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When Chef Sean Sherman reminisces about the progression of his career, he does not brag about prestigious culinary training or upper-echelon European inspirations. When asked about his motivations, the James Beard award-winning chef speaks of the centuries-long oppression of the Native American Community, colonization, and generations of unchecked cultural erasure.
Recently named one of Time’s 100 Most Influential People 2023, Chef Sean Sherman is a revolutionary of the culinary arts. Sherman is the founder and CEO of The Sioux Chef, a team of Native American artists organized around the common goal of decolonizing North American cuisine and reviving Native American culture through food. He is also the founder of The Sioux Chef initiative “NĀTIFS” — an acronym for “North American traditional indigenous food systems”— a nonprofit dedicated to promoting awareness of indigenous foodways and Native American food access.
The project that put Sherman on the map was his creation of the award-winning Minneapolis restaurant “Owamni,” a full-service indigenous restaurant that aims to promote accessibility to Native American cuisine and embody sustainable culinary practices.
Needless to say, Sherman is at the forefront of food-related activism and an innovative powerhouse of culinary excellence. But this was not without struggle — Sherman has fought tooth and nail to get to where he is today. In an interview with The Crimson, Chef Sherman spoke to the roots of his mission and the challenges his team has faced in implementing their vision within the modern restaurant industry.
“For me, from the very beginning, it was more about coming from a very poor area. There’s not a lot of family wealth to tap into for business ventures,” Sherman said. “It’s a lot of privilege to be able to raise enough funds to open up something like a restaurant. That was probably the biggest struggle, navigating through the system that’s set out against us.”
Sherman’s passion for the deconstruction of colonial culinary practices is where his expertise really shines through. In his work, he prioritizes “removing colonial ingredients like dairy, wheat flour, cane sugar, beef, pork, chicken”— redefining the American pantry.
Those unfamiliar with the mission of The Sioux Chef may be surprised by the classification of these ingredients as colonial. However, the overprocessed foods often credited with rising rates of obesity and diabetes in the United States are almost always characterized by their overdependence on ingredients purported by colonial foodways. Overprocessed wheat flour, unnaturally derived sugars (including the American favorite cane sugar), and refined oils are all examples of problematic culinary staples ingrained in American culture from the inception of colonial America.
“For almost all native tribes, losing access to the majority of their food and a lot of the culture and knowledge around their foods affected things a lot,” Sherman said. “We see a lot more health epidemics, things like type two diabetes, obesity, and heart disease.”
The heart of Sherman’s work lies in combating this institutionalized culinary oppression. “It’s a broken system that needs to change,” he said.
The Sioux Chef’s most recent endeavor is “Indigenous Food Lab”— a market space that features curated Native food products. “Our goal is to be a regional support center to help any entrepreneurs or tribal communities develop any kind of food production,” Sherman said.
According to NĀTIFS’s website, the Indigenous Food Lab is currently in its second phase of “creating regional and Indigenous food access.”
“We’re already planting seeds to operate food labs in Anchorage, Bozeman, and Rapid City,” Sherman said. “The vision is to have these food labs all over North America and eventually beyond, into other countries.”
A key priority of the “Indigenous Food Lab” initiative is adapting to the native cuisines of diverse tribes. “Just in the US alone, there are 574 different tribes that are federally recognized and even more that have lost that status,” Sherman said.
Since Native culinary traditions rely heavily on the environment of their regions, it would be impossible to capture and represent the intricacies of indigenous cuisine in a single restaurant. That being said, the regional quality of this culinary culture, paired with the ever-deteriorating nature of environmental concerns, provides even more urgency for these acts of culinary preservation.
Sherman hopes to expand knowledge surrounding Native cuisine, whether through the outreach of NĀTIFS or the promotion of other region-centric restaurants like “Owamni.” Sherman mentioned restaurants owned by his friends such as Crystal Wahpepah’s Wahpepah’s Kitchen in Oakland, California, and Ben Jacobs’s Tocabe in Denver, Colorado, but highlighted that there are “not a lot” of Native-owned restaurants nationally. “That’s why we started the nonprofit, to help other people develop,” Sherman said.
The Sioux Chef remains steadfast in its mission as expansion moves underway. If readers wish to assist Sean Sherman’s advocacy, he urges them to keep an eye out, extend support towards indigenous food situations within their region, and/or provide directly to the NĀTIFS nonprofit.
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