As the US looks to its indigenous communities to inspire the future of dining, the Sioux Chef is set to open Owamni, the first ‘decolonised restaurant’ in Minnesota. Olivia Palamountain reports

Sean Sherman (aka The Sioux Chef) and his life-and-work partner Dana Thompson are set to open Owamni, a Native American restaurant located on the Minneapolis riverfront in an abandoned mill.

The name Owámni means “falling water” in the Dakota language, an apt choice for a restaurant on the banks of the Mississppi.

Located within Water Works Park, an ambitious project that will transform the space between the Stone Arch Bridge and the Hennepin Avenue Bridge into several public spaces, Owamni will be the first year-round restaurant partner of the Minneapolis Parks Foundation.

Seating 150 with 65 covers indoors, when it opens later this year Owamni will take the title of “the first completely decolonised dine-in/take-out restaurant in Minnesota,” states the restaurant’s Instagram page.

“The Western culinary diet has never really taken the time to learn this vast amount of botany around us and all these plants that are so giving to us,” Sherman told WBUR in October. “So if you look at the world through an Indigenous lens, you’re going to see so much food and medicine and shelter and crafting in just the plant life around you.”

Sherman’s efforts focus on “showcasing the amazing bounty of the diversity that we have, both culturally and culinarily, across North America,” looking to the land and the people that have inhabited it to guide his recipes.

He works with local farmers and foragers, and takes inspiration from Native agriculture techniques to promote a seasonal, community-based food model.

The chef and campaigner has also devoted himself to bringing indigenous foods to wider attention under his umbrella brand NāTIFS (North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems), an organisation dedicated to addressing the economic and health crises affecting Native communities by re-establishing Native foodways.

NāTIFS is launching and operating a host of initiatives to support its cause, from lectures and fundraisers to an Indigenous Food Lab, “a restaurant, education and training center that will serve as the heart of NATIFS work establishing a new indigenous food system that reintegrates Native Foods and Indigenous focussed Education into tribal communities across North America”.

Opened in 2020, MSP Mag reports that the lab encompasses all sorts including “a store where you can buy Indigenous foods like heirloom hominy and Sioux Chef-branded foods; a commissary kitchen providing Owamni with things like berry sauce; a consumer-facing tea counter for native teas made with ingredients like cranberry, sumac and cedar; a prep space for donated meals for food shelves and other sites where indigenous foods are wanted for hungry people; a training space for a new generation of chefs, visiting chefs, and people with tribal knowledge to teach the Indigenous Food Lab crew; and more.”

Owamni is not the only restaurant flying the flag for indigenous cuisine. A raft of new initiatives are springing up to elevate and amplify Indigenous cooking, preserving a rich cultural heritage in the process.

According to Wunderman + Thompson, the culinary industry has begun to make a conscious effort to support indigenous and minority chefs.

“In January 2021, the James Beard Foundation announced a new grant initiative for Black and indigenous owned food and drink businesses. The initiative is part of the organisation’s Open For Good campaign, which launched in April 2020 in an effort to rebuild an independent restaurant industry that is more equitable, sustainable and resilient post-pandemic,” reports the trend forecasting agency.

Indigenous chefs are bringing their families’ generations-old recipes to new audiences, garnering rising recognition on a global stage.

Mariah Gladstone, who runs the indigenous cooking show Indigikitchen, was featured on The Today Show in January 2021, and the BBC featured Algonquin First Nation chef Marie-Cecile Nottaway the same month.

“Beyond physical health, indigenous cuisine is important because it demonstrates the wisdom of our ancestors, connects us with our environment, and reminds us of our resilience,” Gladstone told Wunderman Thompson Intelligence.

“What’s really come to light, because of Covid, is our vulnerability and over-reliance on over-processed and commercial foods,” Sherman told Eater. “And it really strengthens our argument: The understanding of indigenous food systems is the understanding of how regional food systems work, and I really believe that’s where we need to be moving toward in the future.”

An early recognised pioneer of Indigenous cuisine is Jock Zonfrillo, a Scottish born chef who found fame in Australia with his visionary Restaurant Orana in Adelaide.

Now permanently closed (the restaurant was a casualty of the coronavirus lockdowns), Orana highlighted indigenous ingredients to showcase Australia’s modern gastronomic identity.

Jock worked with community Elders to give their culture a voice through food – dining at Orana was conceived as an insight into those shared learnings.

The FT writes that “Orana was Restaurant of the Year in Australia’s Good Food Guide Awards in October 2019 when it was also awarded the top-ranking ‘three hats’ billing; it was also Gourmet Traveller restaurant of 2018. And in 2017, The Australian magazine named Zonfrillo the country’s hottest chef.

“But the gong he’s proudest to have received is the Basque Culinary World Prize, made annually to the chef doing the most to improve the world through gastronomy,” it says.

What’s coming next? Trend reports available to download HERE