Chef Sean Sherman and his business partner Dana Thompson knew the growing interest in healthy, local foods would help drive their Kickstarter campaign, but the outpouring of support still took them by surprise. Their proposed restaurant concept, The Sioux Chef: An Indigenous Kitchen, surpassed its $100,000 goal by nearly 50 percent thanks to contributions from 2,358 people, which Thompson says makes it the most-backed restaurant in Kickstarter history.
“We were super-happy about that because it means we have these different people who are emotionally invested in the restaurant, and we’re so grateful for that,” says Thompson, who co-owns The Sioux Chef.
In addition to the forthcoming restaurant, the Minneapolis-based company runs a food truck called Tatanka Truck, caters special events, and hosts pop-up communal dinners. Chef Sherman is also working on a cookbook with an expected release in the fall. The hope is to open the restaurant by the end of the year, but Thompson says it could take longer. It’s important that they find a space in Minneapolis-St. Paul proper with easy access to public transportation so they can welcome guests of all backgrounds.
For Thompson and Sherman, the impetus behind the restaurant had less to do with promoting The Sioux Chef brand and more to do with reviving Native American cuisines. Sherman—nicknamed The Sioux Chef by the media and patrons—is Oglala Lakota and grew up on the Pine Ridge Reservation near the Nebraska border in South Dakota.
“We decided to run the Kickstarter because we really want to educate as many Native chefs or anybody who wants to learn about the indigenous food system. To do that, we need to have our own brick-and-mortar kitchen,” Thompson says. “This isn’t about an ordinary restaurant. This is so much bigger than that because we really want to bring back the foods that were systematically removed from an entire culture.”
She adds that the U.S. comprises more than 400 indigenous flavor profiles, although Native American cuisine has been largely presented as fusion fare. The Sioux Chef: An Indigenous Kitchen will primarily serve Lakota and Ojibwe cuisine, but with several other native chefs on staff, foods from other tribes, like the Cheyenne in Wyoming and the Navajo in the Southwest, will also be included.
The restaurant will not only serve meals (dinner, lunch, and possibly brunch) but also be a community gathering spot, with a meeting room and garden for interactive and educational opportunities. The menu is not yet set, but locally sourced produce like heirloom corn, squash, beans, and crabapples will take center stage. Past dishes prepared by The Sioux Chef include a venison roast with wild bergamot, cedar, balsam fir, and maple; Red Lake walleye, served in a corn broth with rosehip sauce and a sorrel garnish; and acorn and honey cakes with dried apple and chokecherry sauce.
Putting a spotlight on native dishes allows community members to revisit childhood staples or, in the case of younger generations, to try traditional foods for the first time. Thompson says that when The Sioux Chef has hosted pop-up community dinners, the children often ask questions and want to know more about the food and their own backgrounds.
“The parents are saying, ‘The kids don’t like to eat much,’ or, ‘I don’t think they’re going to eat this, but we wanted to bring them anyway.’ When the kids start digging into the food, they’re just gobbling it up; they love these flavors,” Thompson says. “On the flip side, when the elders start tasting this food, oftentimes they say things like, ‘I haven’t had rabbit since I was a little kid.’”
Beyond reconnecting Native Americans to their roots, The Sioux Chef also wants to drive economic wealth back into those communities by employing more Native American chefs and bringing more attention to the culture. In fact, the Tatanka Truck was originally funded under a grant with the purpose of serving healthy, indigenous food. Sherman and Thompson helped develop the model, and hired staff before buying it last year.
Through the restaurant, they also hope to address health epidemics within native populations as well as the greater U.S. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Native Americans, including Alaska Natives, have a life expectancy 4.4 years shorter than the U.S. average. And like much of the U.S. population, heart disease, cancer, and diabetes are among the leading causes of death for those groups.
“The preventive health aspect is really key for us as well, because we want people to understand just how healthy these beautiful foods are,” Thompson says. She adds that this diet, which is naturally low-glycemic, can serve as a preventive measure for many diseases.
In recent years the national conversation around sourcing has shifted with an emphasis on locally grown produce and locally raised proteins. Thompson thinks this heightened awareness dovetails with The Sioux Chef’s mission to showcase the various native cuisines, rather than a catchall blend. “People, I think, get a lot of health benefits—mentally and spiritually and all the other ways—when they stay local,” she says. She adds that this can also lead more consumers to develop relationships with growers and vendors at farmers markets.
After so much time spent on the road promoting native cuisine, offering educational opportunities, and collaborating with groups like the Slow Foods World Forum, Thompson says they are ready to “stay home” and focus their energy on the restaurant and forthcoming cookbook. Given the attention garnered by the Kickstarter campaign, the team should have no problem getting people to come to them while still spearheading the revival of indigenous cuisines across the country.
“We’re excited to be a part of the restaurant community with our own business. It’s been fun to be mobile and travel all over the world, but we’re hoping that once we get our own brick-and-mortar that we can stay home more and have people who want to learn about this come to us,” Thompson says. “We want people to understand that native cuisine is a really cool, beautiful thing. There’s a lot of interesting history with it.”