You are on Native land. That’s the oft-Instagrammed neon sign that hangs on the wall at the restaurant with what is one of the hardest tables to score in all of the US right now. It’s not a jackets-required, Michelin-starred establishment; it’s Owamni, an Indigenous restaurant opened by Lakota chef Sean Sherman and Dana Thompson on the shores of the Hahawakpa (or Mississippi) in downtown Minneapolis. Their menu is remarkable not simply for what’s on it (foods sourced resolutely and exclusively from local and Indigenous farms and providers), but also for what’s not: as a decolonized restaurant, at Owamni you won’t find anything brought over by European colonisers, only what was originally there. That means there’s no dairy, wheat flour, cane sugar, beef, pork, chicken; no ketchup or black pepper on the tables. Nothing feels missing though – everything you will consume at Owamni is simple, delicious, and, perhaps most importantly, purposeful.
“It’s a lot of fun just to be different and to think differently and have different intention,” says Sean. The wine list takes an untraditional tact too. “We chose to have a BIPOC-only wine list and we ended up with mostly Indigenous wines from Native-owned wineries in California, to Mexican wines coming out of Guadalupe, to even some Maori wines out of New Zealand,” he says, “and we just keep searching.”
Searching is something that Sean has spent much of his life doing: his desire to seek out information on his ancestors and educate himself about Indigenous food has made him a perpetual student. And, in recent years, it's transformed him into a teacher as well, via his company The Sioux Chef and non-profit NATIFS (North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems), which he also co-owns with Dana Thompson. Both aim to elevate and proliferate Indigenous cuisine and, of course, his celebrated restaurant Owamni. “We should have more restaurants like this everywhere,” says Sean. “What we’re hoping is that we can just be role models for what’s possible.”
Below, we speak to Sean about his beginnings as a chef and his larger mission to educate people about Indigenous food. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. He also shares a seasonal recipe for Wild Rice Pilaf with Wild Mushrooms, Roasted Chestnuts, and Dried Cranberries.
What are some of your earliest food memories?
Like a lot of people, some of my bigger food memories are from family gatherings. I grew up on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. We had a lot of commodity foods growing up, but we also had a lot of fresh beef because we lived on my grandparents’ ranch. One thing I remember vividly is my grandfather eating raw hamburgers which I thought was so weird, but basically he was just mimicking tartare on crackers. I remember choke cherries and my grandmother making Wojape [chokecherry sauce]. I remember a soup called taniga that was cow intestine; traditionally it would have been bison, but they were using cow intestine.
Did you appreciate that as a child?
The smell of that, the heap of offal cooking on the stove was really strong. I didn’t really like it when I was growing up but I appreciate it now that I’m older. Then I remember a lot of basic American classics; the things you see on the pages of Reader’s Digest because that was the era. My grandparents had a freezer full of frozen, processed food.
Were you cooking back then?
Even before high school my mom moved us off the reservation and she went back to school, so it was just her, my sister and myself, and I was the oldest sibling so I cooked a lot. I remember teaching myself how to cook at a very young age. I was trying to figure it all out, starting with just some simple processed foods like Hamburger Helpers, then eventually learning how to cook with whatever I had. I would look at the back of prepared food products to study the ingredient lists and then try to mimic it with whatever stuff I could find. I was really trying to understand how spices worked.
Was there a point when you decided to work in food?
I got a job at a restaurant early on and I was always still playing with food myself. I never thought about food as a career though. I had gone to college for business classes but they didn’t really speak to me. I always wanted to go to school to be an artist, so I moved to Minneapolis with the intention of going to an art school called MCAD, the Minneapolis Community of Art and Design. I was busy putting together a portfolio and then they showed me how much art school cost… and I was like “welp.” There was no way I would ever find that kind of money so I just continued cooking. But I levelled up in restaurants pretty quickly because I had a good work ethic and I got my first chef job when I was fairly young. Then I was really just putting art on plates.
Were there any cookbooks at that time that you were really inspired by, or anything else that was feeding your imagination in the kitchen?
My first couple of trips to Europe when I was 24 or 25 helped me really begin to understand all the diverse cultures out there and all the different foods. I was still pretty poor so I didn’t have money to buy cookbooks. So I would just go to this bookstore uptown in Minneapolis and sit there and dig through cookbooks and take notes then put them back on the shelves. I got lots of ideas looking at what other people were doing. My first chef job was at a Spanish tapas bar so I just read and read and read and read as much as I could about Spanish food. Then I just did that every time I got a new job.
You were self-teaching.
Yes I was teaching myself all this stuff. I worked at a sushi place and deep dived into Japanese history. I was working really hard, I had really great kitchens to experiment in and access to really good local ingredients, but a few years in I had an epiphany because I realised the complete lack of Indigenous mention in anything and, also, just the absence of it in my own education. Even though I grew up on the reservation, grew up around Lakota people, I didn’t really know anything about Lakota food. And when I started researching I realised that a lot of information just wasn’t there.
That must have raised so many questions for you.
Yes, like what were my ancestors eating? How were they harvesting? Were they foraging? Were they gardening? Were they trading with other groups? What kinds of spices and sugars and carbohydrates and basics were they using just to stay alive as humans? So I spent quite a few years focusing on researching and answering those questions, and then I started actually getting to do what is an Indigenous dinner.
Was there a moment when you realised that you, and your heritage, were missing from your own cooking?
For me when I had the epiphany I was living in Mexico. I was kind of burnt out at the time and living in a small beach town on the Pacific. I was reading a lot. I remember for a while I would go to the little free library, grab a book, then sit on the beach and read the whole book in one sitting. I did that over and over, just consuming a ton of books, something that, as a chef, I’d never had the time to do before. I had all this extra time and I was just absorbing information.
In Mexico there were Indigenous groups that lived down there, and so I started to become really curious and research them. Then something just clicked for me; I realised that we were the same because we’re all Indigenous people of this continent and that I didn’t even really know about my own heritage. That was really a turning point for me; I saw the whole vision in a flash of exactly what I needed to do. I realised I needed to learn and understand as much as I could and then I had to start cooking. I wanted to try not to fusionise it; I wanted to understand the diversity of Indigenous peoples and showcase that; I wanted to understand the mix of wild and domesticated foods. So I started looking for people like Seed Keepers, a non-profit in Iowa, which had the best knowledge of wild plants.
So you continued this process of self-education. Was this all the genesis for your company The Sioux Chef, which aims to revitalise Native American cuisine?
For a few years I was in entrepreneurial mode. I had The Sioux Chef as an email handle that I’d been using for quite a while and at first I thought no, I couldn’t use the word sous because nobody calls themselves sous, but The Sioux Chef was just such a fun play on words. So I decided to stick with it and it ended up being a good idea. It stands out and you know exactly what it’s about when you see it.
Then you also have your work with the NATIFS (North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems), the non-profit you founded along with Dana Thompson.
NATIFS is the big vision. It helps me travel around and meet more people, make connections and really showcase that this work of re-establishing Native foodways is doable everywhere. We’re creating a support system to make that happen and figuring out ways we grow with that because the vision is to replicate Indigenous food lab, NATIFS’s training and development and support kitchen.
So the idea is for NATIFS to create a model that can then be reproduced elsewhere?
Yes we’re almost finished with the first model here in Minneapolis, which has a Native market space with a counter where people can order food, a digital classroom, and an Indigenous focused education curriculum. All the equipment is coming in and everything’s getting plugged in and the construction is wrapping up. So, as we expand, this food lab moves around and has these capabilities. I’m really excited about the possibility of becoming a large support network all over the place and on top of that a distribution network to move Indigenous foods around and help curate more and more Indigenous food production.
And this all ties into the ethos at your Indigenous restaurant Owamni in Minneapolis, where people have praised you for doing something radically different.
We’re in an era right now, and I travel a lot and see this, where I can almost write the menu at any given restaurant, because it’s always the same. At Owamni we’re just showcasing what Indigenous food is and what the true foods of North America are, and prioritising purchasing from Indigenous producers locally and nationally first. We rely on a lot of Native farms nearby and we get a lot of amazing products, all sorts of different colours of corn and fresh greens and wild rice. Half the menu is plant based because we cut out all colonial ingredients, so there’s no dairy, no flour, no cane sugar, typically no beef or chicken and instead we showcase a lot of game and birds and freshwater fish.
We use a lot of wild greens and conifers; there’s a lot of wild cedar and spruce and tamarack that get added into dishes alongside wild herbs like bergamots and hyssops. Sometimes we make dishes that are particular to a region like the Pacific Northwest or Northeast, but mostly our focus is on the warm flavours of where we live and making the plates taste like where you are. Cooking something from the Midwest and the Great Lakes region we have wild rice, we have walleye, we have blueberries, we have rosehips. And then we tie in some of the Native names to things, so you see Native words on the menu and Native people cooking and serving and Native music playing, which is a really unique experience for people.
And what has the reaction been since you opened? Do you feel like there is growing interest in Indigenous ingredients and cooking?
It’s been overwhelmingly positive. We’re holding up a really high standard and it’s showing. Getting a James Beard Award for being the best new American restaurant was huge because those typically go to fancy restaurants where people are really shooting for Michelin stars and we’re just not that. We’re serving very healthy, simple, beautiful, clean food.
So, Thanksgiving is approaching, a holiday that many of us were taught an entirely false narrative around, and I know it’s an occasion that you’re keen to reframe.
It’s a national holiday and it gives us a moment to be together. It doesn’t have to be about this weird mythological colonial history; it can just be about really beautiful food. I like to spend it with a mix of getting food to people who need it and enjoying time cooking and being with my family. I enjoy making fun Thanksgiving dinners that are really seasonal. Whether people realise it or not, their Thanksgiving staples are all Indigenous foods: you have cranberries, squash, pumpkins, turkeys, all foods from the Americas that date back. I like to make the holiday about focusing on that; it’s a very good time to share.
Wild Rice Pilaf with Wild Mushrooms, Roasted Chestnuts, and Dried Cranberries
Psíŋ na Čȟaŋnákpa na Úma Cȟeúŋpapi na Watȟókeča T’áǧa
Wild rice is a flavourful and remarkably satisfying food. The mushrooms add a dark, meaty flavour and texture, while the chestnuts are creamy (and high in protein). This meatless dish will appeal to omnivore and vegetarian alike. Cooked wild rice will keep several weeks in the refrigerator and for at least a year when frozen in a plastic freezer bag.
Serves 4 to 6.
2 tablespoons sunflower or walnut oil
450g assorted mushrooms, cleaned
1 tablespoon chopped sage
64g chopped wild onion or shallots
64g corn stock or vegetable stock
400g cooked wild rice
64g dried cranberries
128g roasted, peeled, chopped chestnuts
1 tablespoon maple syrup to taste
½ to 1 teaspoon smoked salt to taste
To roast and peel chestnuts, use the sharp point of a small knife to score an X on the flat side of the chestnut and place on a baking sheet. Roast in a 180°C oven until the skins begin to peel back. The length of roasting time will depend on the freshness and size of the chestnuts and range from about 10 to 25 minutes. Remove, and when cool enough to handle, peel.
In a large skillet, heat the oil over medium-high heat and add the mushrooms, sage, and onion. Cook, stirring, until the mushrooms are nicely browned and the onion is soft, about 5 minutes. Stir in the stock, wild rice, and cranberries and cook until the liquid is nearly evaporated. Stir in the roasted chestnuts. Season with maple syrup and smoked salt to taste.
Recipe from The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen by Sean Sherman with Beth Dooley. Published by the University of Minnesota Press, 2017. Copyright 2017 Ghost Dancer, LLC. All rights reserved. Used by permission.
Watch Sean create the recipe on our Instagram.
Interview by Fiorella Valdesolo.
Photographs by Nate Ryan.