Minneapolis-based chef and Oglala Lakota member Sean Sherman is about to open the Sioux Chef
, a first-of-its-kind restaurant that will serve locally sourced “pre-colonization” cuisine. Sherman is in the final stages of selecting a space, most likely along Seward’s Franklin Avenue or along East Lake Street. He wants to be “as close as possible to the heart of the Twin Cities’ indigenous community,” he says.
Depending on the condition of the space, the Sioux Chef’s doors could be open as early as December, but the first quarter of 2015 is more likely. When the restaurant opens, Sioux Chef will be the first in the country to serve a menu comprised exclusively of regional indigenous dishes that only use ingredients available prior to first contact with European settlers.
Sherman’s approached means no wheat, soy or other staples we currently take for granted. In addition to bison, elk, duck, perch and other fish and game species—often dried or cooked over an open flame—Sherman will incorporate such native plants as wild rice, wild turnips, chokecherries and sumac berries.
His flavors and technique are pitch-perfect. Though indigenous populations were decimated during the 19th and 20th centuries, there remains a strong cultural memory among older Lakota, Ojibwe and others. “People constantly tell me that my dishes taste like what their grandparents made,” he says.
One concession to modern realities: The Sioux Chef won’t serve wild-caught game, says Sherman, due to a lack of available processing facilities capable of satisfying health authorities. The restaurant’s bison and elk, among other species, will come from nearby ranches.
Nor will Sherman be dogmatic in his approach. “First contact” is a blurrier concept than many realize, he says. For example, dandelions probably arrived on the Eastern Seaboard with the first wave of white explorers and spread across the continent within 50 years, far faster than the Europeans who brought them. So Native Americans may have cooked with them long before setting eyes on the first settler—and that’s good enough for Sherman.
The Sioux Chef concept arose accidentally, when Sherman—then La Bodega’s executive chef—decided to write a traditional Lakota cookbook. After some digging, he realized there was very little recorded information about what the Lakota ate before Europeans arrived. Most of the recipes he found were from the Southwest. Even those “were basically Tex-Mex with some Native influence,” he says. Supposedly authentic foods from the Upper Midwest, like fry bread, only appeared after the introduction of white flour and other European staples.
Traveling extensively across Minnesota and his native Dakotas, Sherman eventually pieced together an exhaustive list—“too many to count”—of native plants, fungi and game species used by pre-colonial populations. He also researched traditional preparation and preservation techniques, like meat dehydration.
Until the restaurant opens this winter, the Sioux Chef is a mobile catering and education unit. Sherman travels to food-, health- and Native American-themed events throughout the Twin Cities and the greater Midwest, serving locally sourced dishes (some of which may appear on the Sioux Chef’s restaurant menu) and explaining his approach to pre-colonization cooking. Recent appearances include a diabetes conference and traditional medicine gathering
So far, Sherman says, support for the Sioux Chef is beyond what he expected. He was in Ohio last weekend for Roots 2014
, a major gathering of celebrity chefs and nutrition experts, and “a huge deal for the Sioux Chef’s exposure,” he says.
Public enthusiasm may lead to bigger things for the Sioux Chef. “After I get the restaurant going, my ultimate goal is to hone this business model and expand with additional locations under different names,” he says. Since naturally available ingredients vary so much from place to place—“even from here to the other side of Wisconsin, the availability is totally different,” he says—the food at pre-colonization restaurants would vary widely from city to city.
“It’s funny that you can get food from almost anywhere in the world [in the Twin Cities],” he adds. “The only food you can’t get yet is the food that came from right here.” Sioux Chef will change that.