Redefining local, indigenous cuisine in Minnesota and beyond

The Sioux Chef is revitalizing Native American cuisine.

Maddy Folstein

The Sioux Chef is a Twin Cities-based culinary group that focuses on reviving precolonial Native American food. Since opening in 2014, The Sioux Chef’s message has taken the form of a catering business, food education nonprofit, cookbook and upcoming restaurant. 

Sean Sherman, the founder of The Sioux Chef, grew up on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. He had worked as an executive chef for a few years when he came up with the idea that would later become The Sioux Chef. 

“I just kind of had this epiphany of realizing that I had been studying all these different cultures… but I didn’t understand my own heritage… It was so obvious all of a sudden,” Sherman said. 

The Sioux Chef draws on ingredients local to Minnesota while leaving out foods brought over by European powers. 

“In Minnesota… we use a lot of native heritage agriculture products like corn and beans and squash,” Sherman said. “But we also use a lot of native food knowledge… It’s fun as a chef to think about all these plants that people pass by on a daily basis and never realize are there.” 

For some chefs that join the team, cooking with these ingredients can mean rethinking traditional culinary training. 

“It’s so different from the French culinary training that I had,” said Rachel Smith, one of the company’s chefs. “I was cooking with lots of butter and cream, and we don’t cook with beef or pork or chicken… because those animals were not in North America during precolonial times… There were things that I had never learned, so when I started at The Sioux Chef, I had to learn what sumac [and amaranth] were.” 

The Sioux Chef recently started a nonprofit called the Native American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems, which aims to open indigenous food hubs and satellites across the country to directly strengthen indigenous food knowledge in Native American communities. 

“We’re hoping to reach out to communities around us to develop food businesses,” Sherman said. “We want to help them develop these restaurants that will be particular to their tribe, history and region and… help preserve a big piece of their culture, which is their food.”

By spreading this goal to Native American communities across the country, The Sioux Chef hopes to preserve and restore a culture that has been broken by colonial systems. 

“I believe that it’s fundamentally important to be able to… have access to good, clean, healthy food,” said Jenean Gilmer, The Sioux Chef’s catering operations manager. “A big part of that… is very closely tied to culture and spirituality… Certainly, the U.S. government realized that and broke down those systems within colonial movement.” 

This October, The Sioux Chef published their first cookbook through the University of Minnesota Press. Entitled “The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen,” the book was co-authored by Sherman and local chef, Beth Dooley. 

“It’s precolonial, so it really makes sense for how we want to eat today because it’s no wheat, no dairy, no sugar, no processed foods,” Dooley said. “It’s very clean food, and it’s about as local as it gets.” 

With Sherman wrapping up a tour across the country and plans to open a Minneapolis restaurant by 2020, The Sioux Chef shows no signs of slowing down soon. 

“We just really want people to understand the beauty in indigenous cultures… because they’ve been so widely overlooked,” Sherman said. “All history begins with indigenous history… There’s so much wealth in the food around us, and learning how indigenous communities were utilizing these foods and medicines will only benefit everybody.”