept and I moved past wanting to do a cookbook, I felt it was really important to be specific on the regional base of it all.
What do you think happened to indigenous cooking methods and recipes?
There's a lot of traditional foods out there, but it obviously starts with the reservation systems. Back in the beginning days of reservation systems, people were kind of being moved off traditional foods and became more and more reliant on the government and commodities that were being handed out. When people stopped eating their traditional foods and harvesting their traditional foods and creating their traditional pantries over the growing season, people just had the government foods that were being given to them.
That's where health starts to really fail in a lot of Native communities because this food that the government is handing out is so high in saturated fats and salt and sugar, so you see a lot of dramatic effects because of that diet change.
Also, with people being removed from their traditional foods, they're not being used as much in our households, [and] the majority of a lot of the fresh stuff and preservation of things has stopped. It only took a little while before people stopped talking about things that were growing in the garden and started talking about their grandmother's fry bread. That's kind of the conclusion that I came to. When I grew up on the reservation in South Dakota, I was lucky that my family had a ranch, so we had a lot of fresh meat and my grandmother had a garden.
I would really like to help a lot of Native communities get reacquainted with or gain knowledge of the foods that were not only traditionally grown but foraged and harvested, and to bring a lot of those flavors back onto the table. For me, this restaurant concept was the best way to get that across. I would just have a bigger space to talk about it.
Do you envision this as a high-end restaurant, or will you have affordable options?
A lot of the press I've been getting, they've been showcasing a lot of fancy foods, because chefs like to play and be creative, but the business plan for this restaurant has a family-style dining option, so it's meant to share with your family because I want it to be approachable to Native and non-Native people and I didn't want any pretension with it. I wanted it to be something hearty. I just wanted really solid menu options. The pantry that I go from and my base, I'm really focusing on items that are indigenous to our region.
I'd like to do the high-end dinners, but I would like to keep those limited, like maybe do a chef's table twice a month or something, just to have it around because it's a great area to grow as a chef. But I want people to be comfortable in the restaurant in general and for it to be accessible.
Can you tell me a little bit about your career path prior to founding the Sioux Chef?
When I moved to Minneapolis in the mid-'90s, my first big job was at Broders' Pasta Bar and my first chef job was at La Bodega. That job did pretty well, because I was pretty young and I didn't know much about being a chef. I was at French Meadow for a little bit. I did take a hiatus out of the city, so back around 2008, I had been working with Lifetime Fitness, trying to help them develop some more healthy options.
I left the cities and ended up moving to Mexico for a while ... and I helped develop a restaurant down there. Then, after that, I moved to Montana for about three years and I developed and opened three restaurants when I was up there. I moved back to the Cities and immediately got the job with Common Roots, which was a much better fit. I had a lot of fun working with these guys, because having been gone for a little bit, [it was nice to be] back into the local, organic scene again.
Do you have a location for your restaurant?
I actually just started working for my company, which I named the Sioux Chef, at the beginning of September, because I was still working at Common Roots until August. I set the business stuff earlier this year, but it took me throughout the summer to work my way out of my chef position, so September was the first month I started working officially on my own. I have been looking at locations and I have a really promising one in front of me. My goal is to be open this winter. Since Indigenous Peoples Day just passed, how do you feel about the name change?
I think it's awesome. When it was going on downtown, I took my son down there. There were a bunch of people gathered there on the day they were voting on it. I never quite understood that holiday, and having a child when they're still teaching that same history -- this weird, kind of fairy tale history that they teach kids, about Columbus and stuff like that -- I'm glad that is moving on. We're all better than that.
Send your story tips to Hot Dish.
More from Food & Drink