Owamni by The Sioux Chef
Heidi Ehalt

Chef Sean Sherman (pictured) and partner Dana Thompson hope Owamni serves as a proof of concept for other Indigenous restaurateurs.

Owamni's Journey to Becoming America's Best New Restaurant

Chef Sean Sherman's stunning project has been years in the making.

Owamni by The Sioux Chef has been a long time coming. In 2016, owners Dana Thompson and chef Sean Sherman began raising funds on Kickstarter to start a restaurant that focused on Indigenous cuisines; their campaign even became the most-backed restaurant on Kickstarter. Shortly thereafter, the Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board put out a request for proposals for businesses to fill the forthcoming Water Works Pavilion building at Mill Ruins Park. Collaborations with the city, architects, and others followed, and construction began in 2019. The restaurant finally debuted last summer.

“We just had to sit tight because it was a massive project. They made a brand-new park around that building and had to strip that building down all the way and rebuild it on historical bases,” Sherman says.

But the wait has been worthwhile. In June, Owamni took home the James Beard Foundation Award for Best New Restaurant. The mission behind Owamni dovetails with the park’s own history as a gathering place for Native tribes. Even the name “Owamni’’ is a nod to that heritage; the waterfall, also known as St. Anthony Falls, was called Owámniiyomni in the Dakota language.

Heidi Ehalt

Grilled Salmon & Root Veggies at Owamni

It’s not uncommon for restaurants to open with a purpose beyond serving exceptional food and creating a singular dining experience. But whereas many focus on local sourcing, wholesome ingredients, and fair wages, Owamni is driving a social revolution, and food is the vehicle.

“A lot of the work is just raising awareness to Indigenous peoples, Indigenous histories, and showcasing this kind of invisibility of how Indigenous people have been treated,” Sherman says. “And [it’s] opening up a lot of conversations of why that is and why there aren’t Native restaurants in every single city when you can find food from all over the world [at restaurants], just not the food that’s from the land you’re standing on.”

To this end, Owamni eschews ingredients brought over by colonists, like wheat, dairy, and refined sugar, in favor of native plants and proteins. Dishes include Blue Corn Mush with Ute Mountain blue corn, maple, hazelnut, and berries; Game Tartare, made of Cheyenne River bison, duck egg aioli, picked carrots, sumac, and aronia (chokeberries); and Wild Rice Sorbet, with puffed wild rice and wojape syrup, which is made from fresh berries. The menu is predominantly influenced by Dakota cuisine, but features specialties from different tribes and nations, too.

“We use the menu as a way to educate, as in ‘this is the food of the Salish,’ or ‘this is the food of the Navajo Nation,’ so that we can show people that there are differences; there’s diversity,” Thompson says. “We consider Owamni a really beautiful opportunity for passive education. Every detail has been analyzed and strategically curated so that people come in and they don’t feel like anyone’s hitting them over the head with anything, but they leave changed.”

The design is similarly subtle. Rather than lean into stereotypical “Native” decor that can come across as inauthentic and garish, the restaurant is an airy space with floor-to-ceiling windows, natural wood accents, and creamy exposed brick. In addition to patio seating, the outdoors offers an opportunity for exploration, as the park is dotted with native plants, each displaying its name in English and Dakota, as well as details about how it was used by Indigenous cultures.

“We use the menu as a way to educate, as in ‘this is the food of the Salish,’ or ‘this is the food of the Navajo Nation,’ so that we can show people that there are differences; there’s diversity.”

Owamni the restaurant is just one spoke in a much larger wheel. In 2014, Sherman and Thompson opened The Sioux Chef, a nonprofit offering both catering services and food education.

Over the years, it has launched a number of outreach and educational initiatives, including Tatanka Truck (a food truck that reopens this summer) and North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems (natifs). The latter works to reestablish Native foodways and thereby improve the health and economies of Native communities.

The issue is very close to the heart of its founders. Thompson is a lineal descendent of two Dakota tribes, and Sherman is a member of the Oglala Lakota Nation.

“I grew up on Pine Ridge Reservation [in South Dakota] where we had immense unemployment. We had no restaurants, and we had one grocery store to service [an area] the size of Connecticut,” Sherman says. “There’s a lot of work that needs to be done. Nutritional access and education around these pieces is probably our biggest goal.”

Nancy Bundt

Owamni by The Sioux Chef

NATIFS also operates the Indigenous Food Lab—a professional kitchen that trains participants in creating and operating an F&B enterprise centered around Native cuisine. The lab also has a synergistic relationship with the restaurant. Owamni staff have used its kitchen to develop recipes and perfect prep methods. On the flip side, students at the food lab can visit the restaurant to see the teachings in action.

“We’re trying to support and develop more Indigenous entrepreneurs, especially food workers and people in the industry to just get more of them out there,” Sherman says.

Although the food lab has only been in operation two years, Sherman and Thompson are already exploring the possibility of opening extensions in Anchorage, Alaska; Bozeman, Montana; Rapid City, South Dakota; and Chicago.

As for Owamni, the pair hope its success will spawn more Indigenous restaurants. The timing could be right, too. Sherman says he’s already started to see more Native restaurants bubbling up around the country, including Nātv in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Wahpepah’s Kitchen in Oakland, California, and Cafe Ohlone in nearby Berkeley.

“I feel like Owamni is a good role model,” Sherman says. “It’s a proof of concept that we can have a restaurant that’s focused on de-colonizing and pushing back against colonial history and really showcasing an Indigenous perspective to the land, the food, and doing it in a manner that is positive and speaks through food.”

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