Sean Sherman, The Sioux Chef
Local food. What does that mean to you?
To Sean Sherman, a Minneapolis-based Native American chef who is busily planning the rollout of a cookbook and restaurant called The Sioux Chef, it means the food his ancestors ate: the traditions and flavors of an indigenous people who cultivated what the land around them naturally produced, a food culture that has been decimated over the centuries, along with most other markers of Native American people and their culture. The resurrection of this lost cuisine is long past due; we’re starting to see trends in pre-colonial diets taking shape, and Sherman is a chef in pursuit of this important vision.
In any major American city, we expect to find representations of dozens of food cultures. Here in Minneapolis and St. Paul, we celebrate the availability of excellent, authentic food brought to us by way of Vietnam, Somalia, Mexico, Ecuador, and almost every other region and culture you can think of. But what about those who were here first? There is no restaurant in Minnesota that focuses exclusively on Native American food.
Sherman is setting out to change that. An experienced chef who grew up on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, he plans to shine a spotlight on the indigenous foods of the Native Americans who called Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin and the Dakotas their home. Using Brasa as a template, Sherman expects The Sioux Chef to have an accessible menu featuring ingredients that speak of this land; he also plans to curate monthly tasting menus that will offer a more daring, experimental dining experience. Since January of 2013, Sherman has helmed the growing cafe and catering businesses at Common Roots Cafe in Minneapolis, working with dozens of local food producers, and planning his transition to The Sioux Chef. We had the chance to speak with Sherman about his vision, and we tasted two dishes that shed light on what he intends to serve when he has a brick-and-mortar establishment up and running.
HEAVY TABLE: Tell us about the concept for The Sioux Chef.
SEAN SHERMAN: I came across the idea quite a few years back. I had been a chef in Minneapolis for a while, had worked at some fun jobs in Uptown, downtown. But it got to the point where I needed a break, so I went down to Mexico for five months, and came up with the idea of doing a cookbook on Native American foods. I realized this subject hadn’t been worked on much. So I started looking into it — I grew up on Pine Ridge Reservation as a kid, and my grandfather and family knew quite a bit about the traditional foods, but I also realized that a lot of the foods I grew up with that I thought were traditional obviously had been heavily influenced, you know … so when I started looking for resources on the subject, I realized there wasn’t a lot of information out there. And I also realized I had a lot more work to do, personally, to get to the point … so I just started working on, you know, foraged foods, and training myself on all the wild-food flavors, what was indigenous to which region … I originally just started off with the area that my family came from — Pine Ridge is in south-central South Dakota, the Black Hills.
HEAVY TABLE: Tell us more about your background as a professional chef. Are you classically trained?
SHERMAN: Not really, I didn’t go to school for it … I was working at Broder’s Pasta Bar in the late ’90s, and got the chance to be a sous chef. I really thought about going to cooking school then. But you know, everyone I talked to told me to read, travel — I was young. You know, you’re already working hard, you’ve got all the tools in front of you to do it yourself. So I decided to spend my summers traveling, going to Europe, constantly reading, digging into books, and learning about cultures and their food backgrounds. The history of everything. Food history has always been important to me. So when I started getting into the Native American food systems — I already grew up on the reservation; I already had a background in it; a lot of my path just kind of led me to it.
When I was out of high school I went to work for the Forest Service, so I had to learn about everything that was going on — I had to know the American and Latin names for everything, what was edible and what wasn’t. And here, much later in life, that education comes back as a useful piece. I worked with the local organic food systems in the early 2000s, working with the farmers and ranchers back then, when they were first starting out … figuring out how to bridge the gap between what they were doing and what the restaurant scene was doing. I’ve been part of that from the beginning. So when I realized I was headed toward Native American foods, it made sense — my path was always headed in that direction.
HEAVY TABLE: The buzzword today in food is local — my perspective and context don’t go to the extreme of what that might really mean, beyond some new-age farmers growing heirloom tomatoes around the state. That’s a different deal from the true historical context of the indigenous people who were here before anyone that looked like me ever showed up. There are chefs around this region working with indigenous foods — but your idea is to open a restaurant that features this food exclusively, in a modern context, in a way diners can become familiar with. I’m surprised — and also not — that someone hasn’t gone that route before. Are you surprised by that?
SHERMAN: It’s been a rough history for indigenous people. Even all the way up through today. … The reservation I grew up on [has been] the poorest region in the entire U.S. for the past 4 years running. Median lifespan for a male is about 48. Unemployment is around 80 percent. There are few opportunities there. But some of the things that have been able to be preserved in the culture — I think we’ve done a really good job preserving language, arts … unfortunately our food way of living was really wiped off the map because of the reservation system and the oppression, and the trauma people went through. Forced onto reservations, forced into subsidies … prevented from growing the old stuff, forbidden to bring seeds with them or to preserve any of this stuff.
Luckily, some of their seeds were hidden away and saved, so today there are farms that are bringing back these heirloom varieties that used be common throughout this region. I think we don’t see a lot of — or any — Native restaurants because the food culture was wiped completely off the board. They tried so hard to acclimate native people into European lifestyles. Forcing them to take all the government surplus — you know, where frybread came from — introducing this stuff to an indigenous culture that had never used flour. The only thing we could do was make a simple dough out of it, and make frybread.
It became oppression food, so families lived with it, they learned how to do it … I mean, I love frybread, but I always tell people it’s not really indigenous food. It just became one of those pieces that has become traditional. I think that’s the biggest reason you don’t see Native restaurants. It’s really coming back now — pre-colonialism, what did we know before all of this happened, you know?
HEAVY TABLE: The concept touches on so many complicated issues. Political, cultural, historical — it’s all wrapped up in the food. And that’s often the case anywhere, right? Food isn’t frozen in time, it changes based on outside forces. How much of your concept — when it’s actually happening and thriving — what percentage of it will be making a statement versus providing a new dining experience? How much of it will be education?
SHERMAN: I think it’s such a unique concept in general — a culture without food is a lost culture. I think it’s extremely important to bring back some of this knowledge, this food, and to be able to serve it in a modern context that everyone can appreciate. These flavors speak of the land. They speak of a particular region. If I’m doing a dish that’s influenced by Lakota flavors, I’m taking some of the timpsula [wild turnips], using chokecherry, buffalo, duck … stuff that speaks of that region. Next week I’m doing a big Ojibwe-inspired dinner up north — I’m using cedar, some of the perch that’s wild up there, some of the berries, the wild rice of course, and different ways to prepare it — more old-school ways.
Again, these flavors — if you’re up in that region, you can walk around and find all of that food right there in, like, a one mile radius. All that’s coming onto a plate, and just speaks of these people; it’s what has been here all along. Those flavors to me are the echo of that entire history. I want people with a Eurocentric background to understand what Native American food is, and also understand the importance of why it needs to be here, and yeah, to question why there aren’t any Native American restaurants! Hopefully in 10 years there will be offshoots, many versions of this kind of concept — I’m not trying to be ultra-traditional, I’m just trying to showcase the flavors we had here for centuries, and to be able to put them in a modern context, onto plates, and utilize that knowledge. I’m not using any European ingredients at all.
The first course Sherman served was a very modern plating of a bison hanger steak with dried wild oregano, a corn and dandelion puree, chokecherries, purslane, and squash blossoms. The bold, earthy flavors stood out immediately — rich corn balanced with the tartness of the chokecherry, and the lean, mineral flavor of the bison taking center stage. The dish wowed us with it’s balance of flavor, visual excitement, and a comforting essentialness. He paired the dish with Crispin cider, which worked very well.
SHERMAN: This is a take on Sioux cuisine. Heavy bison in the diet, corn, wild chokecherries — they grow all over the prairies. Chokecherries have a very unique flavor — reminds me of my childhood whenever I smell them. The thing is that this food is naturally healthy. The bison is lean and high in omega-3s. I used just a bit of sunflower oil, and some duck fat. It’s all very low sodium — I use a bit of salt but not much, because these flavors are all very concentrated and speak for themselves.
HEAVY TABLE: It’s very earthy, and grassy. The purslane is delicious.
SHERMAN: It grows wild all over the place — most people weed it, use chemicals to kill it, but it pops up through sidewalks all the time. Mexican markets sell it. I cook the chokecherries down with maple sugar — it’s one of the main condiments that the Ojibwe people had — they made syrup, but they mostly made it into sugar because it lasts longer. The Ojibwe used to put it on everything.
HEAVY TABLE: Is this the sort of thing you envision serving family style?
SHERMAN: For family style dishes, I’ve been making a lot of slow-cooked, stew-like dishes, like turkey and hominy, or buffalo with sunchoke, stuff like that. Nice hearty dishes. But then you can do nice roasts and fire-cooked stuff too. At the restaurant I’ll be doing a lot of cooking over open fire. I’d like to have a live, wood-fired grill. I’d like to woodsmoke a lot of stuff as well.
HEAVY TABLE: What kind of beverage program are you planning?
SHERMAN: I’ll have beer and wine, but I’m not going to make it a focal point — because with Native Americans, alcohol has been such a problem. I’m not to the point where I want to have a lounge setup, but I would like to have wine dinners.
Sherman’s second course was a blackened walleye filet with sumac and maple sugar, a white bean and smoked walleye croquette, toasted hominy, a raspberry and rose hip sauce, dandelion/sunflower oil, and seasonal flower blossoms — pea, broccoli, and red clover. Again, this dish was a study in unforced, balanced flavor — ingredients that spoke for themselves. Again, the plating was modern and artful.
HEAVY TABLE: This bean and walleye croquette is really nice. Surprisingly rich — great comfort food. Nothing feels overthought, like there are too many elements. It all makes sense together.
SHERMAN: This is all Minnesotan food, to the core. It’s just a much needed concept all over the U.S. It’s silly that you can’t find this cuisine anywhere, when it’s what was here before. I’ve spent so many years thinking and formulating, and this year just felt like the right time to go out and do it. Everything seemed to line up perfectly for it, so I’m just throwing myself out there.