Sean Sherman
Photo by Heidi Ehalt

Sean Sherman: “There’s a lot to uncover”

Short Profile

Name: Sean Sherman
DOB: 1974
Place of birth: Pine Ridge, South Dakota, United States
Occupation: Chef, restaurateur, activist

Mr. Sherman, as a James Beard-award winning chef and the owner of the Native American restaurant Owamni, which of your dishes would you say best exemplifies what you’re trying to show the world about Indigenous cuisine?

Oh, it's hard to pinpoint one particular dish! I would just say that we try to keep this food really simple. Our menu is seasonal, and it’s made up of Indigenous ingredients only: we don’t use ingredients that were introduced to America by Europeans. We use simple ingredients; whether that’s wild rice, rose hips, hand-picked blueberries, smoked walleye, white cedar, or a touch of maple… These are ingredients you can find around Minneapolis, where the restaurant is located. I think you can really taste that.

Do you think that regional focus offers a sense of comfort or familiarity for your local diners who are coming to eat at your restaurant?

Absolutely, people that are from this region will see these flavors that maybe their grandparents were utilizing, or they may have been utilizing in their lifetime a lot, too. And that just becomes real comfort food for them —it's basically soul food for a lot of the Indigenous peoples from these different regions, people often tell us, “Oh, this feels like home.” So there's definitely that connection to time and space and region.

“Indigenous people have a really strong connection to the world around them. They have generations of knowledge being passed down on what to do with everything around us.”

Are the ingredients and methods something that also feel like home to you? Did you learn some of the techniques you’re using, like foraging or fermenting or curing, during your childhood?

Oh, yeah. I grew up on Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, and we would forage for a wild prairie turnip that we call timpsila that was harvested during summer time when I was growing up. And that's something that a lot of Lakota families are still utilizing. We’d find other roots, plants tubers… We would harvest choke cherries in mid-late summer, there were tons that would grow around our house on the reservation. Indigenous people have a really strong connection to the world around them. They have thousands of generations of knowledge being passed down on what to do with everything around us, especially the plants, wild herbs, seasonings. And that’s a consistent commonality across the globe with Indigenous people.

Does it surprise you that restaurants like Faviken, and Noma have sort of made a trend out of these same techniques that have existed in your culture for centuries?

No, because I think those are great and amazing restaurants with massive legacies behind them. If you look at Rene Redzepi’s journey with Noma, he tried to bring back the knowledge that he’d gained working at El Bulli, and he wanted to create something like that in Copenhagen. His first attempt at Noma was a Mediterranean modern restaurant, but he realized, like, “Why am I making Mediterranean foods up here in Copenhagen?” He realized that he should be focused on where he was, so that set him on the path of understanding Danish food and Danish landscape.

Not too dissimilar from what you’re doing, actually.

Yeah, I mean, that’s kind of the same thing we’re doing, just showcasing the foods and flavors of where we come from, trying to utilize the land better, to understand better where we are and why we’re here. We’re not after Michelin stars with our concept, we’re trying to be role models to showcase what is possible, to reconnect with the knowledge that’s been passed down to us. But unfortunately we’ve been seeing this knowledge slowly dwindling for a while now…

Is that why it’s been so important to preserve your culture’s knowledge with a restaurant like Owamni?

Yes, the idea first came to me when I spent some time in Mexico. I’d been in the restaurant industry for a long time, just trying to figure out how do you grow as a young chef… I was burning out, so I decided to take a break, grab a guitar and a backpack and read lots of books in Mexico for a while. I ate lots of fresh food, fresh fish, fresh fruit from the area. And I became interested in Indigenous group that was down there called the Huicholes. I saw so much in common with my tribe back home, but I also loved their pre-colonial stance and how they retained language, music, art, mythology, stories, religion, and food. It really struck me. I realized I needed to be focusing on my own heritage.

What did that process look like? Were you using mostly the Internet and books, or were you also speaking to elders and experts or learning from other chefs?

I definitely used the Internet for a lot of research! I did buy lots of books and and I found some great PDFs to use as references. Eventually when I get back to Minnesota, I learned to use the private libraries to look for books that were out of print, you know, sifting through indexes, looking at all this historical stuff through a culinary lens. I was reading ethnobotanical books, cultural books from the turn of the century, understanding what kind of plants were people utilizing before America was colonized, and piecing it together little by little. From there I built an educational map of what we can reconnect with and rebuild.

Are you hoping to bring this knowledge to other Indigenous communities?

I think we could easily try doing it on a global scale! We’re looking at building a food lab in Hawaii, for example, and we’d love to take this to Australia.  I think through the non-profit we’ve created in line with this idea, we can help other Indigenous peoples to really hold on to a lot of their knowledge bases, especially around food and environment.

This all seems like an enormous but incredible undertaking. Despite being something of an expert now, would you say that you’re still learning about Indigenous culture with each experience?

Oh, absolutely. There's more than I have time to learn in my lifetime. There's just a lot to uncover, to showcase and highlight… It’s incredible how much there is not just within my own culture, but around the world. It's going to be a never ending and lifelong process to learn everything that I can.