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Sioux Chef Top Chef Sean Sherman; Indigenous Chef Candace Stock

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Nancy Bundt

Today's Segments:

Sioux Chef Sean Sherman
Sean Sherman, known as the Sioux Chef, recently appeared as a judge on Top Chef for an episode focused on indigenous cuisine. Sherman has dedicated decades to promoting indigenous foods, expanding knowledge, and improving access to these traditional ingredients.

Indigenous Chef Candace Stock
Candace Stock, a self-described "Sean Sherman Fan Girl," has been inspired by Sherman's work. She is a Ho Chunk Winnebago chef who has cooked in various commercial and private kitchens, including for the Canadian Consulate and Bernbaum's. We explore her culinary journey, how Sherman's influence shaped her career, and how she uses food to foster relationships and cultural understanding.

Transcript of interview with Sean Sherman:

Ashley Thornberg

Let's talk about what it was like being on Top Chef because there's cooking for friends, there's cooking in a restaurant, and then there's competitive cooking and judging that's being filmed on TV. So talk about the atmosphere of what it was like to be in that situation.

Sean Sherman

You know, it was really interesting. It was in Milwaukee. It was at a warehouse just kind of on the outskirts of town.

It was, you know, pretty well out of the way and invite only, of course, and they're obviously very secretive about the whole show. So we weren't really able to talk about it much until the show comes out. And, you know, and it was just an interesting thing.

So I had actually never watched an episode of Top Chef because I just don't watch a lot of TV and they were kind of surprised by that, but I was like, well, it is what it is. And they're like, do you want to see some episodes? Like, no, I'm on it now.

So I guess I get the gist, but it was interesting. Yeah. Cause I, you know, and I, you know, just trying to follow the cues and being a guest chef was great.

And I was just having that opportunity to hit that mainstream crowd with a lot of the work that we do and this challenge that we gave to the chefs that were still in the mix of the show. And, you know, just really talking about paying homage to the land and the cultures and these really special ingredients. And we brought a ton of ingredients with us for them to choose from.

So we created a huge situation of plants and wild foods and games and things like that, that they were, they would be able to choose from. So it was fun to put it together.

Ashley Thornberg

Yeah. And how would you characterize the reaction of the competitors? Was anybody saying what? There's no gluten? What am I supposed to do?

Sean Sherman

Yeah. I think they did a pretty good job of showcasing some of the feelings of some of the chefs when they were presented this particular challenge, you know, and not using any dairy, flour, sugar, even citrus, you know, and just getting them to try to think about what are they going to do, you know? So it was, it's definitely challenging because it's definitely thinking way outside the box of, and it's of the, of what's normal for us, you know, because so much of our food systems are, are Eurocentric and it's really important to think about, like, you know, we're on this beautiful land space and, you know, the Eurocentric diet has kind of pretty much ignored the amazing bounty of flavors and cultures that still exist here across North America. So I think it was a really fun challenge to present to this team and, and to do it on this really gigantic national and international platform too.

Ashley Thornberg

Yeah, it is a big platform and it's a different platform too. Unlike things like the James Beard award where people who are really engaged with food are going to be paying attention. You might get someone who's just a little bit more casual of a cook or even someone who's just watching TV for the sake of watching TV.

And you have such a very different approach to food, specifically in contrast to what you mentioned earlier, this very Eurocentric diet that can be real heavy in things like gluten and dairy, things that you worked really hard to take out of your diet. What did you notice about your health or your sleep patterns or what have you when you first really started to re-indigenize your diet?

Sean Sherman

I just think like the North American indigenous diet is just so healthy, you know, because obviously if anybody's had food at the restaurant Awamini in Minneapolis that we opened up three years ago, that is just completely different because there's no gluten, no dairy, no processed cane sugar, no beef, pork, chicken, you know, no ranch dressing, no sodas, you know, so there's all these things that don't exist, but we have so much more because there's so much wild plants that are on the menu, so many different kinds of proteins, whether it's like elk or venison or bison or rabbit or crickets or lake fish or birds or whatever it might be like, there's a lot to choose from, you know, and I feel like, you know, you do really feel really, really good when you leave and because you can eat a lot there and you can feel full, but when you leave, like it doesn't weigh you down. It doesn't make like you feel like your body hates you like you just ate an 8,000 calorie hamburger, you know, and so like it's a really important way to look at it and I think as restauranteurs, we should be a lot more responsible with the health of our guests and really thinking about what we're feeding them and obviously where our food comes from because a big part of our work is trying to support indigenous producers, which we prioritize, so we try to purchase as much as we can from indigenous producers first because it wouldn't make it, it wouldn't mean the same thing if we were saying we're doing Native American food but then buying everything from Cisco or something, you know.

Ashley Thornberg

Yeah, sourcing ingredients like this can get very difficult. Tell us, Sean, about this other effort that you have started, NATIFS, the North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems.

Sean Sherman

Yeah, we're working really hard with NATIFS. We have a space in Midtown Global Market in South Minneapolis called Indigenous Food Lab where we have a Native market space that's open to the public. People can go there.

You can get a light lunch there too and it's not too expensive, but we have a whole bunch of products that people can purchase to take home to cook with from Native producers, so we're, we have close to 50 different Native producers on our shelves right now and that list keeps growing and people can also order that online so it can be shipped to you, so if you want some different kinds of wild rice or different kinds of corns or beans or just some fun products, you know, there's some beef jerkies, there's some baby foods, there's all sorts of stuff coming from Native producers that we're just featuring, but we're also working on making that into some kind of distribution because we want to get that, those products directly into tribal communities, so we're setting up systems to get these foods directly into tribal communities because here in Minnesota, obviously we have 11 federally recognized tribes and we're trying to get this food directly out there and we're also tagging a lot of education, so we're recording a lot of videos for people.

What do you do if you have a couple pounds of dried corn? How do you cook with it? How can you use it at home?

And so we're making lots of easy to follow video recipes for people to do that and we just have a big production kitchen that makes a lot of products and even the restaurant's a part of our non-profit because the restaurant creates jobs, the restaurant moves a lot of food product, so we're just pushing a lot of money directly towards those producers and it just becomes a really loud voice for people to come and learn and experience and we're getting ready to replicate this whole model, so we're moving into Montana this year and setting up a whole other regional center point for support for development and for just trying to get more and more food distribution out there and making this food accessible and beyond that we're moving all over North America.

Ashley Thornberg

Yeah, so what does being on a show like Top Chef mean for the movement that you have been so passionate about and been spearheading for so long?

Sean Sherman

It just helps us with a bigger platform, so we're able to really showcase, have a louder voice to reach a whole bunch of audience that might not know much about our work and might get curious and start to research and find out more information and maybe even support, you know, because we are a non-profit so we're always looking for people to help us move into this next generation as we're trying to just get more foods out there because we're really trying to build a system for the future and we're trying to build something that doesn't exist, you know, and I just want to change the way things were when I grew up on Pioneers Reservation where we didn't have access to healthy foods. We had one grocery store that serviced an area the size of Connecticut and, you know, we were always growing up with primarily government commodity foods that were very unhealthy and there's a lot of health epidemic on communities like where I grew up because of that food system.

Ashley Thornberg

Sean, I want to ask you about being on the show and that educational piece because, of course, people watching the show, they're kind of there for escapism and entertainment value, but more than just talking about the ingredients and how they may or may not be different and the health impacts of our food choices, did you get to talk about that other educational piece of building these systems and trying to make this a little bit more of a nationwide effort when you were on Top Chef?

Sean Sherman

Yeah, and we did our best to explain. We had a moment where we got to sit down with the chefs and we presented them. So with my friend, Elena Terry, who's a Ho-Chunk from Wisconsin, and we got to sit down with all the different chefs on Top Chef that were still there and have a dinner and be able to talk over a lot of questions about things.

And we did get to explain a lot, but of course, the show is heavily edited. So in the end product, we get so much of the storytelling and that's really up to their editors. But we did our best to make sure that we were talking about real things because we do want to use this as an opportunity to help educate and help bring some curiosity of things.

And food is a safe place because food can open up a lot of curiosity about other cultures and understanding. And there's a lot to learn because if you grew up in America, you really don't know much about indigenous history, if even American history. And I think it's really important for us to learn those things.

Ashley Thornberg

Cooking for TV, did you find that you had to be sort of performative or did you get to be just you?

Sean Sherman

I felt like I was able to be just me for the time being. And it was definitely a transition because I haven't done those kinds of shows before. I don't know if I would change anything.

I think I might just have a little bit more confidence of speaking up because there weren't really any cues. They weren't like, what do you think, Sean? Or something.

I just had to figure out how to put myself into the conversation, which I figured out over time throughout the recording of the show. But it was just two days of recording and I felt like it was a great opportunity. So I'm just really happy that they included us and included this really unique challenge that you don't often see on national TV.

Ashley Thornberg

Yeah. So often I hear in conversations about indigenous food, this stressing of the relationship. And you said it earlier when you said paying homage to the land and paying homage even to the food.

What is a word like relationship mean to you? And then specifically, what is your relationship to food and to land?

Sean Sherman

Well, I think if you're looking at how indigenous cultures had survived for countless generations, there was a deep relationship with the world around us, with the plants, with the animals, with just the way the world worked, with the seasons, with everything. And I think that we've lost that because of colonial values, we've really fallen really away from learning about the world that we live in. Particularly, we don't learn about any of the plants around us or the trees around us.

I always tease in a lot of the talks that I do that kids can name more Kardashians than they can tree species, because that's our education system. And we need to really focus on learning as much as we can from this really valuable knowledge base of indigenous peoples, not just here in America, but on a global scale, whose cultures have also been dismantled by colonial histories. And we just really need to think about how can we learn to be better humans by connecting with the world around us better, because we live on this planet, and we should be taking care of this planet.

And there's so much life that the world can give to us, because plants are everything, it's food, it's medicine, it's crafting, it's clothing, it's lodging, it's tools, it's weapons, it's art, it's all sorts of things. So we should be really looking at how can we live with this nature instead of trying to live above it.

Ashley Thornberg

Mm hmm. I'm wondering, Sean, if you could take us back to your time as a surveyor for the Forest Service and the amount of time that you got to spend in nature and how that ended up influencing as well your approach to food.

Sean Sherman

Well, that was a really important job for me because I'd already been working in restaurants for a little while. And then I was living in the northern Black Hills. That's where I finished high school.

I was in a little town called Spearfish. And I got a job with the Forest Service right out of high school. And my job was a field surveyor.

So I had to learn the names of all the plants and trees because I had to go out there in the forest and write them down and do these little surveys. And I'd spent a lot of time growing up outside anyways, because as Gen X, we were all latchkey. And our parents' version of parenting was just stay outside until dark.

So we spent a lot of time outside, you know. And so I think it's really important to be connected like that and to have that moment of education to start to learn about all these plants and animals around us. You know, I think it's really valuable.

And I think that we should do that more. And we're trying to do that with a lot of the education we're creating at Natives.

Ashley Thornberg

Yeah. And I imagine you can name more trees than Kardashians.

Sean Sherman

I can. I don't think I could name a Kardashian.

Ashley Thornberg

Well, it is May in the Northern Great Plains. And so much of that paying attention to nature is eating seasonally. There is a time and a place to be eating fiddlehead ferns and morels.

And it's not necessarily the time when you're going to be eating some of the heavier, more comfort kind of winter foods. So, Sean, what are you eating right now?

Sean Sherman

Oh, you know, I've been just excited to be outside. I've been eating a lot of fruit. Because everything is popping up, you know, so we've collected ramps.

We've collected wild ginger. Obviously, the morels are out. We keep finding random ones here and there.

And I love this time of year because everything's just, you know, starting to blossom and it fills out so fast. All of a sudden, it's just so green, you know, and I just think it's a really exciting time. So we're just playing.

But I love food, you know, so I just love eating whatever is fresh. I have a ton of edible things in my own backyard that I'll just grab as needed. And I think it's important to have that knowledge and to be able to just make that a part of your daily life as much as you can.

Ashley Thornberg

Sean, I've been to your restaurant once in the cities and I'm very much looking forward to my next trip to the cities to make a visit to Uomni. And in addition to the food being utterly delicious and incredibly satisfying to eat, I couldn't help but notice that everyone who worked there seemed genuinely happy to be working there. And I don't feel like you get that very often when you go out to eat.

Was that something that came organically or did you really go out of your way to hire specific people to represent the movement that you are doing?

Sean Sherman

I would say that, you know, I love our team over at Uomni. I think that we put a lot of effort into the training and the development so they can articulate because the front of the house, especially, they have to be able to talk and educate a lot of people about this different set of food that's unfortunately not normal out there, you know. And so I think that they're very proud of it because a lot of our staff identifies as indigenous, you know, and we have 100 employees throughout the year there and that number grows to up to 150 in the summertime when we're really busy.

And, you know, probably up to 70 percent of our staff identifies as indigenous, so this work means a lot to them, you know, and they're very happy to talk about it, you know. And we've hired a lot of people from Native communities and Native families that are really excited to do something that really represents their own culture. And I think that's a big part of it, too, is just that, you know, it just gives us this opportunity to be really proud of these foods, to be really proud of the creativity that the team is putting there and the creations that the chefs and his team makes.

And, you know, so I think that it's a really unique restaurant for that particular situation.

Ashley Thornberg

I want to go back to something that you said earlier when you were talking about chefs needing to be mindful of the health consequences of our diets and the health opportunities of our diets. Can you expand a little bit more on that, what the responsibility that you feel, beyond just being good to the ingredients, being good to the people who come in and eat at Owamni or who visit the Indigenous Food Lab at Midtown?

Sean Sherman

Yeah, of course. I mean, I feel like restaurants, you know, they're privileged, you know, so that's they're not not everybody can afford to go out to eat all the time, number one. And, you know, I know that restaurants don't really help with food security or food, food access or things like that, because there's a large expense that goes along with that, you know.

And, you know, so people that do go out, they like to see some creativity. They like to eat delicious food, of course, you know, and there's just so much mediocrity out there. There's so often because I travel so much and I'm in restaurants a lot and I feel like I could write the menu all the time when I walk into a lot of restaurants because it's always just keyword cafes, you know, it's just like buffalo cauliflower and some kind of burger with all these things on it.

And, you know, there's always a ubiquitous Caesar salad on the menu and just things that like there's just lack of creativity. But people are just doing greatest hits because they want restaurants. They want people to buy as much food as they can.

Right. And I get it. They're business choices.

But I feel like I just you know, I just wish people would be more conscious of like, who are you purchasing from? Like, are you just buying everything from a big box truck? Can you support local producers?

You know, can you support local producers that don't have a lot of privilege, too? So we try to focus on a lot of BIPOC producers because obviously indigenous producers first, but we just want there's some producers that just have a lot more money that can afford, you know, the organic labels and have bigger distributions and take up all the space, you know, and, you know, so we just really want to help out. But we should be keeping our food dollars within our own community and not just sending everything off to giant corporations, you know, because we're just buying all your food from a Walmart.

Then who are you really supporting? And so I think it's really important to be really considerate and really intentional along the way. And as a restaurateur, we try to really create some strong values and some strong, you know, intentions as we move forward just to open up some conversations about that, but just know that we're doing something good.

Ashley Thornberg

Do you ever think about what you're doing in terms of legacy? I mean, that almost feels like such a shallow word when you think about all of the elements that you are trying to do and how they feel so much more. They're not about you.

They're about the food. They're about everyone who comes after you. They're about the earth.

But do you ever think about what you're doing in terms of legacy?

Sean Sherman

So I feel like I've found this path. I think this path found me possibly. But I see this vision of being able to be impactful and to hopefully make some changes and to really set up the next generation for success.

And you're right that this has nothing to do with me because I could just go the route of celebrity chef and take a bunch of endorsements and make a ton of money and make it about me. But it's not. I have this unique opportunity to change the way things were where I grew up, because growing up on a reservation, you're still living in a colonized, segregated state.

You know, it's very racist, you know, just because of how it's set up and how it's removed from other communities. And there's a lot of issues there. There's a lot of lack of food access still going on out there.

And I just want to change the way people think about that. So I feel like I only have X amount of good working years in my life to even do something impactful and make a change. So I don't know if you want to call it legacy work or what it is.

But for me, it's just the path that I'm on. And I feel like we've come so far and we've created a lot and we've got many awards and many accolades. But again, it's not about me.

And I feel like I'm just taking my first steps. I feel like we're just starting because there's so much to change. And it's just, you know, it's unfortunate that a restaurant like a WAMNI is so rare, like most cities have no choices for Native American foods, you know.

And I want the next generation when they go out to be like, I don't know what I want tonight. Do I want pizza? Do I want Chinese or Native American?

And I just want us to be on the list, you know.

Ashley Thornberg

Yeah. You do get to travel. And of course, eating indigenous, you know, among the Maori people in what is now New Zealand would be very different from eating among the Oglala Lakota and be very different among eating among the Quechua people.

Are you hopeful about this as a global reckoning?

Sean Sherman

Absolutely. You know, because our work is really focused on kind of deconstructing colonization, and which is why we use the term decolonize, because we look at the values that colonization has brought, which was a rampant destruction of environment, pulling out natural resources, making some people very rich, you know, and some people very poor, a lot of dehumanization and violence against people of color, particularly and especially the peoples of the places that colonization is coming into effect, right? Because colonization is just the policy or practice of acquiring full or partial political control over another country, occupying with settlers and then exploiting it economically. And so we see that happening not just here in North America with Native Americans, but it's a global situation because it's happened across the globe, North America, Central America, South America, Africa, India, Southeast Asia, Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii, and it goes on, you know, and there's so many indigenous cultures and to truly understand indigeneity, indigenous cultures around the world, it's really understanding diversity, you know, so it's learning how to embrace those diversities, learning how to listen to indigenous peoples who have really been connected with the land spaces that they're from and that they live on and the traditions and the connection with the plants and how the plants can really help us moving forward because we're going through a lot of crisis coming up with climate change, with water crisis, and we have to figure out ways to adapt and learn and work with the earth and there's no better way than to listen to indigenous peoples who have learned how to be adaptable, who have learned how to really connect with the plants and the soils and the seasons, and we have a lot of work to do, you know, to dismantle something that's too normal in our lifestyle of just allowing so much destruction and violence across the world happen on a daily basis.

NOTE: Main Street uses turboscribe.ai to create transcriptions of interviews, and there could be errors in the transcript. The audio of Main Street is the official record of the show.