Turning Indigenous Cooking Passion into a Business Enterprise

Book Review

Published March 20, 2018

Sean Sherman (Oglala Lakota) took his passion for cooking indigenous foods and turned it into a business. Sherman, who has been  cooking for the past three decades, founded The Sioux Chef in 2014 in Minneapolis/St. Paul area as a caterer and food educator. The Sioux Chef’s mission is to revitalize Native American cuisine. In the process of accomplishing the mission, The Sioux Chef seeks to re-identify North American cuisine and reclaim an important culinary culture long buried and often inaccessible.

Sherman grew up on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota where he was treated to some Lakota favorite foods of chokeberries and prairie turnips. After his parents split, his mother moved him and his sister to Spearfish, South Dakota, where he started at 13-years-old in a short-order restaurant as a dishwasher and a prep cook. The next summer, he worked at a resort restaurant where he learned to cook on the grill. He discovered he loved to cook.

As with other chefs, Sherman found work at various restaurants and found himself burnt out. So, he decided to take off a year and moved to Mexico. In the village of San Pancho, he discovered how the Huicholes celebrated their culture related to art and traditional cooking.

“I tasted how food weaves people together, connects families thorough generations, is a life force of identity and social structure,” Sherman says. “After seeing how the Huicholes held on to so much of their pre-European culture through artwork and food, I recognized that I wanted to know my own food heritage.”

Upon returning the United States, Sherman has been on a journey of discovery of indigenous foods, not only from his tribe, but others in Indian Country. Sherman refers to this journey to understand the foundations of these food systems, which include the knowledge of Native American farming techniques, wild food usage and harvesting, land stewardship, salt- and sugar-making, hunting and fishing and food preservation. Part of this understanding includes knowing Native American migrational histories, elemental cooking techniques, and Native culture to gain a full understanding of bringing back a sense of Native American cuisine to today’s world.

In 2015, Sherman and his business partner Dana Thompson (Wahpeton-Sisseton and Mdewakanton Dakota descendant) took to the streets of Minneapolis with a food truck named Tatanka Truck, which featured dishes such as bison wild rice bowls and cedar and maple tea. The Sioux Chef will open its first restaurant in Minneapolis’ Central Mississippi Riverfront Regional Park.

His many years of discovery has yielded The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen, published by the University of Minnesota Press in October 2017. Sherman served as the principal author with Beth Dooley.

The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen contains award-winning recipes, stories and wisdom. Sherman presents dozens of indigenous foods recipes that are made with real food such as the three sisters of squash, corn and beans, wild rice, game and fish. Absent from the recipes are European staples such as wheat flour, dairy products, sugar and domestic pork and beef. His dishes feature cedar braised bison, griddled wild rice cakes, amaranth crackers with smoked white bean paste, smoked turkey soup, among other indigenous foods.

Also, absent are modern powwow American Indian fare of fry bread and Indian tacos. Beyond supplying indigenous food recipes, Sherman educates the reader to why he does not include fry bread on his menu. Sherman says fry bread originated from government commodities that consisted of canned meat, flour, lard and sugar. As a means of survival, our tribal ancestors created fry bread from flour, lard and sugar.

“Controlling food is a means of controlling power,” writes Sherman. “Let’s update this story with real corn cakes that enfold braised bison or smoked duck, authentic Native food.”

Sherman has mixed his passion for cooking indigenous foods with the public’s plea for healthier foods, while turning his passion into a profitable business enterprise. 

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