How Owamni Became America’s Best New Restaurant
In the summer of 2021, Sean Sherman, a forty-eight-year-old Oglala Lakota chef, opened a restaurant called Owamni, in Minneapolis. Almost overnight, it became the most prominent example of Native American cuisine in the United States. Each dish is prepared without wheat flour, dairy products, cane sugar, black pepper or any other ingredients introduced to this continent after the arrival of Europeans. Sherman describes the food as “decolonized”; her business partner and co-owner of Owamni, Dana Thompson, calls her “ironically alien.” In June, the James Beard Foundation named Owamni the best new restaurant in the United States.
One evening in May, I met Sherman outside of Owamni, which is located in a park on the Mississippi River. Across the street, water dropped fifty feet into the Saint-Antoine Falls. The area was once the site of a Dakota village known as Owamniyomni, the place of falling and swirling water. Sherman pulled out his phone and showed me an 18th-century drawing of tepees at the edge of the falls. “There was clearly a village here. People everywhere,” he said. “But the Europeans were, like, ‘Your name is St. Anthony now!’ ”
Inside, the dining room was flooded with light from a wall of windows. A bartender named Thor Bearstail delivered glasses of red wine. (Owamni breaks his decolonized rule with drinks, serving coffee, beer and wine.) Bearstail, like the rest of the staff, wore a black T-shirt that read “#86colonialism” on the back. Eighty-six, in kitchen slang, indicates that a dish is sold out. A month earlier, Bearstail, a member of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation in North Dakota, had moved from Fargo to Minneapolis to work at Owamni. His previous job was in a Red Lobster. “Sometimes I have to pinch myself,” he said.
American carnivores tend to think in terms of beef, pork and chicken. Owamni reminds them that the farm animals in the picture books are not native to this continent. My first plate was raw venison, or “game tartare,” listed in a menu section titled “Wamakhaskan,” the Dakota word for animal. The dish was a study in circles: the meat pressed flat and sprinkled with marinated carrots, moons of sumac-dusted duck egg aioli, micro greens and blueberries. A blue corn tostada served as the utensil. One bite was a disco ball in the forest.
Other Wamakhaskan dishes were served: a duck sausage puck, with mashed watercress and roasted turnips; ground elk, served on a chewy corn arepa; and a mixture of cricket and seeds with maple and chilli. “We go through fifteen pounds of crickets a week,” Sherman said. He’s stoutly built, with big black eyes, and he wore a black chef’s jacket, an Apple watch, and a bear-tooth necklace; her hair hung in a braid down to her waist. “It’s a lot,” he said. “Crickets don’t weigh that much.”
The gastronomy touted by chefs over the past two decades is, Sherman often says, the way Indigenous peoples have eaten for millennia. The ingredients are local, seasonal, organic. The traditional preservation methods that Owamni offers – smoking, fermentation, drying – are aware. But the restaurant does not offer museum meals; the food is both pre-colonial and modern. There are maple baked beans and cedar braised bison with maple vinegar. Wojape, a Lakota berry sauce, is served with a tepary bean spread and Lake Superior smoked trout. A bowl of charcoal-striped sweet potatoes, drizzled with chili oil, is Sherman’s favorite dish. “It’s so intimate,” he said. “I ate mostly plant-based last year, so this was my favorite.”
I ordered a bowl of manoomin, a hand harvested wild rice. The only place in the world where the manoomin grows is around the Great Lakes. This is part of the origin story of the Ojibwe people, who migrated inland from the east coast centuries ago, following a prophecy to travel west until they found “the food that grows on water. Manoomin is harvested from a canoe, its grains hitting the heads of rice stalks that grow in the shallow waters. Winona LaDuke, an Ojibwe activist, wrote that manoomin is “the first food for a child when he can eat solids; the last food eaten before passing into the spirit world.
At Owamni’s it was chewy and a bit chewy, with a sweet, earthy aroma. I could almost smell the lake. Sherman sources as much Owamni food as he can from indigenous producers. The rice comes from a young Ojibway couple who own a small farm in northern Minnesota. “I had them drop off seven hundred pounds of rice the other day,” he said. “Just stuffed in their car.”
Around 7 pm, two men and a woman, all with little wires behind their ears, paraded through the dining room. Behind them was a familiar face: Deb Haaland, the US Secretary of the Interior and the first Native American cabinet member in US history. She was dining with Minnesota Lieutenant Governor Peggy Flanagan, a member of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe and a regular at Owamni. (“I want to think it’s like my Cheers,” Flanagan told me.) Sherman said hello to the secretary, then stopped by my table. “It’s wild,” he said. “She’s eighth in line for the presidency.”
About two-thirds of Owamni’s staff identify as Indigenous, as do many of its guests. Novelist Louise Erdrich, who owns a bookstore in Minneapolis, is a frequent visitor. Several cast members of the FX series “Reservation Dogs” ate at Owamni last summer, including the show’s star D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai, who was accompanied by model Quannah Chasinghorse. As I left, I passed colorful bouquets of wildflowers on the long bar facing the open kitchen. A neon sign at the entrance reads “You are on native land”. Outside, Sherman demonstrated a set of fire pits to light and noted that the surrounding park catches rainwater. Nearby, the ruins of the Columbia flour mill were lit in amber light. When I noticed all this, Sherman shrugged and said, “Different from the church basement, isn’t it?
I first met Sherman one freezing night in 2017, when he and Thompson hosted a dinner party at the First Universalist Church in Minneapolis. At the time, they were business partners and romantic partners. They ran the Sioux Chef, a food truck and catering business, which Owamni now owns. When I arrived, Thompson, a tall, lively woman, greeted me with cedar-maple tea. “It’s full of flavonoids!” she says.
The purpose of the dinner – a five-course meal prepared by Mr. Karlos Baca, an Indigenous food activist from the Southern Ute Nation – was to announce the launch of a non-profit organization called NATIVE, or North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems, which promotes culinary solutions to economic and health crises. About a hundred people were seated at folding tables. Between classes, Sherman gave a slide presentation. “Food is a language,” he said. “To understand Indigenous food today, you have to know how we got here.
For millennia, the indigenous peoples of what became North America cultivated high-yielding, climate-specific varieties of plants, including Jerusalem artichokes, lamb’s-quarters, squash, knotweed, and lamb’s-foot. goose. By the 13th century, domesticated corn and sunflowers had spread in a green and yellow blaze from Mexico to Maine. “We always have Hidatsa shield beans and Arikara wax beans,” Sherman told diners. “There’s a Lakota squash, the one that’s awesome with the orange flame, and gete okosomin,” a squash that looks like a lifeline, which Baca used for the soup class.
Native Americans hunted game such as bison, which roamed as far east as Buffalo, New York. They harvested fish and shellfish. Tribes in the Pacific Northwest and elsewhere used controlled burns, creating grasslands among redwood groves where desirable plants thrived and animals grazed. People everywhere were telling stories and singing songs about their food; in many indigenous languages, plants and animals are called people. “Our ancestors’ diet was almost a perfect diet,” Sherman continued. “That’s what the paleo diet wants to be: gluten-free, dairy-free, sugar-free.”