By Scott Mechura EBS Food Columnist
Most of us go about our lives and careers striving to do better. That may manifest itself in any number of ways. Maybe by creating and nurturing relationships. Or perhaps we study on our own, attend continuing education courses, or collaborate with others. All in hopes that we take away something valuable as well as make a meaningful contribution to a group or movement.
Then, just when you thought you were achieving real success, someone in your field comes along that is truly amazing and inspirational. For me, this person was Chef Sean Sherman, aka The Sioux Chef.
Born in Pine Ridge, South Dakota, Sherman has been cooking for more than 30 years. He has spent many years in both Montana and Minnesota.
He worked his way up through the ranks, but after several stressful chef positions, he burned out and decided to take a “self-prescribed sabbatical,” and relocated to the Pacific Coast of Mexico.
This was where he had his epiphany. He began to immerse himself in the culture of ingredients and dishes he would begin to refer to as pre-contact foods, or foods indigenous to the Americas pre-1492.
Sherman’s primary focus, from a culinary standpoint, is the revitalization of indigenous foods in relation to modern society.
As part of the civilization and religious cleansing Europeans felt was important in the New World, they also, knowingly or not, forever altered the way we eat.
So many foods that are consumed globally originated here in the Americas. Some noteworthy examples are squash, avocados, bison, turkey, pineapples, blueberries, cranberries, chili peppers, cotton, maize, potatoes, sunflowers, barley, chocolate, vanilla and maple.
As with any people that get conquered or assimilated into a dominant culture, indigenous foods are an essential piece of their identity.
I was fortunate to attend Chef Sherman’s presentation at Montana State University a couple weeks ago. He spoke for well over an hour, and with his easy demeanor and vast knowledge of the topic of his lecture, it felt like he could have gone on all night.
I also attended a dinner in honor of Sherman’s visit to Bozeman, also on the MSU campus, the following night. Many fellow chefs were there. We were all in agreement that it was important we attended, both to show our support for The Sioux Chef cause, but also because the work Sherman is doing is vitally important to the roots, so to speak, of what is native to our continent. For me, it felt like historically important continuing education.
When I put my chef hat on, I tend to combine ingredients in nontraditional ways. For many years I’ve maintained the philosophy that dishes can be their most exciting when foreign ingredients you generally would not associate together share the spotlight on a plate. In fact, one of the most talented and inspiring chefs I’ve ever worked with, like Marcus Samuelsson, believed that sometimes the best dishes were ones that brought non-indigenous methods and foods together.
I believe that part of what makes global cuisine what it is, is the fact that humans have been able to grow and spread throughout the world while taking their native foods with them.
Yet the integrity and passion for accurate history that The Sioux Chef works for every day cannot be overlooked—and his efforts should not go unnoticed.
Scott Mechura has spent a life in the hospitality industry. He is a former certified beer judge and currently the executive chef at Buck’s T-4 Lodge in Big Sky.