Chef Sean Sherman's unique culinary philosophy: The decolonized diet

He's one of the most celebrated chefs in Minnesota and is considered one of the world's leading voices in the food sovereignty movement. Through his award-winning restaurant, Sean Sherman showcases the benefits of a decolonized diet.

"It opens up a lot of doors for better understanding of indigenous peoples," Sherman remarks.

During the lunch rush at Owamni in downtown Minneapolis, Chef Sean Sherman is practicing his craft. The restaurant recently reopened after being closed for two months due to an electrical fire in the building, but its popularity picked right back up where it left off.

"It's summer season. We have the patio up and open. We have the food truck outside of everything, just firing and everything's moving and we're just back to being sold out every night," says Sherman.

Owamni focuses on indigenous food, flavor, and culture, with items like elk tacos, seaweed salad with smoked mussels, and even crickets on the menu. The restaurant avoids colonial ingredients that are not originally from the area, which means no dairy, wheat flour, cane sugar, beef, chicken, or pork.

"The flavors are just really clean because everything is not doused in butter and cream, you know, and you just taste all the food for what it is," comments Sherman.

Since opening two years ago, Owamni has drawn rave reviews and become a haven for Native American diners who often find the atmosphere an emotional experience.

"You can hear the music. It's like an envelope. It envelops you into our culture. It's a glimpse of it but for us it just feels so good. It's like coming home," a diner expresses.

That ambiance extends outside the restaurant as well, where ancient chants mix with the sounds of modern life.

"Starting to not just see weeds everywhere but to see where relationship and plants and everything has a purpose around us," states Sherman.

The landscape around Owamni is also dotted with native plants and flowers.

"These little berries. We use them in cooking quite a bit because it's kind of like juniper berries. These are red cedar is a juniper varietal. You can just smell that," shares Sherman.

Sherman says he became interested in learning about indigenous flora and fauna while working for the U.S. Forest Service after high school.

"Give a little bit of education and indigenous perspective and get people to think about the land they are standing on," he adds.

After getting burned out working as a chef in various Twin Cities restaurants, Sherman became a fan of the food made by the local indigenous community while living in Mexico. It made him question why he wasn't exploring the culinary roots of his own Oglala Lakota heritage.

"What were my ancestors eating? Were they harvesting? Were they growing things? Were they trading with other people? How are they preserving foods? What kind of cooking techniques were they utilizing?" he recalls wondering.

After returning to Minneapolis, Sherman opened a food truck and catering business, experimenting with his new approach. He also wrote a cookbook called "The Sioux Chef's Indigenous Kitchen," which won a James Beard Award in 2018. His success continued with Owamni, which also received a James Beard Award for Best New Restaurant last year.

"It's definitely resonating. We just believe that we should be able to find native restaurants in any city you go to," he affirms.

And the accolades keep coming. Sherman was named one of TIME magazine's 100 Most Influential People and just received the prestigious Julia Child Award. Earlier this month, Sherman's non-profit opened a market at his Indigenous Food Lab in Midtown Global Market, where people can find Native American ingredients to incorporate into their own cooking.

"The need for preserving and stewarding indigenous peoples' knowledge and foodways is immense because we've just gone through so many centuries of destruction and dismantling that we have to start to reverse that right now," he expresses.

And Sherman says he'll continue opening minds by tempting taste buds to preserve his people's past and bring it into the future.

"So for me, this is just an opportunity to be doing something that can be extremely impactful, that can actually change the way things are," he concludes.