The ‘Sioux Chef’ Brings Earthy Eating to Grounds

September 18, 2023 By Alice Berry, aberry@virginia.edu Alice Berry, aberry@virginia.edu

An earthy, herbal, sweet scent wafted out of the teaching kitchen inside the Department of Student Health and Wellness at the University of Virginia on a recent afternoon.

That fragrant aroma surrounded students, faculty and staff gathered in front of hot plates to learn how to make wild mushroom rice bowls from locally sourced ingredients, under the guidance of the James Beard Award-winning Lakota chef Sean Sherman.

Sherman, who opened the Indigenous cuisine restaurant Owamni in 2021 near the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, quickly became a leading voice in the food sovereignty movement, which aims to allow communities to control the production of the food they consume.

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“We’re just showcasing what should be so normal,” Sherman said.

Over the past few years, using locally sourced ingredients has become more normal. Sherman is part of why non-native people are more familiar with Native American food. His restaurant features dishes created without “colonial ingredients,” such as wheat flour, cane sugar and dairy products.

Sherman was named one of TIME Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People this spring, and has been featured in outlets like NPR and The New Yorker.

Chef Sean Sherman speaking to the class
Sherman, who learned to cook in European restaurants, is popularizing Indigenous foodways. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications)

He wasn’t always this knowledgeable on pre-colonial food systems. On the Pine Ridge Reservation where he grew up, there was only one grocery store and a smattering of convenience stores. When Sherman started cooking, he worked mostly in French and Italian restaurants.

“I realized I knew very little about Lakota food,” Sherman said.

He called his mother to ask if his grandparents had any recipe books, hoping to learn more about his culinary heritage. They did, but they read more like typical American cookbooks. There was even a recipe for cream of mushroom soup. So he set off to explore Indigenous cuisine and inspire people to learn more the food that comes from the land they’re standing on.

For Whistler Somers, a graduate student in UVA’s School of Architecture and a citizen of the Oneida nation, the cooking demonstration seemed like a perfect introduction to Indigenous culture for non-native people.

One on one guidance from Chef Sean Sherman
Fourth-year student Maya Koehn-Wu puffs rice – almost like popping popcorn – under Sherman’s guidance. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications)

“Food is just such a good way to welcome students,” Somers, also a member of the Native American Student Union, said. “It’s a kind of cultural preservation, too.”

The enticing smells of cedar tea and wild rice were welcoming enough that one student wandered in, unaware that he had walked into a demonstration by one of the country’s most famous chefs.

Somers said the demonstration helped her feel more connected to home.

A rice bowl created in class
People who attended the demonstration got to chow down on the finished rice bowls while sipping cedar tea. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications)

“This was just a great day,” Somers said. “I got to have food that feels like something my mom would make.”

The cooking demonstration was part of a series of programs to help the University build relationships with Indigenous tribes. This year, the programming on food sovereignty, with a lunch and a panel discussion, hosted by Sherman, Monacan citizen Desiree Shelley Flores and Abenaki citizen Amyrose Foll, that accompanied the demonstration. Monacan citizen Rufus Elliott, Nottoway citizen Beth Roach, Native American Student Union public advocacy chair Liah Lawson planned the event with support from the Karsh Institute of Democracy, the College of Arts & Sciences and the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.

Media Contact

Alice Berry

University News Associate Office of University Communications