Interview with an Indigenous Chef: Sean Sherman

Sean Sherman headshot
Sean Sherman

Name: Sean Sherman

Location:  Minnesota

Business name: The Sioux Chef

Tribe: Oglala Lakota

What led to your passion for indigenous foods?

Basically, I had just been in restaurants my whole life. I started working in restaurants when I was just barely 13. So, I worked at restaurants all through high school and college. After college, I moved to Minneapolis from South Dakota, and continued working in the restaurant scene. I had a pretty good work ethic as a young kid and I moved up really fast in the city. I didn’t know that much about culinary then because I didn’t go to school for it. I just learned really quickly and read a lot. I moved my way up into a chef position in the city when I was around 26 and I kind of “accidentally” became a chef, really. It wasn’t on purpose. The first couple of chef jobs I took, I didn’t know much about managing a kitchen, so that took a lot of time and effort to learn those skills. 

I learned a lot and I learned fast. I was kind of my own mentor because I didn’t have anyone to train me. I learned a lot from books, trial and error and exploring. I learned about foods from all over the world. I was able to take time off for travel and go to Europe and think about the different regions and history. A few years in that chef career, is when I had that epiphany that there was a complete absence of indigenous food. More personally, I realized that I didn’t even know that much about my own heritage foods. It shot me down a path to want to understand  what my Lakota ancestors were eating, growing, who they were trading with, how they were storing foods, and all these questions. 

The plant side of things was one of my biggest focuses because I had this understanding right away that my indigenous ancestors had that knowledge of all the plant life around them and how to utilize them for food, medicine and crafting. I wanted to start to rebuild that knowledge base. This eventually led me to come up with a business plan and model that would work in today’s world. I started the notion of launching the business around 2012 after a few years of research. By 2014, I had officially started the Sioux Chef business and by the end of that year, I officially started working for myself through that business.

Why do you think it’s important to make traditional foods accessible for Natives?

I think the biggest piece is the health aspects and the cultural well-being in general. Growing up on Pine Ridge and seeing a tremendous amount of health disparity my whole life, I saw cousins who passed away at an early age from diabetes. And I started understanding that the root cause of that was lack of access to food.These illnesses, such as obesity and Type 2 diabetes, are literally formed from the food we are putting in our own mouths. But it’s not the fault of the people, it’s the fault of what’s at hand and what the people have access to. Growing up on Pine Ridge, it’s easy for me to understand. We didn’t have any restaurants and we had only one grocery store to cover an area the size of Connecticut. So growing up directly off of the commodity food program, and growing up very poor like many families on the reservation, and becoming a chef later and understanding organic and healthy foods, it was easy to see what some of the main issues were. 

So this work was never about me and creating a persona or an ego. It was about the need for this information to be spread, and trying to make a difference. If we can help tribal communities bring back their traditional indigenous foods, we could really make a huge impact because that diet is so healthy. That’s led us to all our focuses on what we do today. 

What other ways (besides your business) are you involved in the education, restoration and accessibility of traditional Native foods?

That’s where our nonprofit comes in. We realized early on that the Sioux Chef was a really strong brand, but we needed to do something bigger and broader. We wanted, not only to open up a restaurant in our community, but figure out how we could do this work everywhere and spread the basic skills of knowing how to cook these foods, run a restaurant, etc. So we came up with our nonprofit, NATIFS, which stands for North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems. We created a brand under NATIFS called Indigenous Food Lab, which is what we’re really working on. 

We were locked and loaded early this year to launch the Indigenous Food Lab. The original vision was to create a restaurant to be utilized for training. Some people would actually work with us inside the restaurant to gain skills around working with indigenous foods. At the same time, we would have a commercial kitchen to use as a classroom to start developing curriculum around indigenous foodways and start to teach about all the facets of indigenous food systems. So we were putting a lot of effort into the educational components of Native American agriculture, seed saving, farming techniques, ethnobotany, plant identification and harvest, food preservation and medicinal uses. We wanted to create a centerpoint to house all this information and make it accessible and help train people. 

Once COVID-19 hit, it postponed plans a bit. The opening of the Indigenous Food Lab will be opening in phases. The first phase will involve securing the commercial kitchen for training purposes. We will also be creating an indigenous educational studio with a lot of capabilities for digital and audio recording so we can create video pieces to share. 

We will open a small indigneous tea counter so people can visit and purchase barista-style indigenous tea drinks utilizing plants from all over North America. When it is safe to open restaurants again, we will be ready to open the indigenous restaurant for people to come try indigenous foods. 

The purpose of this educational component was to have a training center to work directly with tribal communities nearby and create a place to train and educate them. Creating this educational center, and a resource online with educational material, will help us work with tribes and help them develop something that is uniquely theirs. Our goal is to help tribes create at least one healthy access point, or kitchen, for indigenous food that reflects their tribe, community and history. We will act as a support, development, training and education center to help maintain and prolong the life of those entities. Our goal is to open up Indigenous Food Labs in cities all over the nation, and each one of those labs would become the center point to help develop indigenous food systems in tribal communities in its vicinity and region. 

How can community members be involved and support the cause of restoring and protecting indigenous food systems?

If we can see our vision through and get these small tribal kitchens set up, we are going to rely on those communities to play a big role in maintaining those. We will want to make sure there are workers to keep those programs rolling . It will be a team effort, so the communities can really work together to maintain community gardens and create healthy indigenous food pantries and even medicine cabinets as a result of utilizing all the indigenous plant life around them.