For Sean Sherman (Oglala Lakota), there is something missing on the palette of America's greatest cuisine—Native American menus.
Sherman, who grew up on South Dakota's Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, is opening the Sioux Chef restaurant in the Twin Cities, and will cater this year's First Peoples Fund Community Spirit Awards events in Minneapolis.
The Community Spirit Awards honor recipients who have demonstrated exceptional passion, wisdom and purpose in their communities. Sherman catered the honoring in 2012 as well, and said it is an honor to be involved again. He hopes the participants at the event are inspired by the plate in front of them, and understand that the flavors and dishes can be traced back to some of their ancestors.
"All those food pieces have a story to tell," he said.
Sherman first got the idea to open The Sioux Chef in 2007 when he was interested in writing a Lakota cookbook. When Sherman started his research, he was disappointed to find very little information on the diets of Native Americans before European influence and forced assimilation. There were even fewer restaurants that offered pre-colonized flavors, ingredients and food, he said.
"There were lots of fry breads and commodity food and that was it," he said, so he began studying the plants and animals that were once staples of the Plains and Midwest Native diet.
"It was learning how to identify and play with flavors," he said. "I looked at how things were processed, how people used dried foods and spent time preparing and harvesting for winter."
Food items like corn, beans and an abundant variety of squash were commonly used in the winter season in the Dakotas. The fall is a great time for plums, crab apples and rose hips.
"There are a lot of flavors. I'm trying to utilize things people had in their pantries," he said. "Those things have now disappeared."
In high school, Sherman moved to Spearfish, South Dakota, where he attended college. His first restaurant job was at the age of 13. His passion for the culinary field grew and he eventually earned a position as an executive chef at a popular restaurant in the city.
Most of Sherman's knowledge has come from his own initiative.
"I've been self-taught," he said. "I read tons of books. I took European trips. It took me a long time to get to the point where I wanted to do it professionally."
He hopes Sioux Chef is the start of better education—and good food—in America.
"There's a great Native American cuisine and food culture," he said. "You can go to all kinds of restaurants and it's the one that's missing right now. I'm seeking to change that."