Sean Sherman, the Minneapolis-based chef and activist, is challenging the conventional notion of what “American” food is.
The self-anointed “Sioux Chef,” a member of the Oglala Lakota Sioux tribe, is a superstar in the culinary world; that wouldn’t be possible if the food at his Minneapolis restaurant Owamni by The Sioux Chef and in his 2017 cookbook The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen wasn’t delicious. But more important than the taste of Sherman’s food is the flavor of his philosophy.
Sherman cooks with only native ingredients and does not use foodstuffs brought to this continent by European colonizers. Let that sink in for a moment.
It’s not a stunt—although chef Sherman does garner plenty of press and accolades (including a recent Julia Child Award). The choice to cook with solely precolonial ingredients is in service to Sherman’s desire to raise awareness about Indigenous food, culture, history, and social issues.
That’s a lot to take in and process. As cooks and food journalists, the way we sort through such ideas is to cook, and eat, and talk about what we’re cooking and eating.
In early 2023, the Cook’s Country staff decided to cook through recipes from Sherman’s book in order to understand what it meant—and how it felt—to cook with only native ingredients. While most of us had never had the pleasure of eating at Owamni, our Editor in Chief Toni Tipton-Martin and our Editorial Director Bryan Roof did.
We ordered a copy of The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen for each team member. After they had spent some time with it, we plotted out what each person wanted to cook, reserved a kitchen space here in the office, and ordered groceries. And then we spent a day prepping, cooking, eating, and talking.
Here are reflections from each team member who prepared and shared Sherman’s food at our “cook the book” event. (This event served as a catalyst for the Thanksgiving menu in our October/November 2023 issue of Cook’s Country, which was inspired by Chef Sherman’s philosophy.)
Mark Huxsoll, Test Cook
“I made bison tartare with amaranth crackers. I’ve made tartares at every restaurant I’ve worked at, but never bison. Bison was a new protein for me to explore and I wanted to taste it in its rawest form to understand it better. I really liked that the tartare was subtly seasoned with juniper and sumac, two flavors I’m familiar with but not together. To serve it, I made the amaranth crackers from the book. A flourless cracker was interesting to me, and amaranth is a wonderful ancient grain and complete protein that I’d like to explore more in my cooking.
“My biggest takeaway was how rewarding it was to step outside of my comfort zone. I loved exploring new flavors, textures, and products in a low-risk setting. For me, it’s the purest form of hands-on learning that was an early spark in my life to focus on cooking as something more than putting food on the table. The kitchen can be a transportation device to other places and times with long-lasting effects.”
Mark cooking; the bison tartare.
Morgan Bolling, Executive Editor of Creative Content
“I chose the corn cookies and hazelnut maple sorbet.
“I liked learning about indigenous sweets—how they aren’t typical in all native cultures but Sean has adapted to use indigenous ingredients with modern technology (like ice cream makers) to create desserts for his restaurant. The combination of historically significant ingredients and modern technology was interesting to explore.”
Bryan Roof, Editorial Director
“I made the wild rice with dried mulberries, sage, and juniper and the grilled sweet potato with Indigenous maple–chile crisp.
“These choices were inspired by the meal I had at Owamni. The wild rice, which I’ve typically never enjoyed, was interesting because Sherman’s version used ‘real’ wild rice, not the woody pilaf many of us associate with the ingredient. The piney flavor of the sage balanced the sweetness of the mulberries.
“The sweet potato is a spin on Sherman’s sweet potato dish, which was doused in an amazing chile crisp made with five different Indigenous chiles (arbol, chipotle, guajillo, ancho, and New Mexican), and balanced with maple sugar to temper the heat of the chiles. The dish is surprisingly simple but incredibly thoughtful and delicious.”
Bryan tends to a skillet in the kitchen; squash on a grill pan.
Grilled Sweet Potatoes with Maple Chile CrispA spicy-sweet new favorite.
Kelly Song, Test Cook
“For this event I made the maple-juniper roast pheasant with sumac, maple vinegar, griddled apples, and whole cranberries.
“I chose the recipe because (besides being a bird lover) I’ve always had a deep appreciation for wild game and the community of cooking that has formed around it. Last year, I traveled to Kansas to birdwatch ring-necked pheasants and dined with a local family who lives off game and pheasant, and I learned how hunting and wildfowl are an integral part of the lifestyle for many folks in the U.S. So I was excited to roast some for the team and try Sean Sherman’s version.
“The flavors were very different from what I’d had in Kansas, where pheasant is often breaded or smothered in sauce. Here, it tasted bright and clean, and it felt festive when roasted with the apples and cranberries. I loved the idea of celebrating with a whole bird and bringing it to the table as a centerpiece.”
Kelly basting birds; the roasted pheasants.
“I cook a lot of dried beans but have never used cedar as an ingredient. So I was intrigued by this recipe because the cedar and juniper are the only other flavors in the pot. The cedar that we ordered came as a big bag of pine boughs; they lent a subtle flavor to the beans and upped the savory quotient; I grew up with cedar trees all around but had never considered them as an ingredient.
“Chef Sherman’s approach is inspiring, both in the intellectual steadfastness of his philosophy and in how balanced and nuanced all the flavors are. As a group we talked about how using only native ingredients felt more about discovering and celebrating those foods rather than feeling limited by not using things like black pepper or pork. And the irony of us having to special-order ingredients that used to grow and graze here was not lost on us.”
Jessica Rudolph, Senior Editor
“I chose the chocolate pecan bites and the maple squash sorbet with cranberry sauce. I was particularly interested in exploring sweet dishes that relied on the natural tastes and textures of fruits and nuts. The idea of making dessert without flour, butter, or refined sugar seemed intimidating, but these recipes felt familiar (and sounded delicious).
“The truffle-like chocolate pecan bites were creamy and decadent, their melt-in-your-mouth texture coming from cocoa butter and ground pecans, with agave syrup adding slight sweetness. Pure cocoa butter was a new-to-me ingredient that I can’t wait to play around with more.
“The squash sorbet was eye-opening: Using the naturally velvety texture of roasted squash to make a smooth, creamy sorbet seemed so obvious after tasting it; it left me scratching my head over all the sorbets I’ve made before using corn syrup, alcohol, or other additives to try to achieve that coveted texture. The cranberry sauce was a perfect tart counterpoint to the sorbet’s earthy sweetness.”
Nicole Konstantinakos, Deputy Food Editor
“I made a couple things from the Indigenous Pantry section of the book (dried apple slices and wojape, a cooked berry sauce that can be made with a variety of berries and lightly sweetened with maple syrup or honey) plus a sage and rose-hip sauce (that’s paired with roast duck in the book).
“I was interested in these garnishes and sauces since they are simple to prepare and are made from ingredients one can generally find in supermarkets or online, but I wanted to taste them with an eye on how they could combine with other elements of the indigenous pantry to create full recipes with a variety of distinct flavors and textures. A way to place ourselves within the pantry and ask ourselves: What can we do with these elements? How do they complement each other? What ideas do they inspire? I incorporated the apple slices and a vinaigrette made with maple vinegar (a pantry item in the book) in a working version of the watercress salad I developed for our menu.”
Amanda Luchtel, Test Cook
“I made two iced teas: cedar and raspberry, plus the sumac lemonade. I also made the grits with the poached duck egg.
“What fascinated me the most was the use of foraged plants. I also loved learning how you can make a tart ‘lemonade’ using sumac and not lemons (which aren’t indigenous to our continent). Cooking with local ingredients is so important to me. Teaching people how to use ingredients right from their backyards is such a great gift.
“The simplicity of the grits with the uber-rich egg yolk was almost a play on cheesy grits without the dairy. This dish was so good!”
Amanda filling her plate; sumac “lemonade.”
Matthew Fairman, Senior Editor
“I made the Tatanka Truck Fried Wild Rice Bowl with Griddled Maple Squash and Lamb Sausage.
“Like a few of my other colleagues, I was supercurious to cook and taste the hand-harvested wild rice, which I learned isn’t actually rice at all but rather the seeds of an aquatic grass. I also really cherished the idea that by buying the rice I could help to support (in however small a way) the community of stewards keeping alive the craft of harvesting this traditional grain. Plus, selfishly, fried rice in all its forms is one of my favorite foods.
“I was stunned at how fragrant the rice was as it cooked and how complex its flavors were. It’s much less starchy than white rice, making it perfect for this application. Topped with the lamb sausage—with its sage, peppery juniper, and bright maple vinegar—and the superdelicious maple-sumac squash, this was an incredibly satisfying fried rice like no other I’d ever had.”