2019 Leadership Award Winner Sean Sherman
Founder & CEO, The Sioux ChefSarah Maiellano
May 01, 2019
Honored for his efforts around the revitalization and awareness of indigenous food systems in a modern culinary context.
When Sean Sherman talks about indigenous food, he makes it clear that “we’re not trying to cook like it’s 1491. We’re trying to take knowledge from the past and evolve it for today.” Sherman, a member of the Oglala Lakota tribe, has dedicated his career to Native American food. He’s a chef, researcher, educator, and author.
On Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, where Sherman was born, it’s estimated that half of the population lives in poverty. “There are obscene rates of diabetes, obesity, and heart disease,” Sherman says. He attributes it to government programs that supply non-nutritious food packed with sodium and sugar to the Reservation’s residents.
After moving away in high school, Sherman started working in restaurants and became an executive chef by age 27. A few years later, he had an epiphany: “I could name hundreds of European recipes, but [only] a handful of Lakota recipes. There’s very little representation of indigenous food out there.” That’s when he shifted the focus of his career. Since then, he’s spent years researching native cultures and cooking their food.
In 2014, he launched the Sioux Chef with business partner Dana Thompson. They started a food truck that serves what Sherman calls decolonized regional foods. “We cut out European ingredients like dairy, wheat, and processed cane sugar,” he says. “We source and purchase as many ingredients [as possible] from indigenous communities.” Then came his catering company, which “features the flavors of the region we’re in through an indigenous perspective.” His cookbook, The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen, won the 2018 James Beard Award for best book in the American category, and that same year he co-founded a nonprofit called NATIFS (North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems) “to help to spread indigenous foods around the nation.”
The nonprofit’s goals are twofold. Its “satellites” program will strengthen tribal communities through food (for example, coaching indigenous people through the process of launching their own food businesses) in order to help them reclaim the foodways of their ancestors. The second piece is opening soon in Minneapolis: the Indigenous Food Lab will house a restaurant, a training center, and research efforts. The lab’s indigenous food curriculum will include topics like seed saving, farming techniques, understanding seasons, preservation, wild foods, harvesting, and cooking techniques.
Sherman’s ultimate goal is to open restaurants across North America—working with tribes, almost in a franchise model—to “show regional diversity and [provide] a deeper understanding of the land we’re on and the people that were there before.” But that’s only part of how he defines indigenous food. It’s also about “agriculture, wild plants, preservation and processing techniques, and where people were getting salts, fats, and sugars.”
Sherman is working to rebuild the indigenous pantry, with ingredients like seeds, corn, beans, squash, sunflowers, birds, game, and fish. “In Minnesota, we use a lot of rosehips, berries, sunchokes, fiddleheads, wild ginger, birds, and freshwater fish,” he notes. He’s also gathering native recipes that pre-dated European contact and says it will be a continuous education as he and his colleagues continue to learn about different regions, cultures, and languages.
“There are 573 tribes in the U.S.,” Sherman points out. “No matter where you are in North America, we’re standing on indigenous land. You can pretty much throw a dart at the map and start working on indigenous food [in that region]. The knowledge is still there and we’re building on it.”
The 2019 James Beard Foundation Leadership Award recipients will be honored at a ceremony in association with Deloitte on May 5 in Chicago. Learn more about all our 2018 Leadership Award winners.