Sean Sherman: The Sioux Chef

The Sioux Chef: 'Native American foods
are the healthiest foods on the planet'

By Jenice Johnson, assistant director of marketing and communications

Follow Jenice on Twitter @tankabar
Read Jenice's bio here

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In a modern world, Oglala Lakota chef Sean Sherman pushes himself to remove European influence from his cuisine.

"...all the pieces of this food are so simple - just by doing things you would never find in a normal cookbook or cooking school," Sherman said.

Dubbed The Sioux Chef, Sherman is an Oglala Lakota who was born on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, home of Tanka Bar headquarters. Sherman lived on Pine Ridge until he was around 13 years old. He grew up on a ranch, but remembers how limited the grocery options were on the reservation. Being a food desert, the drive to more abundant food choices from Pine Ridge can be nearly two hours and the Native diet has become Americanized with the large supply of government commodities over the years.

Sherman said he didn't really think about how much the Native diet had gone so far away from its indigenous roots until he was in high school and later in the Forest Service, where he was required to learn about the trees, plants and vegetation of the Black Hills. He began thinking about Native American traditions and heritage.

He always had restaurant jobs throughout his youth and after moving to Minneapolis, MN, in 1997, he got his first chef job at the end of 2000. He has been cooking in Minnesota, South Dakota and Montana for the last 27 years, but recently focused his culinary efforts to "pre-reservation" cuisine. He opened the business "The Sioux Chef" in September 2014 and incorporates his knowledge of traditionally cultivated indigenous foods found in the wild and often uses traditional cooking techniques.

"I knew it was a good idea," Sherman said. "I just wanted to see how much food we could make with Native American influence."

Focusing on the Dakota, Lakota and Ojibwe tribes, The Sioux Chef signature dishes use duck, wild rice and cedar. Some dishes incorporate the root Timpsula and wild chokecherries - both indigenous to his home in South Dakota. He also uses smoked whitefish from Red Lake Fisheries and, of course, buffalo. In all of it, he has a minimalist style of cooking where he completely cuts out dairy, butter, processed foods and eggs, although he uses duck eggs on occasion.

The Sioux Chef concept has quickly taken off with Sherman receiving nationwide press and, most recently, serving as the featured host at the foodie event North Coast Nosh in Minneapolis, where the Tanka Fund also had a booth. The Tanka Fund is a donor-advised fund of the American Indian Land Tenure Foundation and coordinated by Native American Natural Foods (Tanka Brand). Its goal is to return buffalo to the lands, diets and economies of native people. Faye Brown, campaign coordinator at Tanka Fund, said Sherman has "had a huge impact not only on the indigenous food movement, but also on the good food movement at large.

"He's created a new understanding of what it means to eat 'local.' His business is about celebrating the bounty of delicious and nutritious foods that were harvested and cultivated by indigenous peoples, pre-contact, and in doing this, he's sparking conversation about the relationship between what we eat, the ecosystem we live in and the health of both," she said. "He's presenting these foods in a contemporary, gourmet context, which really brings their flavor and beauty to life. Our mission at Tanka Fund fits closely with Sean's work and we're looking forward to a future of indigenous food excellence together!"

Sasha Brown, Christine McCleave and Faye Brown of the Tanka Fund at the North Coast Nosh with The Sioux Chef, Sean Sherman.

Sherman was originally working on opening a restaurant, but he said he realized the best way to reach the largest audience about what he was doing was to speak about it around the world. The restaurant is still in the works, but currently he's had many opportunities to educate the public about this movement through speaking engagements and cooking demos as well as catering his foods to various events. He's already booked through the summer and planning a West Coast tour to Vancouver, BC, Canada. He was even asked to speak and organize a Minnesota team to create an indigenous food pavilion at the Milan World's Fair this year. His ultimate goal is to create a Native American culinary center that would teach all aspects of food systems from foraging, to identification, to cooking and preservation techniques.

"All these foods are still around us -- people just stopped using the traditional techniques," he said. "I'm just kind of hoping I inspire other native chefs. If we could just grow or open portals on more areas like Pine Ridge and the Crow reservation and get people thinking about more traditional foods on tables -- especially at events, we can break down those high-sugar diets. Native American foods are the healthiest foods on the planet - we just have to get back to it."