Chef Sean Sherman Visits Johnson & Wales to Share the Beauty and Plight of Indigenous Food Systems
Indigenous restaurants and food systems are often few and far between in most areas, including Rhode Island, but Sherman has hope for the future.
You are on Native land.
It may seem a bold message for a guest speaker to open a university lecture series with, but it’s an honest one. The Rhode Island we know and love today is, in fact, built entirely on Native land. The Narragansetts, the Wampanoags, the Pequots, the Nipmucs and the Niantics lived here for generations before Roger Williams and his clan “founded” the state. And while they do still have a presence — whether through contributions from the Tomaquag Museum in Exeter, the names of various places, or the continuation of the nation’s oldest powwow in Charlestown — there’s no denying that there are many ways in which their absence is sorely felt.
In fact, how many Rhode Island indigenous restaurants can you name?
Chances are, not very many.
Renowned chef Sean Sherman, who was invited to speak to Johnson & Wales University (JWU) students, staff, faculty and invited guests last month as part of the university’s Cultural Life Series, had plenty of insight as to just why that is.
A member of the Oglala Lakota tribe who grew up on the country’s largest reservation, Pine Ridge in South Dakota, Sherman got his start in the food industry at just thirteen years old. He went on to work in restaurants throughout high school and college before moving to Minnesota and becoming a chef at a young age. It was during this time that he had an epiphany.
“Chef jobs can be grueling, but they are very necessary,” he shared. “A good restaurant can change the perception of everybody around you. I decided I wanted to create a restaurant that had a lot of intention, but I didn’t really know how to get there back then.”
Sherman decided to take a break from the demanding pace of the food industry and found himself in San Pancho, just an hour north of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. As he took the time figure out his next move, he became interested in the area’s indigenous community, the Huichol, and started researching them.
“I found so much comfort in their culture, their beadwork, their clothing, even their sense of humor. It all made sense to me – we had all these commonalities,” he said. “Something just clicked, and I saw my path. As a chef, I had been learning about all these foods from all over the world — I could name hundreds of European recipes off the top of my head, but I realized I knew very little about my own Lakota ancestry. That was really striking to me. Why, even growing up in a tribal community, do I know very little about indigenous foods? And that really became the question: what are indigenous foods and what does that mean in this world?”
Sherman took the time to educate himself and eventually came up with his own philosophy which focuses on the revitalization and evolution of indigenous food systems throughout North America. He began by establishing the Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen, an organization which provides catering and food education throughout the Minneapolis/St. Paul area in 2014. In 2021, Sherman opened Owamni, Minnesota’s first full-service indigenous restaurant and a James Beard Foundation award recipient as of last June. Additionally, he founded the nonprofit NATIFS — a.k.a. North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems — with the goal of creating access to indigenous education and to indigenous foods through the creation of indigenous food labs.
Clearly, Sherman is quite a busy man, but he still makes the time to spread his message in other ways, too. As he told the packed auditorium at JWU, indigenous food scarcity is a nationwide issue that begins hundreds of years ago. To oversimplify a very complex and devastating issue that Sherman discusses at length during his presentation, colonization not only claimed millions of Native American lives, but also their way of life. Colonizers employed extreme violence and environmental damage to strip indigenous communities of their lands, resources, customs and, perhaps worst of all, their education.
“Thousands of generations of knowledge that was being handed down family member after family member — stories, growing crops, identifying plants, building of medicines, the language, everything — was a hardware education system, and that was taken away from us during this time,” he explained. “It’s an intense version of assimilation. It’s still happening today.”
And so, Sherman is doing everything in his power to gain that knowledge back and share it with others. During his presentation, he talks about decolonizing a plate and identifying what indigenous food really is. (The short answer? In North America, that means no wheat flour, cane sugar or even dairy products – just the plants, animals and other food sources that are native to the region). He explains how we can learn and benefit from indigenous diets (healthier fats, more plant diversity, less waste) and agriculture practices (safer, more sustainable). And he outlines how we can move forward as a society, whether that’s just by going outside and connecting more with the world around you, or, more specifically for future chefs, by being more intentional with your food choices.
At the conclusion of his presentation, one JWU student questioned how non-indigenous chefs can showcase indigenous foods, like heritage corns and grains, while respecting the history and culture behind them.
“Part of it would be [to support] native farms — buy their products and showcase the work that they’re doing. Work with indigenous peoples and communities around you,” Sherman answered. “People will call you out, though, if your soul purpose is just to capitalize from it. So, do what you can do, but do it with intention and respect. Make sure you’re reaching out and having the right conversations with groups that might be sensitive to these things and understand the history.”
Another student was curious if Sherman would be open to opening more restaurants, and if he were to do so in the northeast, would his menu change to reflect the natural resources found in the area? His response was that he’d rather encourage others to do just that.
“I hope the nonprofit work will create systems of support. If we open an indigenous food lab in this region, we’d want to work with a tribal community here to work with some of their entrepreneurs and help them to develop. We’d give them the resources to pay respect to the plant diversity and proteins and seafood in these regions,” he said. “I don’t really have any interest in having multiple restaurants everywhere; I just want to create a better system for other people to have better foods and a future through education. Being a support system is where I want to be.”
Samantha Cullen-Fry, the Indigenous empowerment manager at the Tomaquag Museum in Exeter, later expands on this answer and asks how local indigenous restaurant owners and budding food entrepreneurs can connect with Sherman’s organization and take advantage of its resources.
“We invite a lot of indigenous entrepreneurs and chefs to come to us in Minneapolis,” Sherman said. “We have two kitchens there, the non-profit indigenous food lab kitchen and the restaurant Owamni, that we can use for education. We’re happy to have people work with us for a couple of weeks or months to learn some of the stylings, methodology and philosophy of how we’re applying everything, how we’re purchasing foods, where we’re getting them and so on.”
While the fostering of more local indigenous menus and restaurants is certainly something to look forward to, we would be remiss if we didn’t celebrate some of the businesses that are already forging their own paths in the Ocean State. For one, the Sly Fox Den Too in Charlestown, which is owned and operated by Mashpee Wampanoag tribe member chef Sherry Pocknett, earned a spot on this year’s James Beard Foundation Awards semifinalist list. Like Sherman, the restaurant aims to not only feed visitors but educate them on indigenous food ways, culture and history. Furthermore, two Narragansett Indian Tribe members, Will Johnson and Nina Smith-Cotto, recently opened Willie’s Place in Wakefield. The takeout spot specializes in both Native American and Spanish flavors, including tacos named after local tribes.
To learn more about Sean Sherman and his mission, visit sioux-chef.com. If you’re interested in learning more about Johnson & Wales, visit jwu.edu.