Like most chefs, Sean Sherman practically lives in the kitchen. But in his spare time, this member of the Oglala Lakota tribe has been on a quest to identify the foods his ancestors ate on the Great Plains before European settlers appeared on the scene. After years of researching and experimenting with “pre-colonization” foods, he’s preparing to open a restaurant in the Twin Cities this winter that showcases those foods, reborn for contemporary palates.
Sherman, who calls himself the Sioux Chef, grew up on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. It’s where he first started to learn about the traditional foods of the Plains, whether it was hunting animals like pronghorn antelope and grouse, or picking chokecherries for wojapi, a berry soup.
“We were close to the Badlands and its sand hills, which is not the best growing area by far,” says Sherman, who’s now 40. “But we would also spend weeks in the Black Hills, crawling around and learning stuff.”
Sherman’s grandfather was among the first Native American children to go to mission schools on the reservation, and he was one of Sherman’s first teachers. Forced assimilation during the 19th and early 20th centuries wiped out much of Native American food culture across the country. When his grandfather died when Sherman was 18, he was left with many unanswered questions.
In the meantime, Sherman worked his way up in the restaurant world, eventually becoming an executive chef at Minneapolis’ La Bodega in 2000. Around the same time, he had the idea to write a Lakota cookbook. Although there were some Native American cookbooks already on the market, he says he found that most of them focused on the Southwest or made too many generalizations about food across regions and tribes.