Skip to main content

The Sioux Chef uses only native ingredients, but isn't 'cooking like it's 1491'

James Beard Award-winning chef, Sean Sherman talks about his restaurant, Owamni, and about bringing more awareness to indigenous foods. He’s a member of the Oglala Lakota tribe.


Other segments from the episode on October 24, 2022

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, October 24, 2022: Interview with Sean Sherman; Review of The Year of the Puppy



This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. The Minneapolis restaurant Owamni won the James Beard Award for best new restaurant this past June. What makes it stand out even more is that it's one of the very few restaurants in the country to feature indigenous cuisine. Our producer, Sam Briger, has learned a lot more about it, and he has today's interview. Here's Sam.

SAM BRIGER, BYLINE: The Minneapolis restaurant Owamni won the James Beard Award for best new restaurant this past June. What makes it stand out even more is that it's one of the very few restaurants in the country to feature indigenous cuisine. Owamni only uses ingredients indigenous to North America before Europeans arrived, prepared in ways that reflect Native American food cultures. On its website, Owamni proudly states that the food it prepares has been decolonized. Our guest is chef Sean Sherman, who co-founded and co-owns a restaurant with Dana Thompson. Sherman was recently profiled by Carolyn Kormann in The New Yorker magazine. He's a tribe member of the Oglala Lakota and grew up on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. He's known as the Sioux chef - that's S-I-O-U-X - and has for years been working to bring awareness to indigenous foods and food cultures through the nonprofit he and Thompson co-founded, NATIFS. That's an acronym for North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems. In 2018, Sherman won the James Beard Award for best american cookbook for "The Sioux Chef's Indigenous Kitchen." Well, Sean Sherman, welcome to FRESH AIR.

SEAN SHERMAN: Thank you for having me.

BRIGER: So to give our listeners a sense of the kind of food that you have at your restaurant, can you tell us what the special is tonight?

SHERMAN: Typically, we have some entree specials. So right now, there's this bison steak special, and we're kind of getting into the season where we're probably going to start doing a little bit more braising with bison and venison. We have a dish that's kind of featuring foods from the Pacific Northwest. So there's some Pacific Northwest salmon and some blackberries and a few other items on there.

BRIGER: So if you think about the salmon dish, like, with the blackberries, like, when you look at the foods that are on that plate, does it kind of tell a story to you?

SHERMAN: Yeah. We try to cook with regional indigenous foods and seasonal on top of that. So we really try to paint a picture of where this dish might come from. So a lot of the foods represent where we are in Minnesota in the Great Lakes region. So we might have something with, say, wild rice or rabbit or rose hips or blueberries. And these are all ingredients you can see just standing in the forest and glancing around.

BRIGER: Your restaurant says that its food has been decolonized. Can you explain that?

SHERMAN: Well, we use this platform really to talk a lot about why we don't see indigenous or Native American restaurants all over the United States. And it's really a story of what happened to Indigenous peoples in the history of the United States - in the very short history of the United States - and especially in the 1800s, which were just a really violent time against the Indigenous populations across North America. So we look at, you know, just showcasing the amazing diversity and flavor profiles of all the different tribes across North America, all the different regions, and really celebrating that and cutting away colonial ingredients. So we don't have things on our menu that have dairy, wheat flour, cane sugar, typically beef, pork or chicken and really just try to showcase the flavors that are true to our regions.

BRIGER: And does it also mean that you try to avoid, like, certain traditional European food preparation techniques?

SHERMAN: Well, I mean, there's cooking techniques that have a lot of commonalities all across the world - of course, cooking with fire and all the different things. So we typically try to keep things really simple. We're not trying to mimic European recipes necessarily. We're just really trying to allow the flavors to kind of move forward because we're not really trying to even cook traditional Native American dishes. We're really looking at just creating modern-day indigenous food pantries and creating all sorts of fun, interesting recipes out of those.

BRIGER: Right. You say the food has been decolonized. It's not pre-colonized. Like, you're not re-enacting food - what do you imagine food was like back then, right?

SHERMAN: Right. We're not cooking like it's 1491 and so we're not a museum piece or something like that. We're trying to evolve the food into the future, using as much of the knowledge from our ancestors that we can understand and just applying it to the modern world.

BRIGER: So before you started Owamni and your business as The Sioux Chef, you worked in a lot of different restaurants. And you were trained in the European tradition of cooking. In order to do what you're doing today, did that kind of require a shift in the way you thought about cooking?

SHERMAN: Absolutely. Because like anybody, you know, growing up in the culinary world, I started working in restaurants when I was 13, and when I became a chef, I just started reading a lot of, you know, instructional cookbooks, like the CIA's textbook and things like that, and really just trying...

BRIGER: CIA is the...

SHERMAN: Sorry - Culinary Institute of America's textbook - and really trying to just get a sense because I didn't go to culinary school. So I spent a lot of time reading and just trial and error, basically, when it came down to it. But you learn a lot of that European, you know, culinary technique as you kind of go through that. So when I had the epiphany of just realizing the complete absence of indigenous or Native American foods out there anywhere, it really kind of made me focus on trying to identify and define what that meant. So I spent quite a few years just researching and trying to understand what my ancestors, you know, even just 150 years ago, what were they eating, what were they harvesting? Were they trading with other tribes? You know, what kind of plant knowledge did they have; and so many questions through kind of the lens of culinary perspective and just really starting to, you know, dream up ways to showcase these amazing flavors through recipes that really kind of feature foods that are very specific to region and culture and utilizing a lot of Native language. So in the beginning, you know, there was a lot of hustling I had to be out there doing, a lot of pop-up dinners and constantly talking about the work and just constantly researching. And it became a real, you know, a huge education. And I just created the nonprofit vision to kind of help spread that around.

BRIGER: Yeah. You said that you were able to buy a Culinary Institute cookbook, but you've said before that there is no "Joy Of Native American Cooking" (ph) out there. That book doesn't exist.

SHERMAN: Right. Yeah. I couldn't go online and order "Joy Of Native American Cooking" because it did not exist.

BRIGER: Yeah. So where - like, where are some of the places that you did go to find this information?

SHERMAN: So I did talk to some of my family members who grew up and grew up their entire lives on Pine Ridge and, you know, some of the elders that I knew and just researching with all sorts of people and looking for any other Native chefs out there, which there were very few at the time when we were first starting, and just really trying to understand what was going on with all of this and what it meant to me personally. So I spent a lot of time reading a lot of ethnobotanical texts and really trying to understand uses of wild plants within Indigenous communities. I myself worked for the U.S. Forest Service right out of high school in the Northern Black Hills in South Dakota. So my job had me learn the names of all the plants in the Northern Black Hills, which that kind of education helped me, you know, quite a bit as I started really getting back into it. So that connection with plants was probably one of the best ways for me to start to really connect and just starting to see the world differently through this indigenous perspective of just realizing that all these plants around us have some kind of purpose, whether it's food, it's medicine or crafting, and really trying to create and understand what that relationship is to me personally.

BRIGER: Can you give us an example of something you learned from an elder on the Pine Ridge Reservation?

SHERMAN: You know, I talked with them a lot about, you know, when they saw shifts in foods and some of the memories that some of the elders that they saw growing up and what they were eating; so, you know, looking at some of the old methods, like, you know, just hanging meat out to dry and grinding the meat into basically a powder after it's dried, mixing that with dried berries and creating a dish that we know as wasna on the Pine Ridge Reservation - some people might know it as pemmican - and really just trying to look for certain techniques like that but also just listening to, you know, some of the stories about some of the plants that people were harvesting, like the choke cherries or like the prairie turnip, which we called timpsula, which was something that I harvested also when I was young - and, you know, just looking for any instances of that.

BRIGER: It's interesting that, you know, you talk about how the Indigenous diet actually hits a lot of points that are sort of part of fad diets these days.

SHERMAN: Absolutely, you know, 'cause since we cut out colonial ingredients, things that were introduced primarily from European countries, we removed dairy products, removed wheat flour, cane sugar, beef, pork, chicken. And, you know, so everything on the menu is gluten free, dairy free, sugar free, soy free, pork free. And, you know, it just mimics a lot of what all these fad diets are trying to get to. And it just happens to be, like, the true diet of what is North America.

BRIGER: Is there some aspect of Indigenous food culture that has been completely lost to time that you would really like to know about?

SHERMAN: Oh, I'm sure there's so much that is just completely gone and wiped off the map 'cause you know, we just look at how Indigenous peoples were treated starting from, you know, our very first president 'cause, you know, George Washington sends Gen. Sullivan out in 1779 to try and enslave as many Indigenous people in that northeast sector as possible. And they drive them, you know, across the border into Canada at that time period. I remember reading Gen. Sullivan writing back to George Washington, saying that there's not a single sight of an Indian on this side of Niagara. And during that campaign, you know, they're burning, you know, huge acreages of farming areas and communities and, you know, up to, like, 6-mile-by-6-mile fields of corn surrounding these villages. And, you know - and that just kind of sets the tone for what happens across the rest of the 1800s.

And so many seeds are probably completely wiped off the map that we have no idea. So visiting places like Field Museum in Chicago where they have a lot of corncobs in their archive, you know - but these cobs had just sat in the basement for a hundred years, and now they're literally archives, you know, where they could have been continuously grown out to protect some of the seed heritage. So that's one thing that that I wish I could see more of, is just, you know, some of these really amazing heirloom seeds that are out there when it comes to corns and beans and squash and chilies and sunflowers and things like that and everything else that might have been grown in some of the agricultural tribes throughout a huge chunk of what is North America.

BRIGER: Well, you also try to get a lot of the produce for your restaurant from Indigenous food producers. Can you tell us about one of those producers?

SHERMAN: Sure. You know, so we prioritize purchasing from Indigenous producers, local first and then national. So there's a native nonprofit that I also sit on the board with here in Minnesota called Dream of Wild Health. And they're a nonprofit native farm, and we're able to purchase a lot of produce from them over the summer months and just be a big supporter. But, you know, we have a lot of producers. There's Cheyenne River Bison (ph), which is a Lakota tribe in the middle of South Dakota that we get all of our bison from, for example. There's a couple of Indigenous fisheries nearby us - one in Red Lake Nation and one in Red Cliff Nation. Red Lake is in Minnesota. Red Cliff is in Wisconsin. And we're always on the search for more and more Indigenous producers.

BRIGER: You also get a local wild rice. Can you talk about that?

SHERMAN: Yeah, we get wild rice from a few different spaces 'cause, you know, the true wild rice that you find in Minnesota is all hand-harvested. It's, you know, harvested on canoes. And, you know, it's not like the black wild rice that people might find in the grocery stores. And we're able to get it from a few local producers - some coming from tribes and some coming from individual entrepreneurs, some selling the product.

BRIGER: How does that taste compared to the wild rice that you find in the store?

SHERMAN: Oh, it's so good 'cause it's just so light, and it cooks so much faster. And it's so much more floral. And it's just a completely different thing. And we use some of that paddy rice, the black rice, sometimes, you know, for certain things. But the true wild rice is something that's so unique and special and delicate, like, you know? And that's why you see a lot of native groups out there trying to fight things like big oil to keep them out of their rice lakes because it's not a matter of if those pipes leak, but when and how much damage will they leave behind. And, you know, will our future generations have access to some of this amazing food?

BRIGER: Well, let's take a quick break here. If you're just joining us, we're speaking with chef Sean Sherman. His restaurant, Owamni, won the 2022 James Beard Award for best new restaurant. It's one of the very few Indigenous restaurants in the country. We'll be back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


BRIGER: This is FRESH AIR. Our guest is Sean Sherman. He's the co-founder of the Minneapolis Indigenous restaurant Owamni that won this year's James Beard Award for best new restaurant. He also won a James Beard Award in 2018 for his cookbook "The Sioux Chef's Indigenous Kitchen."

Let's talk about fry bread. It's maybe the best-known Native American food. It's a deep-fried dough. It's - so it's a delicious, greasy carb. It's not something that you serve at Owamni, and you have some ambivalence toward fry bread. It has a complicated history, right?

SHERMAN: It does have a complicated history. You know, I grew up with fry bread. I think it tastes good. I don't eat it every day by any means or even that often and throughout a year's time period. But, you know, it is something that has been around on a lot of reservations and a lot of Indigenous communities. And it's something that people are very proud of. And, you know - but when I started asking some of my family members who grew up on Pine Ridge Reservation, for example, like, when did they remember fry bread coming on to Pine Ridge? And they all pretty much consistently said it wasn't till the end of the '60s, early '70s, when they started seeing it really start to become normalized. And, you know, I know some communities in the Southwest, you see it there from longer times.

But really, fry bread comes around just from a lot of the U.S. military giving staples to Indigenous communities like wheat flour, lard, salt, sugar. And you know, when you don't have a lot of resources, like kitchens and outdoor areas to cook - and you have outdoor areas to cook with, like, it's just something that a lot of field officers showed people how to utilize. So making a very simple dough, frying it in a pan - and it becomes, you know, something warm and something tasty and, you know - but again, it's not nutritious or very healthy for you 'cause it's literally fried bread.

But, you know, people survived off of it. And, you know, I just think that fried bread, even though a lot of people still embrace it, it shouldn't be the piece that identifies all of us as Indigenous peoples because we have so much more diversity we can be sharing. And that's why we really chose to kind of go against fried bread at the restaurant and really showcase a lot more about Native American heirloom varietals of agricultural seeds and corns and beans and squash and pieces like that, all sorts of other ways to create recipes using - you know, turning beans into breads, turning wild rice into breads and pieces like that.

BRIGER: Right, because it kind of can serve as a symbol of the sort of food-related diseases that are so widespread among native communities. Can you talk a little bit about that?

SHERMAN: Yeah. So you know, when I was growing up on Pine Ridge, we didn't have any restaurants. And we had one grocery store to service, basically, the size of Connecticut. So there's very little nutritional food access out there. And, you know, there's - today there's more gas stations where people can get some food. And, you know, there's only a couple of fast-food restaurants on the reservation. And that's pretty much it.

So still today, it's, like, really tough to see any kind of nutritional access. And we just really wanted to help turn that tide. So we're hoping, with the work of our nonprofit, we can help develop a lot more Indigenous entrepreneurs and create systems to get tribes to help them develop their own recipes and menus so there can be food access created in communities much like what I grew up with.

BRIGER: So can you talk about the commodity food program and how that was a part of your life growing up?

SHERMAN: Yeah. I grew up with commodity food program. So when I was growing up, we just got a lot of staples from the government. So there was a lot of things like government powdered milk and government cereals and, you know, government juices in cans and fruits in cans and vegetables in cans and meats in cans. So it'd be things like beef with juices and pork with juices and salmon, all canned stuff. And, you know, for me, you know, as a chef, you know, looking back, I would say most of it's not very pleasant. And, you know, a lot of it is - I just remember a lot of over-sugared fruits and syrups. And I remember a lot of over-salted vegetables in cans and, you know, meats that just are not ideal.

And, you know, I just have a lot of issues, I guess, with growing up with the commodity food program and having to eat a lot of powdered milk with very dry cereal in the morning and, you know, literally putting pure corn syrup on everything just to make things taste better. And we just - we need to do so much better, you know? And I think the commodity food program has grown over the years. They are starting to introduce more Indigenous products into their offerings.

But there's still a lot of work that needs to be done, you know? They really need to make the food a lot more regional. They need to be purchasing as much as they can from Indigenous producers to help grow that. And they need to be returning those products into those regional pieces instead of trying to, you know, basically homogenize all Indigenous peoples into one group and send the same foods out to everywhere. We really need a lot more regional diversity.

BRIGER: So as you said, you grew up on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Can you talk about what your life was like, what your home was like?

SHERMAN: Well, we just - you know, we grew up in a very small home out in the middle of the plains. And, you know, South Dakota's a lot of wide-open spaces, and same with the reservation. And a lot of the reservation borders the Badlands. So there's just a lot of really interesting terrain. There's a lot of coyotes and bullsnakes and rattlesnakes and things like that. There's a lot of cactus and just open grassland.

And there'd be little coves of, like, juniper trees and chokecherry trees and stuff like that that we'd harvest from. But, you know, as kids, we just had a lot of freedom. I feel like, you know, a lot of kids who grew up in the country have a lot of freedom anyways. And then, plus on the reservation, I just feel like, you know, we were maybe a little feral, but we survived. And, you know, I really enjoyed growing up like that.

BRIGER: And you grew up on - with your grandparents, who had a ranch, is that right?

SHERMAN: Yeah, I grew up on my - on some of the ranch land that my grandparents had. And I had some cousins that were in the same age group and just a mile and a half away from where I grew up. And we all just kind of ran around together, got into trouble, as kids do, and, you know, did a lot of ranch work as kids also.

BRIGER: So since you grew up on a ranch, I think, maybe, you had slightly better food than, say, your neighbors around you. Is that true?

SHERMAN: We had more cattle. So we had - we definitely had some privilege of having a lot of beef in our freezers. So that's - which was not typical for other families. So I do feel really lucky that we got that. And we - you know, we did hunt, so we did have a lot of game birds like grouse and pheasants and stuff that we harvested throughout the year.

BRIGER: Yeah. And you would go out as a kid with a shotgun, right?

SHERMAN: Yeah. I got my first shotgun when - I believe I was - I want to say I was 7 when I got my first shotgun and started hunting, very young.

BRIGER: Do you remember, like, say, your - the first thing that you were able to shoot and bring home for dinner?

SHERMAN: Yeah, pheasant. I remember going out that first time with the shotgun and eating a lot of pheasant. And I remember a lot of BBs in the pheasant because of learning how to shoot, really.

BRIGER: Let's take another short break here. We're speaking with Chef Sean Sherman. His Indigenous restaurant Owamni won this year's James Beard Award for Best New Restaurant. We'll be back after a short break. I'm Sam Briger, and this is FRESH AIR.


BRIGER: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Sam Briger. Let's get back to my conversation with chef Sean Sherman. He's a member of the Oglala Lakota Tribe and grew up on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Through his nonprofit and restaurant, he's been trying to bring awareness to Indigenous food cultures, many of which were almost completely lost to colonization. His Minneapolis restaurant, Owamni, won this year's James Beard Award for best new restaurant. And in 2018, his cookbook, "The Sioux Chef's Indigenous Kitchen," won the James Beard Award for best American cookbook.

So how did you get into cooking, Sean?

SHERMAN: Mostly necessity like a lot of kids in the '80s. We were pretty latchkey 'cause my mom moved my sister and I off the reservation, and we moved to a small town in the Black Hills called Spearfish, S.D. And she was going to school and working three jobs. And so since I was the oldest, I cooked at home a lot. And then, I got my first restaurant job right away when I barely turned 13 and just continued to work restaurants all through high school and college. And after college, I moved to Minneapolis and continued working restaurants and just moved my way up really quickly into a chef position.

BRIGER: So you got into restaurants at 13?


BRIGER: So at one point, did you sort of think to yourself, like, well, this is just what I'm going to do?

SHERMAN: You know, I just kept doing it, and I just - you know, I was pretty good at it. I was a good line cook. I learned really fast. And when I moved to the cities, I learned a lot more about food that wasn't really around in South Dakota. So living in Minneapolis and St. Paul, I was able to grow a lot more and to really get more interested in food culture. But I never really thought about being a chef, I guess, when I was younger. I always thought about - I wanted to go to school for art, really. I wanted to be an artist of some kind. And then, so when I moved to Minneapolis, I was trying to get into an art school, and then, I discovered how much art school cost. And I decided that I would never be able to afford that. So I decided art was a hobby but eventually found art through food. And that kind of changed everything for me.

BRIGER: Do you remember, like, that there was a point when you were learning in restaurants, like, there was a technique that sort of opened your eyes to how cooking worked?

SHERMAN: You know, I think just taking the time and breaking things down slow - I think one of my very first chef jobs - or not even chef job, cooking jobs, whatever. But I was working in Deadwood, S.D., when casinos kind of first started coming around back in the late '80s, early '90s, somewhere in that time period. And, you know, one of these jobs I had, I just had to break everything down. We had a - I remember we had a $4.95 filet mignon special.


SHERMAN: And I would have to get there early and break down just massive pounds of tenderloins, you know, and turn those into filet mignons and bacon wrap them and all the things. And just that - you know, that technique of doing that over and over and over again and just breaking down whole animals and, you know, making everything from scratch - that kind of education really helped me, you know?

BRIGER: Well, that's kind of the thing that I don't understand about restaurants. Like, I do a lot of cooking at home. I enjoy cooking, like, one meal for the family. I - like, how do you handle that kind of volume? Like, I know you're not doing that much at your restaurant, but even so, you're probably doing, like, how many diners a night?

SHERMAN: You know, I think we - you know, in the height of the summer, we're up to, like, 500 guests or something like that, but..

BRIGER: Oh, so you are. So 500. Wow. Yeah. So how do you just deal with that?

SHERMAN: And plus, we have catering and all - events...

BRIGER: Right.

SHERMAN: ...And all sorts of things. So those numbers - and we have a food truck right outside the restaurant, too, that deals with just people who aren't coming into the restaurant. So we feed a lot of people. And, you know, I've done a lot of catering in my past. And we did a lot of food relief especially during the pandemic and especially right after George Floyd in Minneapolis 'cause our nonprofit kitchen is just a few blocks from where George Floyd was murdered and we're on the street where everything really got decimated during the social uprising.

And, you know, during that time period in 2020, we were doing about 400 meals a day. And then, we ramped up to winter time and started sending food directly out to tribal communities across Minnesota. So we were feeding nine out of 11 tribes, and we were doing 10,000 meals a week out of that small kitchen with a staff of about probably 12 people and, you know, a lot of volunteer work. But it was pretty intense.

BRIGER: Well, let's go back a little bit before you opened The Sioux Chef and your restaurant. I read that at some point in the 2000s, you got burned out by the restaurant business. And you went down to Mexico where you spent some time with the Huichol people, an Indigenous population down in Mexico. And you said you had an epiphany about food. Can you tell us what that was?

SHERMAN: Yeah. So, you know, working a chef job that was way too demanding where I was, you know, putting in 90- and hundred-hour weeks, which isn't - and really intense and just getting over that and, you know, just needing some time to breathe - so, you know, moving down to Mexico with a backpack and a guitar and just landing on a small beach town on the Pacific. And, you know, I spent a lot of time just reading and contemplating and trying to figure out what my next move was going to be.

And I did become really interested in the Indigenous group down there, which were the Huichol, and started really researching them. And the epiphany that I had was just all of a sudden the realization that, you know, we just had so much in common. Like, they were just kind of, like, my long-distance Indigenous cousins, and we were all Indigenous to this - you know, this continent. And it really struck me that - all of a sudden, I realized they had been studying foods from all over the world. And I knew very little about my own foods when it came down to it.

And as I started researching and looking around, I realized that there was very little information out there. There were very few cookbooks on the topic of Indigenous foods. And a lot of the cookbooks I did find were very fusionized with a lot of European ingredients, you know? So I wasn't looking for, you know, wild rice risotto with a lot of cheese in it. Or I wasn't looking for recipes with a lot of cream of mushroom soup cans dumped into it. So I was looking for something very specific, but I just saw a very clear path of what I wanted to learn. And I knew I had some time to really research and do it. But I also knew that I was just going to get to a point where I just had to start doing it, you know? So I kind of just saw my career path unfold in front of me within just a moment, like a blink, you know?

BRIGER: Mexico provides such an interesting contrast to the United States in that Mexican food retains so much of its Indigenous food culture.

SHERMAN: Absolutely. You know, Mexican food is so much more Indigenous than it is, you know, Spanish- or French-influenced. And you don't have to do much to it to really decolonize it 'cause you still have things like nixtamal and tortillas and tamales and all that wonderful corn product and all the different kinds of chilies and moles and nopales and all these things that have just been around for a long, long time. You know, you just have to remove cheese and sour cream and, you know, some fried chicken and things like that from the menus. And, you know, it doesn't take much. So it's a really good glimpse of what is Indigenous foods of the Americas and especially into North America 'cause corn culture from Mexico spreads, you know, into such a vast area of what is the United States - like, all along, basically, the east side of the Rockies, up the Mississippi, Missouri River Valley, all the way out to the East Coast and into parts of Canada.

BRIGER: Well, let's take another short break here. If you're just joining us, we're speaking with chef Sean Sherman. His restaurant, Owamni, won the James Beard Award this year for best new restaurant. It's one of the very few Indigenous restaurants in the country. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BRIGER: This is FRESH AIR. My guest is Sean Sherman. He's the co-founder of the Minneapolis Indigenous restaurant Owamni that won this year's James Beard Award for Best New Restaurant. His cookbook, "The Sioux Chef's Indigenous Kitchen," won a James Beard Award in 2018. And he also won a leadership award from the James Beard Foundation in 2019 for his work with this nonprofit.

So at some point, you decided to start this catering and food education business, the Sioux Chef. And this eventually led to opening your restaurant, Owamni, in 2021. Now, I watched a video of you in - from 2018 where you say that restaurants are actually the worst business plan that you can come up with. Do you still stand by that?

SHERMAN: Yeah, I really do. I think that, you know, restaurants, you know - the margins that they make are so slim, you know? But restaurants are so important, you know? So I'm really happy that we have Owamni because Owamni really is a showcase that we can do this style of restaurant, and it can be successful, you know? But I actually wrote the restaurant to be a part of the nonprofit. And it took a lot of arguing with the IRS because the IRS was like, you can't have a restaurant as a nonprofit. And I was like, why? And they were like, because it makes - they make a lot of money. I was like, no, they don't, you know?

BRIGER: (Laughter).

SHERMAN: I was like, all restaurants should be nonprofits when it comes down to it.

BRIGER: Right.

SHERMAN: But they eventually bended and allowed me to write that I can have a restaurant as a nonprofit. So sometime in the future, I want to utilize that and create these spaces because I believe restaurants can be places for education and training. And it just really helps, you know, move a lot of food through, especially with a lot of the intentionality of what we do, with who we purchase from and why we're purchasing from certain vendors. And, you know, even our wine list is Indigenous.

BRIGER: You know, that brings me to a quote that I read that your co-owner, Dana Thompson, said about just the emotional response that a lot of your customers have when eating at your restaurant. She said this - is a quote - we have guests every single week, if not every day, that are welling up, some crying in the food in front of them. They understand that this food was systematically removed from their ancestors or the people that lived here before them. Reclaiming is a profound thing. Can you talk about that a little bit?

SHERMAN: Yeah. I mean, I've seen that a lot. I've seen a lot of people who just get really struck by it, especially Indigenous peoples, because it's not typical to be able to go someplace and, you know, see our Indigenous foods on the menu, see the Native names on the menu, see Native people cooking the food and serving the food and listening to Native music coming out of the speakers and just the whole vibe, you know? So it's a whole experience.

And, you know, it's something that's super special and unique. And, you know, we should have Native restaurants every - in every single city to showcase the amazing cultures that are all over the place, and just also, you know, the resiliency of Indigenous peoples that are still thriving here today everywhere. And, you know, there's so much to that, so some people do get very emotional when they come into the restaurant, experience this for the first time.

BRIGER: You learned to forage when you were a kid on your grandparent's ranch. And then you worked in the Forest Service, where you learned to identify a lot of plants in your area. So at this time of the year in Minnesota, like, if you had time today to forage, like, what would you be going for?

SHERMAN: Well, right now, you know, rose hips are coming around. Highbush cranberries are coming around. You might still find a few mushrooms or chanterelles here or there. You know, and there's - you know, there's still a lot of, you know, foods that are kind of out and about. There's still some herbs and things that are - it's starting to get yellow and cold here, so things are starting to go to bed pretty quickly.


SHERMAN: So there's still a lot of stuff out right now, though.

BRIGER: And how much forged produce do you use in your restaurant?

SHERMAN: We have a few different vendors that we get some specialty things from. So some stuff comes from our region. We have one vendor from up by Lake Superior and Duluth, Minn., that we get a lot of things, like white cedar and tamarack and pine needles and a lot of coniferous trees and things like that. We get a lot of people that just bring us a lot of berries as they're in season, whether they're, like, aronia berries or chokecherries or elderberries or whatever they might be. And we're able to just purchase a lot of that stuff. And we do our best to try and preserve everything so we can utilize it throughout the rest of the year.

BRIGER: Can you tell us about an Indigenous plant that's not terribly well-known that you think is really delicious and more people should know about?

SHERMAN: I think there's a lot of them out there. I mean, I think people should really wake up and start to see the world around them and start to identify plants and stop calling everything a weed, you know, and just put food plants everywhere in general. We always say that lawns are stupid, you know? And we should just be really, like, thinking about landscaping with food everywhere we can, especially as we have so many hunger issues out there. I love this time of year, harvesting things like labrador, which is this plant that a lot of tribes use - a very simple name - swamp tea sometimes. But I just think it's so fragrant and so wonderful in soups and stews. And I just love getting a ton of it for the rest of the season and just using it as an herb, almost like a bay leaf, you know? But it's a little bit - it's got a little bit of a citrus aroma to it.

BRIGER: Well, let's talk a little bit about your cookbook, "The Sioux Chef's Indigenous Kitchen." In sort of in the back half of the book, you have a section called the Indigenous pantry. Can you tell us about some of the items that make up the Indigenous pantry?

SHERMAN: Well, we just try to think about what's around us. So we have a lot of, like, rose hips and rose hip powder, and blueberries and fermented blueberries, and dried blueberries and frozen blueberries. And we have all sorts of different kinds of proteins. We use a lot of crickets. We use a lot of tree species, like I said before, like the fir trees. Like, balsam fir, white cedar, pine are things that you find on the menu quite a bit. And, you know, we just have a lot of dried mushrooms and fresh mushrooms. And there's just all sorts of stuff, you know? So we're just really trying to create, you know, a modern-day Indigenous kitchen with modern-day Indigenous pantries with just foods that's around us, you know, and then we bring in foods from other regions just so we have things to showcase flavors of other areas, whether it might be bear root or saguaro syrup or cactus or any of those mesquite flowers and things like that.

BRIGER: You mentioned crickets. Do you grind crickets to a powder or do you use them whole? How to use the crickets?

SHERMAN: A little both. So we have them on the menu with a seed mix, almost like a Native granola mix. But we boil them with maple water, and then we dry them out in the oven, and so they kind of crisp up. And they're seasoned with a little bit of salt and chili pepper. And they're just really super, super simple, but they're really tasty, you know? And it's just showing people that you can make food like that taste good. And that shouldn't be something weird to think about, you know? So I think during the height of the summer, I was probably going through about 15 pounds of crickets a week.

BRIGER: How many crickets in a pound about?

SHERMAN: That's a lot, right? They don't weigh that much. So that's a lot.

BRIGER: Yeah. And so is a cricket, like, more of a textural thing? Like, is it crunchy? Is that what you're...

SHERMAN: Yeah, it gets crunchy, and it's got a little sweet and just a tiny bit of that spice because of it. And, you know, it's with seed mix, so they're - people really like them. They enjoy them. And you know, there's all sorts of things we can do with all sorts of different kinds of bugs. And there's some really fun groups out there and personalities and people doing a lot of amazing work with insects. And, you know, it should be more normalized.

BRIGER: What other insects do you use?

SHERMAN: Well, there's crickets and grasshoppers, of course. You know, it was cicada year this year, so we were able to play with a few, but we didn't put them on the menu. We were just more experimenting with them. But there's all sorts of stuff out there, and I've been to other conferences where there's just been a lot of different kinds of insects from different areas. I remember going to an Indigenous conference in northeastern India in Shillong and meeting with some of the people from some of the tribes around that area and tasting all these insects that they use on a regular basis, like grubs and ants and grasshoppers and crickets and spiders. And there's just all sorts of stuff out there.

BRIGER: I imagine a cicada is more chewy than a cricket.

SHERMAN: They're a lot - quite a bit bigger.

BRIGER: Yeah. The country's biggest food holiday is coming up, Thanksgiving. And, you know, for many Native Americans, it's not a celebration at all, but it's a day of mourning for the murder of people, for the loss of land, for a loss of a lot of the culture through colonization. And you've written about how you observed that fourth Thursday of November. Can you talk about that?

SHERMAN: Sure. You know, so I mean, we grew up with Thanksgiving like a lot of families have, and we had a lot of the typical dishes with turkey and stuffing and mashed potatoes and so forth. But, you know, if you really look at the story itself, like it's kind of crazy to think about, like, growing up on a reservation that we were being taught to celebrate, like, this very colonial history, you know, that has nothing to do with us and is not even real when it comes down to it. And if you look at how this even happens, you know, you just - it's pretty insane. So I wrote a story for Time magazine a few years ago that gets shared a lot during the Thanksgiving time that just really explores how, you know, this curriculum around forcing people to believe, like, this - and uplift this colonial history of the United States. But it just is so dismissive of the intense violence that happened against Indigenous peoples. And, you know, I just really feel like we need to drop that narrative completely when it comes to, you know, pilgrims and Natives coming together and celebrating because it really has nothing to do with that at all.

And we should really just focus, you know, this time to be together and to be thankful for each other and, you know, to celebrate with food. And why not celebrate with indigenous food anyways, you know? So I just really believe that, you know, we could do a lot better. And, you know, we should get far away from a lot of these plays of Indigenous and colonizers coming together and having a wonderful dinner because it just never really happened, you know? It's just - it's almost insulting to be so dismissive of the genocide that happens throughout that time period and the amount of death that happens and the amount of displacement and just racism that happens against us as Indigenous peoples.

BRIGER: Well, Sean Sherman, thanks so much for being here today.

SHERMAN: Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it.

DAVIES: Sean Sherman spoke with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger. Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews "The Year Of The Puppy," the new book from Alexandra Horowitz, author of the bestseller "Inside Of A Dog." This is FRESH AIR.


You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?


Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR


Daughter of Warhol star looks back on a bohemian childhood in the Chelsea Hotel

Alexandra Auder's mother, Viva, was one of Andy Warhol's muses. Growing up in Warhol's orbit meant Auder's childhood was an unusual one. For several years, Viva, Auder and Auder's younger half-sister, Gaby Hoffmann, lived in the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan. It was was famous for having been home to Leonard Cohen, Dylan Thomas, Virgil Thomson, and Bob Dylan, among others.


This fake 'Jury Duty' really put James Marsden's improv chops on trial

In the series Jury Duty, a solar contractor named Ronald Gladden has agreed to participate in what he believes is a documentary about the experience of being a juror--but what Ronald doesn't know is that the whole thing is fake.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.
Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue