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Minneapolis chef partners with Spokane casino to highlight Native food

Photo by Doug Nadvornick/Spokane Public Radio
Brendan Neeson, Sean Sherman and Tanya Broesder take a break from preparing ingredients in the kitchen at Northern Quest.

"The Sioux Chef" and Northern Quest chefs cooked a special dinner to honor Native American Heritage Month.

Native American cuisine received the spotlight Thursday night at Northern Quest.

Sean Sherman, known as the Sioux Chef (he’s a South Dakota native from the Oglala Lakota Sioux nation), collaborated with Masselow chefs Tanya Broesder and Brendan Neeson to create what they called a Heritage Dinner to celebrate Native American Heritage Month.

“We have all sorts of stuff on the menu. There’s rabbit. There’s bison. There’s smoked trout,” said Sherman, whose Minneapolis restaurant Owamni specializes in Native American food.

As for Thursday’s special menu at Northern Quest, “We tried to focus on all the ingredients that we could get primarily from here,” he said.

He even brought a recipe from the upper Midwest. “There’s a squash dish. We use all native squash because we’ve got a lot of agriculture in our area, particularly. But a lot of it we just tried to focus on what is the flavor right here.”

Northern Quest, in its promotional materials, labels Sherman as a celebrity chef. The resort’s executive chef, Brendan Neeson, says he and his co-workers enjoyed working with him.

“They’re learning new ingredients. Not many of them think to braise bison with conifer leaves. They’re excited,” Neeson said. “We’ve had Sean’s book (“The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen”) here for the past few years, so we’ve seen some of his recipes. We’ve tried a few here and there on specials and so it’s good to have him here and show his process and how things are done. He was foraging this morning (Wednesday) for conifer leaves and white cedar root and stuff like that.”

Neeson says his team has also been out collecting ingredients for the feast.

“Chef Tanya was out last week. She was fishing for trout. She caught about 30 trout and we smoked them today,” he said. “She got some rose hip buds, tart and sweet, depending on the size. That will be part of a tea.”

Thursday’s heritage meal was one of several public events planned by Northern Quest during Native American Heritage Month. You can find a list at the resort’s website.

Northern Quest is a financial supporter of Spokane Public Radio.

Sherman’s Native food mission

Sean Sherman works to bring attention to Native foods and culinary traditions through his non-profit, North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems.

“We want to see tribal communities especially get these foods back into their communities. So we just try to make the food really simple and beautiful and clean,” he said.

“We cut out colonial ingredients of things that didn’t exist on these lands before. So we removed dairy, wheat flour, cane sugar and, typically, beef, pork and chicken, and just really focus on wild game, wild birds, all the fish and seafood, all the native agricultural products that are out there, all the wild foods that are out there and just really try to create dishes that really represent a particular region and culture,” he said.

During the Covid pandemic, Sherman says his non-profit was busy providing food for people who needed it.

“We were doing 10,000 meals a week, sending food to nine out of 11 tribes across Minnesota,” he said.

Sherman has become an influential voice in the culinary community. His book won the James Beard Award for Best American Cookbook in 2018. Owamni, which opened in 2021, won this year’s James Beard Award for Best New Restaurant. He says Owamni has gotten off to a good start, sold out every night since its opening.

Sherman hopes, someday, to see Native-themed bistros all over the country.

“We’ve seen a couple opening just in this last year and, hopefully, we’ll see more,” he said. “Because everywhere you go you’re on Native land and there’s Native history and all the history begins with Native history. So we just want to showcase that and then people can start to see all the amazing diversity that’s out there,” he said. “We shouldn’t be continuing to homogenize and try to assimilate everything. We should be focused on celebrating all this amazing diversity.”

Sherman’s non-profit developed a kitchen, the Indigenous Food Lab, that’s set up to help develop and support indigenous food entrepreneurs and food producers “or even tribes just wanting to have food operations within their community, creating a support center for that.”

He says he’s also working to develop a supply chain of businesses that grow and develop the specialty foods used in Native cooking.

“Even in Minneapolis, with just one restaurant and one non-profit kitchen, our purchasing power has gotten so big, so we’re able to spend tens of thousands of dollars on indigenous food products for all the pieces that we’re offering. We’re going to see that ramp up and we’re helping to create a demand that wasn’t really there and it’s going to help a lot of these indigenous food producers make a living doing something they believe in and keeping some of these food strains alive,” he said.

After Spokane, Sherman will be in Seattle for a Friday evening speaking engagement. He says he did a lot of traveling and speaking, pre-Covid pandemic, and is now getting back on the road, promoting Native foods and cuisine.

Hear Fresh Air’s interview with him.

One of the Northwest's most seasoned reporters is returning to his SPR roots. Doug Nadvornick will be heard frequently on KPBX and KSFC reporting on local news.