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Sean Sherman and Dana Thompson, co-owners of The Sioux Chef, are deep in plans to open two Minneapolis restaurants. (Photo by Heidi Ehalt)

Chef Sean Sherman, the Oglala Lakota founder of “The Sioux Chef,” is on a mission. He wants to help indigenous peoples across the world reclaim their ancestral food knowledge, while creating sustainable economies around indigenous foodways.

Sherman and his tight-knit, indigenous Sioux Chef team, including co-owner Dana Thompson, are working on two major projects in the Minneapolis, Minnesota, area. This summer, they plan to debut the first of many Indigenous Food Labs, featuring a nonprofit restaurant. The following year, The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen, a for-profit restaurant, is scheduled to open in the popular Water Works park pavilion.

Sherman shared his plans for the two ventures and his vision for expansion with Native Business Magazine.

The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen Coming to Minneapolis’ Water Works Development

Situated along prime riverfront property, The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen, a for-profit entity, will function as a fast-casual, counter-service restaurant to accommodate high volume traffic.

“There’s going to be a lot of patio space overlooking the river. We expect it to be really busy in the summertime,” Sherman noted. “Since that one will be extremely busy, we’re ramping up; 2020 will be here before we know it.”

Water Works, a park development project overlooking St. Anthony Falls and the Stone Arch Bridge, will bring recreational and cultural amenities to one of Minnesota’s most highly visited areas. The river corridor is actually Dakota homeland, Sherman pointed out.

“That area of Minneapolis has a lot of historical and spiritual places for Dakota people, particularly, so we’re excited to be able to open something that helps bring awareness to stories that go back beyond the warehouse district,” Sherman said.  

The Sioux Chef will open a riverfront restaurant at Water Works’s pavilion. (Courtesy Minneapolis Parks Foundation)

Kate Lamers, design project manager for the Minneapolis Parks Foundation, said the Foundation is developing Water Works’ riverfront real estate because the area “has grown very popular.” As part of the Foundation’s master planning, it held a public selection process for a food vendor, ultimately choosing The Sioux Chef. “And they are perfect,” Lamers said. “They will lease space from us, similar to other food vendors operating in parks. We have found that it tends to be a very successful venture for the vendor, and also really helps activate the park area,” Lamers said.  

The Sioux Chef restaurant will churn out healthy, indigenous foods, primarily from the Minneapolis-St. Paul region—cutting out foods not ancestral to Turtle Island, like wheat flour, dairy, processed cane sugar, and even beef, pork and chicken.

“We prioritize our purchasing from indigenous vendors first, and then use a lot of partners and growers growing indigenous foods in our region,” Sherman said.

For instance, the Sioux Chef works extensively with Wozupi Tribal Gardens, just south of Minneapolis at the Shakopee Mdewakanton Reservation, and he serves as a board member of Dream of Wild Health.

Indigenous Food Lab: An Incubator Kitchen for Indigenous Food Businesses

The other project on The Sioux Chef’s table is the first Indigenous Food Lab—a live, nonprofit restaurant with a classroom kitchen, created through The Sioux Chef’s existing 501(c)3, NATIFS (North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems).

The restaurant is attached to the nonprofit to act as a financial engine. The Indigenous Food Lab model was carefully constructed to include a revenue source, Sherman explained. “It took a little bit of arguing with the IRS to allow us to have a restaurant under our nonprofit, but we’re really excited that we’re able to make that a reality and for this next step: seeing it come into fruition,” Sherman said.   

The Indigenous Food Lab is expected to create opportunity for indigenous foodpreneurs: chefs, producers, educators and other food industry professionals.

“We’ll have a classroom kitchen to teach about indigenous foodways education, so we can continuously design, develop and offer education around Native American agriculture, seed saving, farming techniques, national botany, wildlife food identification and harvesting, cooking techniques, food preservation techniques, and all sorts of little pieces around foodways. It could be food history, or food as medicine; there are all sorts of opportunities to design classes around indigenous foods,” Sherman shared.  

Scholarship opportunities will be available for education and training, as well as apprenticeships.

“We’ll have a limited run of apprenticeships. We’ll be able to take in large groups of people throughout the year, at many times. We’ll definitely have to charge for education to make it sustainable, but we’ll be able to work with grants and to offer scholarships for discounted rates,” Sherman said.

As an incubator kitchen, Indigenous Food Lab will help Tribes, organizations and indigenous entrepreneurs to develop and design indigenous food production businesses.

“We wanted to utilize our skills to help up-and-coming entrepreneurs create businesses and use the kitchen as a space where they can start off,” Sherman said.

A central resource for nearby Tribes, Indigenous Food Lab will additionally help Tribes develop their own indigenous food entities, focused on their ancestral foods, within their communities at a scale they can support. Perhaps the Tribe has the capacity to develop and manage a large full-scale restaurant, or maybe the Tribe is better suited to develop a small-scale catering operation, Sherman suggested.

But the Indigenous Food Lab in Minneapolis is only the cusp of Sherman’s vision; The Sioux Chef team intends to replicate that model across North America and eventually worldwide. The Sioux Chef team will franchise the Indigenous Food Lab model, and these “satellites” will empower indigenous food businesses across North America.  

“We’re hoping those satellites will become a center for those indigenous foods to help preserve and grow and support more community gardens, and push for permaculture design, and help to re-landscape and put foods everywhere that that kitchen can process, and really create a better sense of community-driven foods in the area,” Sherman said.

The Sioux Chef will start by expanding the franchise model in the U.S.—honing in on areas home to higher Tribal populations, such as Seattle, Denver, Albuquerque or Chicago, Sherman identified, hypothetically.

“We’re hoping to have those Indigenous Food Labs not only in the [continental] U.S., but eventually in Canada, Alaska and Mexico, and to create this large indigenous food network as we grow,” Sherman said.

Formatted as an open-form restaurant—much larger than the forthcoming Sioux Chef-branded, for-profit restaurant in the Water Works district—it will offer family-style, non-pretentious indigenous foods. Also different from the Water Works-based indigenous kitchen, which will highlight regional, indigenous cuisine, the Indigenous Food Lab will explore foods from different regions of North America, and purchase foods from growers all across North America.

“We’ll be able to explore and create new seasonal recipes, using different indigenous foods from different parts of North America, while bringing in different chefs from different regions to have special dinners and events, and educators to promote that. We feel that we’re going to be a lot more focused on celebrating and bringing awareness to all that diversity that’s out there across North America, and using a lot of indigenous vendors from all over the place, while creating a huge demand [for those vendors],” Sherman said.

The Sioux Chef has a demonstrated history of partnering with indigenous chefs, such as Karlos Baca and Neftali Duran, in addition to fostering professional development internally. The Sioux Chef’s sous chef Brian Yazzie, “started right out of cooking school with us and has grown in his own right,” Sherman said.

Cooking Up Even More

As if two new business arms weren’t enough, Sherman is putting together his second cookbook, and he’s acquired a literary agent to promote and sell it on a grander scale than his first. More details are forthcoming when the Sioux Chef inks a deal with a publisher. The second cookbook will dive deeper into indigenous foods across North America.

“We’re going to be looking at the diversity of indigenous foods through Mexico, the Caribbean, U.S., Canada and Alaska, and make it a useable form, where it’s still a cookbook format, but people can start to see how much diversity lies out there and how much foods are on tap, no matter where you are in North America,” Sherman shared.

Sherman released The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen in October 2017, garnering the 2018 James Beard Award Winner for Best American Cookbook. The cookbook was also named one of the best cookbooks of the year by NPR, The Village Voice, Smithsonian Magazine, UPROXX, New York Magazine, San Francisco Chronicle and other media outlets.  

The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen has served as a tangible resource to accompany Sherman on his speaking engagements, dinners and cooking demonstrations across Indian Country.

Sherman pursues every method at his fingertips to advance indigenous foodways. And he’s only getting started. As he said of Indigenous Food Labs:

“We’re excited to work with indigenous groups on a worldwide scale and hopefully become a role model for people,” Sherman said. “We’re hoping to grow this out to become extremely successful and sustainable, and a large resource, eventually.”

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