Sioux Chef's mission: Decolonize the kitchen

Dana Thompson and Sean Sherman, executives of The Sioux Chef (Photo courtesy of the Sioux Chef)

Eddie Chuculate

Sean Sherman has opened an Indigenous Food Lab and is prepping for a new restaurant in Minneapolis

Eddie Chuculate
Special to Indian Country Today

MINNEAPOLIS  Although renowned Sioux Chef Sean Sherman was forced to delay the opening of the first totally Indigenous brick-and-mortar restaurant here due to the coronavirus, his Indigenous Food Lab, another first, is battling through the pandemic.

The lab is a fully functional professional kitchen that serves as a culinary classroom for teaching tribal communities about seed saving and Native food history. It is also providing meals for the needy. 

The lab opened in August at the Midtown Global Market in south Minneapolis. The market, in the 16-story art deco Midtown Exchange building, is an indoor mercado featuring international restaurants, crafts and coffee shops.

“We’re so excited to call Midtown Global Market our home,” Sherman, Oglala Lakota, founder and CEO of The Sioux Chef, said in a news release. “This space will be the heart of all of our future efforts to bring access and awareness to Indigenous Education and Indigenous Foods. Wopila!”

Sean Sherman, the Sioux Chef, plates dessert at an exhibition in Fargo, North Dakota. (Photo courtesy of the Sioux Chef)
Sean Sherman, the Sioux Chef, plates dessert at an exhibition in Fargo, North Dakota. (Photo courtesy of the Sioux Chef)

Original plans were to lease attached space for a restaurant, but the pandemic hit in March when Sherman and his business and life partner Dana Thompson, Sioux Chef co-owner, were on vacation.

“We were about to push go,” said Thompson, of Mdewakanton Dakota lineage. “But with the virus there are so many unknowns, like how long are we going to wear masks, how long the virus stays on stainless steel, if people would still want to come through, or even if the market would stay afloat. So we decided not to sign a lease for the Midtown restaurant.”

Although founder Sherman, 46, is a Sioux chef who was once a sous chef, The Sioux Chef is a business enterprise comprised of a 15-person team of chefs, ethnobotanists, event planners, caterers, food preservationists, foragers and academic experts like recent hire Armando Medinaceli, the team’s education director.

Medinaceli comes from Pullman, Washington, where he was an instructor in anthropology at Washington State University with a focus in ethnobotany. He holds a doctorate from WSU in cultural anthropology.

Sherman, who arrived in Minneapolis in 1996, is a two-time winner of the James Beard Award, the culinary world's equivalent of an Oscar.

He’s built his enterprise around a theme of using only ingredients that were available before Europeans arrived in 1492, which excludes wheat flour, cane sugar, dairy and the typical American standards of beef, pork and chicken.

In his travels to tribal communities here and abroad, he has incorporated foods such as salmon, berries, plants like wild onions and dandelions, bison, wild turkey and other game into his recipes.

Front counter/guest sign-in at the Indigenous Food Lab in Minneapolis on Sept. 23. (Photo by Eddie Chuculate)
Front counter/guest sign-in at the Indigenous Food Lab in Minneapolis on Sept. 23. (Photo by Eddie Chuculate)

“It doesn’t make sense to walk into a grocery store anywhere in the country and see the same foods,” said Thompson, a Minnesota native. “Foods from the Southwest are so different from what you find in the Northeast. But with monoculture farming, you get the same thing."

Thompson said their goal is to "decolonize the kitchen" by undoing 400 years of Indigenous food access being stripped.

“Food is medicine, and we’ve got tribes right now that three generations out might not even remember what their grandparents ate," she said.

Sherman’s recipes, which he keeps deceptively simple, are likely to feature sunflower oil over butter, and cornmeal or corn flour tortillas over wheat tortillas, and berry-juice vinaigrettes for his naturally grown salads.

In a partnership with a new program called Minnesota Central Kitchen, the Indigenous Food Lab is preparing 300 to 500 meals a day to feed the homeless in Minneapolis during the pandemic. 

Banner at the Indigenous Food Lab at the Midtown Exchange building in south Minneapolis on Sept. 23. (Photo by Eddie Chuculate)
Banner at the Indigenous Food Lab at the Midtown Exchange building in south Minneapolis on Sept. 23. (Photo by Eddie Chuculate)

Thompson said although they have no direct say over exactly where the food goes, the lab has asked that it be delivered to Native encampments or elder centers.

The endeavor has allowed the lab to rehire about half of its 15-person staff, which it was forced to lay off due to the pandemic.

The Indigenous Food Lab is under the umbrella of North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems, which is The Sioux Chef’s nonprofit arm. Initially, due to the pandemic, some of the classes, like seed saving, will be available online via video, or on PDFs at natifs.org, in October. 

The Midtown Global Market was fairly bustling considering the pandemic during one midday visit in late September.

Patrons and staffers in Mexican, Vietnamese, Indian and Morrocan diners were wearing masks, as were apron-wearing gloved workers at the Indigenous Food Lab.

Chefs Vern Defoe, Red Cliff Band Chippewa, and Christina Arias Acosta, a Mexico City native, were preparing huge tubs of wild rice, quinoa, hominy, white beans and native pesto, a mix to be packaged and delivered for that day’s delivery to the indigent.

Indigenous Food Lab chefs Christina Arias Acosta and Vern Defoe, Red Cliff Band Chippewa, prepare food Sept. 23 in the Minneapolis kitchen. (Photo by Eddie Chuculate)
Indigenous Food Lab chefs Christina Arias Acosta and Vern Defoe, Red Cliff Band Chippewa, prepare food Sept. 23 in the Minneapolis kitchen. (Photo by Eddie Chuculate)
Indigenous Food Lab chefs Christina Arias Acosta and Vern Defoe, Red Cliff Band Chippewa, work in the Minneapolis kitchen on Sept. 23. (Photo by Eddie Chuculate)
Indigenous Food Lab chefs Christina Arias Acosta and Vern Defoe, Red Cliff Band Chippewa, work in the Minneapolis kitchen on Sept. 23. (Photo by Eddie Chuculate)

While the lab forges ahead with its mission of educating other tribal cooks and activists with knowledge to take back to their tribes and hopefully start satellite labs or restaurants under The Sioux Chef brand, Thompson and Sherman are excited about the planned opening of their new restaurant, Owamni by The Sioux Chef.

It will be the only restaurant in the U.S. that is owned and operated by an Indigenous team and uses all pre-colonial ingredients, Sherman said.

The restaurant will front the Mississippi River in downtown Minneapolis in a prime location long occupied by sushi restaurant Fuji Ya.

Owamni, Sioux for "falling water" or "waterfall," will be only a couple hundred yards from the only waterfall along the entire Mississippi River, St. Anthony Falls, once a riverside parks project is completed by the Minneapolis Parks Board.

The location is also a historic trade and migration route for the Ojibwe and Dakota bands native to the area.

It was scheduled to open this fall, but the pandemic and the discovery of 6-foot standing rock walls under the old restaurant, which has turned the excavation into an archeological dig, has delayed opening until spring 2021.

The space will house the restaurant, a community center and classrooms on different levels.

Owamni's menu isn’t set but likely will be fast casual, with offerings like Indigenous-inspired corn tacos with fillings such as sage-smoked turkey or ground, smoked bison with chopped garlic and roasted corn.

There are existing restaurants across the U.S. with Native themes, Thompson said, but none have a total Native menu or executive staff, Thompson said.

Thompson is excited about the lab and the future restaurant.

“You couldn’t write it; we can’t even believe it,” she said. “It’s not about Sean’s ego. It’s about using his vision to raise awareness of these other foods that haven’t gotten the attention they deserve.”

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Eddie Chuculate, Creek/Cherokee, is a writer based in Minneapolis.

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