By Carol Schmidt, MSU News Service
BOZEMAN - Interest was high and the stove was hot as a group of Montana State University students gathered around master chef Sean Sherman in the Hannon Hall kitchen to watch as he demonstrated how to pop the grain amaranth.
It was the third time that Sherman, an Oglala Lakota known internationally as the Sioux Chef, has visited MSU to cook and mentor and inspire Native American students as well as those studying in MSU’s culinary arts program.
“If I had to pick five people in the world who are my heroes, Sean would be in that top five,” said Jacob Zimmerer, a graduate student in Native American Studies from Evergreen, Colorado. “So, let’s just say I’m really excited.”
Lana Redfield, a non-traditional freshman from Crow Agency majoring in business, said she was intrigued that several of the items Sherman prepared on Tuesday were like items her grandmother cooked on the Crow Reservation.
“I am curious about all he is doing today and what more I can learn,” Redfield said.
Sherman, who grew up on the Pine Ridge Reservation of South Dakota, eschews foods introduced during European colonization, including beef, wheat flour and sugar, among other ingredients. Instead, he offers a new spin on what he calls “the ultimate local foods” – wild meats and foraged plants transformed into elegant sauces, teas and flavorings. His work has been profiled in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Time, Saveur and NPR. Three years ago, he won the James Beard Leadership Award and his cookbook, “The Sioux Chef's Indigenous Kitchen,” won the 2018 James Beard Award for Best American Cookbook.
Yet his beginnings were not unlike those of many of the students who attended his workshops and lecture at MSU. Sherman told a group of MSU undergraduate and graduate students that he was raised in rural South Dakota eating dried meats, game and chokecherries at family gatherings. He first began working in a kitchen as a dishwasher in a Rapid City steakhouse when he was 13. It was another summer job, logging local plants with a summer job with the state of South Dakota, that connected him to Indigenous plants and a lifelong interest in ethnobotany. His career evolved to being a line cook in fine restaurants in Minneapolis and other locations. He told the students that during his career he spent three years cooking in Red Lodge, Montana, a job that he took to be close to the mountains and high plains. “Montana is a great place for that,” he said.
He said that he had an epiphany during time spent in the state of Nayarit, Mexico, where he saw how the Indigenous people of the area proudly incorporated traditional foods into interesting cuisine. He eventually returned to Bemidji, Minnesota, during an “Anishinaabe spring” and an abundance of traditional plants to harvest, which inspired his incorporation of the plants into his work. He further refined his approach by interviewing Native elders as well as academics and studied books like “Buffalo Bird Woman’s Garden,” which describes the farming practices of a woman who lived on the Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota at the beginning of the 20th century.
He put his philosophy into practice when he opened The Sioux Chef as a caterer and food educator to the Minneapolis/Saint Paul area in 2014. In 2015, in partnership with the Little Earth Community of United Tribes in Minneapolis, he also helped to design and open the Tatanka food truck, which featured Indigenous foods from the Dakotas and Minnesota
“My soul was soaring” as he found his passion, he told the students. Word of his food spread. The New York Times called Sherman’s effort to revitalize native food cultures in the contemporary kitchen “colorful and elegant, with roots in fine dining and ancestral cooking, pulled together from a mix of cultivated and wild regional ingredients.” Sherman traveled to dozens of countries promoting American Indigenous cuisine.
“Through food, we all speak the same language,” he said.
Sherman later hosted a successful restaurant pop-up that evolved into Owamni, a full-service fine dining restaurant featuring Indigenous cuisine in downtown Minneapolis. Sherman told the students that his group offers a drawing for free dinners to allow people who might not be able to afford to eat at Owamni. At the last offering, more than 1,000 people submitted entries.
“We ask them to tell their stories when they enter the drawing,” he said. “There are so many amazing stories.”
Sherman has also launched the nonprofit North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems. A project manager for NATIFS, Hannah Hostetter, grew up in Bozeman and accompanied Sherman on this recent trip. Sherman is also working on his second book, this one about foods indigenous to North America.
Sherry Keller Brown sponsored Sherman’s master class with students. Sherman’s lecture was in connection with the annual MSU Bug Buffet and was also sponsored by MSU’s Creative Nations in the College of Arts and Architecture, the College of Education, Health and Human Development and the Department of Native American Studies.