I first read about Chef Sean Sherman, know as the “Sioux Chef” on ” The Splendid Table” Facebook page. I was intrigued. Chef Sherman was taking indigenous Native American foods and creating contemporary dishes. Chef Sherman, an Oglala Dakota, grew up on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. He began working in restaurants at a young age, and has worked his way up over 27 years to the owner of “The Sioux Chef“, a catering company in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
My first impression was that Chef Sherman was taking the old to make the new, and that was cool and interesting. But as I did my research, I discovered that he was doing something much more important.
He was taking back something that his culture had been robbed of.
When Native Americans were forced onto reservations, they were robbed of their land, their homes, their language and their traditions. And they were also robbed of their traditional foods. Chef Sherman refers to the foods that are available on the reservations as “oppression foods”. These are your sugar laden, fat laden, processed foods that are predominant in impoverished communities. In another effort to oppress and control, the Native Americans lost their access to the foods of their culture. Generations have now grown up on the reservation with these oppression foods. And access to healthy ingredients is next to impossible. The closest store may be a convenience store or gas station. A true grocery store may be 60+ miles away. This scenario is referred to as a “food desert“. There is literally no way to have access to fresh and healthy food on a regular basis. As a result, Native Americans are among the highest in cases of diabetes. ( Fry bread is NOT a Native American food. This was one of the oppression foods that was created and inserted into the culture.)
Protect What Is Yours
In this country, no other ethnic group has had their native foods robbed from them. All of the immigrants who came to the United States brought all of their native dishes with them. Very often, that was their only link to their home country. We take for granted the foods of our immigrant heritage.
We all need to take a lesson from Chef Sherman. Keep your family and cultural traditions alive, because it is so much more than your story. It is your history. And every generation needs to hold that history sacred. You need to guard it and defend it. And fight to keep it if someone tries to take it from you.
Chef Sherman was kind enough to take time out of his busy schedule to answer some questions via email. The questions and responses are below:
1. The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is in such a remote location with little access to contemporary dining experiences. What inspired you from that area to begin your career as a chef?
The short answer is necessity. I started working as soon as I could, I was 13 when I took my first restaurant job in the Black Hills and worked kitchens all through high school and college. After college I moved to Minneapolis and worked my up to an executive chef in just a few years and there began my career. I had a good eye for plates and I knew how to teach my self so spent a ton of time researching other cuisines through books and travel and eventually I saw the lack of any Native restaurants anywhere and that’s where I started my path to understand Native food systems and how to use them as a modern chef.
2. To me, all cooking is part science, part art, and part history. You have done so much extensive research into the ethnobotany and in documenting recipes, it is just fascinating. What was the biggest surprise to you that you discovered in your research? Did you find anything that was totally unexpected, something that made you say,”Wow, who knew?’
My biggest realization was after starting to get an understanding at how much wild food and flavor is around no matter where you are… Being able to go for a hike in the forest, or desert, or ocean side and being able to identify more and more foods and really see the abundance out there… I know it’ll be a lifelong learning process, but that has given me so much joy being able to harvest different foods from different regions and really appreciate the immense diversity out there…
3. I see that you have been working with Native American youths to bring your cuisine to them. This is such important work, as many of the entire country’s youths have very unhealthy diets, and only eat processed food. As you work with these young people, what has been most impactful to them?
Helping kids to really get an understanding of what foods are truly traditional to their heritage and culture and show them that these foods are still around and how healthy they can be… Trying to get them to understand how harmful processed foods can be is important, but more importantly its just getting them to know the old foods that have been around for so long…
4. Do they see the benefit of eating your cuisine?
They do, but it’s hard for them to visualize it being a part of their daily life when the only grocery store in town is a gas station full of processed foods packed with sodium and sugar. One of our big missions with starting native food businesses is to tackle the food accessibility dilemma and how we can get healthy indigenous foods to the areas that need them the most…
5. Are they interested in the history and how it is a part of their culture?
Definitely… food is such a big part of cultural identity… no matter what descendancy you come from, people think back to the foods of their grandparents and great grandparents and what they were eating and how they were preparing it. For many native communities, traditional foods were intentionally and forcibly removed as part of assimilation efforts and to be able to help bring back traditional foods and knowledge is unquantifiable.
6. What is your biggest hope for people trying your cuisine? What do you want them to take away from their experience?
There has been a lot of education needed with helping to reintroduce native cuisines to both native and non native communities, and I really hope people can walk away from one our events and meals with sense of how important the efforts are to bring a stronger sense of true indigenous cuisine back and the positive health impact that it brings.
6. I am sure you are constantly experimenting with and creating new dishes. How do you master being creative while remaining authentic? How do you balance the two?
Its been a lot of fun to keep myself in a box and learn how to cook with using only native ingredients and implementing as many native cooking techniques as possible to keep the food as authentic feeling as possible. We have designed a basic model of understanding indigenous foods systems that can be used anywhere and it helps us with understanding other regions as we travel around the country and explore other cultures and flavors…
6. Last question, and this is the one that I ask everyone that I interview–At the end of a long day, you have worked either cooking, doing marketing, for your business, done interviews, etc. What is your one favorite food ritual at the end of a busy day?
Its obviously nice and necessary to unwind after the long days… I love just having some popcorn with my family and watching whatever random Netflix feels right .
You can contact Chef Sean Sherman at his website, The Sioux Chef, and follow them on Facebook and Twitter. And on their home page, check out the video from the show”The Movement” by Mic.com