How Owamni Became the Best New Restaurant in the United States

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Sean Sherman, a forty-eight year-old Oglala Lakota chef opened Owamni restaurant in Minneapolis in the summer of 2021. It became the most popular example of Native American cuisine in America within a matter of hours. Every dish is made with no wheat flour, cane sugar, or black pepper. Sherman describes the food as “decolonized”; his business partner and Owamni’s co-owner, Dana Thompson, calls it “ironically foreign.”Owamni was named the best new restaurant in America by the James Beard Foundation in June.

Sherman and I met one evening in May outside Owamni. It is a park on Mississippi River. The water fell fifty feet down St. Anthony Falls from across the street. The area was once the site of a Dakota village known as Owamniyomni—the place of falling, swirling water. Sherman pulled out his smartphone and showed me an 18th century drawing showing tepees along the shore of Falls. “There was clearly a village here. People everywhere,”He said. “But the Europeans were, like, ‘You are now called St. Anthony!’ ”

The dining room was filled with light thanks to a wall of windows. Thor Bearstail, a bartender delivered glasses of red wines. (Owamni breaks its colonized rule with beverages, serving wine, beer, and coffee. Bearstail wore a T-shirt in black that read “Bearstail” like the rest. “#86colonialism”On the back. Eighty-six is kitchen slang for indicating that a dish has been sold out. Bearstail, a member of the Mandan Hidatsa and Arikara Nations in North Dakota, had moved from Fargo, Minnesota to work at Owamni a month earlier. His previous job was at Red Lobster. “Sometimes I have to pinch myself,”He said.

American carnivores tend not to think in terms other than beef, pork, or chicken. Owamni reminds them to remember that the continent is not home to picture-book farm animals. My first plate consisted of raw deer, or “game tartare,”These items are listed under the menu section titled “Wamakhaskan,”Dakota’s word meaning animal. The dish was a study of circles: the meat was flattened and dotted with pickled vegetables, moons in sumac-dusted duck egg aioli and microgreens. As a utensil, a blue-corn tostada was used. One bite was enough to satisfy the need for a disco ball in a forest.

Other wamakhaskan dishes were served: a puck of duck sausage, with watercress purée and roasted turnips; ground elk, served on a pillowy corn arepa; and a maple-chili cricket-and-seed mix. “We go through fifteen pounds of crickets a week,”Sherman said. He is solidly built, with big, dark eyes, and he wore a black chef’s jacket, an Apple watch, and a bear-tooth necklace; his hair hung in a braid to his waist. “It’s a lot,”He said. “Crickets don’t weigh that much.”

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“I’m going to go do some laundry, exercise, and shower.”

Cartoon by Jared Nangle

Sherman often refers back to the way that Indigenous people ate for millennia. This is Sherman’s gastronomy. Ingredients are seasonal, local, and organic. The traditional preservation methods that Owamni features—smoking, fermenting, drying—are au courant. The restaurant is not a museum, but it does offer a modern and pre-Colonial meal. Maple-baked beans and cedar-braised bison are available with maple vinegar. Wojape, a Lakota-berry sauce, is served alongside a tepary bean spread and smoked Lake Superior trout. A bowl of char-striped sweet potatoes, doused in chili oil, is Sherman’s favorite dish. “It’s so homey,”He said. “I was eating mostly plant-based last year, so that was my go-to.”

I ordered a bowl manoomin, which is wild rice that has been hand-harvested. The Great Lakes are the only place manoomin can grow. It is part of the origin story for the Ojibwe people who moved inland from the East Coast hundreds of years ago following a prophecy that they would travel west until they found it. “the food that grows on the water.”Manoomin is harvested by canoe from the heads of rice stalks that are shallowly adapted. Winona LaDuke, Ojibwe activist wrote that manoomin is: “first food for a child when they can eat solid; the last food eaten before you pass into the spirit world.”

It was light and fluffy at Owamni. It had a sweet, earthy smell. I could almost smell it. Sherman sources as much of Owamni’s food as he can from Indigenous producers. The rice was supplied by a young Ojibwe couple who run 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.”

Two men and a women, each with tiny wires behind their ears, walked across the dining room around 7 p.m. Behind them was a familiar face: Deb HALAND, the U.S. Secretary for the Interior and the first Native American Cabinet member in U.S. History. She was dining with Minnesota’s lieutenant governor, Peggy Flanagan, a member of the White Earth band of Ojibwe and an Owamni regular. (“I want to think it’s like my Cheers,”Flanagan said it to me. Sherman said hello to Flanagan, and then stopped at my table. “It’s wild,”He said. “She’s eighth in line for the Presidency.”

Some two-thirds of Owamni’s staff identifies as Native, as do many of its guests. Louise Erdrich is a regular visitor. She is a novelist and owns a Minneapolis bookstore. Many cast members of the FX series are here. “Reservation Dogs” ate at Owamni this past summer, including D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai, the show’s star, who was accompanied by the model Quannah Chasinghorse. I passed colorful bouquets filled with wildflowers that were placed on the long, open-air bar. An entrance neon sign reads: “You Are on Native Land.”Sherman demonstrated outside a series of switch-on firepits, and noted that the nearby park had rainwater harvesting. Next door, Sherman lit the ruins from Columbia’s flour mill in amber light. Sherman shrugged when I made a comment about it all and said, “Different than the church basement, right?”

Sherman and Thompson hosted an intimate dinner at the First Universalist Church of Minneapolis on a cold night in 2017. That was when I first met him. They were both business partners and romantic partners back then. They were the owners of Sioux Chef (a food truck and catering company) which is now Owamni. Thompson, a tall and animated woman, welcomed me with cedar maple tea when I arrived. “It’s full of flavonoids!”She said.

The purpose of the dinner—a five-course meal prepared by M. Karlos Baca, an Indigenous food activist from the Southern Ute Nation—was to announce the launch of a nonprofit called NATIFS, or North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems, which promotes culinary solutions to economic and health crises. A little over 100 people sat at folding tables. Sherman gave a slide presentation between courses. “Food is a language,”He said. “To understand Indigenous food today, you need to know how we got here.”

For millennia, Indigenous people across what became North America cultivated high-yield, climate-specific varieties of plants, including sunchokes, lamb’s-quarter, gourds, knotweed, and goosefoot. The thirteenth century saw the spread of domesticated sunflowers and maize from Mexico to Maine in a green-and–yellow blaze. “We still have Hidatsa shield beans and Arikara yellow beans,”Sherman explained to the diners. “There’s a Lakota squash—the awesome one with the orange flame—and gete okosomin,”Baca used a squash that resembles a lifeguard buoy for the soup course.

“After these rapids comes the really hard part—a bunch of guys we don’t know talking about crypto at the same time.”

Cartoon by Lars Kenseth

Native Americans hunted bison, which could be found as far east as Buffalo in New York. They also harvested fish and shellfish. Tribes from the Pacific Northwest and elsewhere used controlled burns to create meadows in redwood groves that would be suitable for plants and animals to graze. People shared stories and sang songs about their food all over the world. In many Indigenous languages, plants are called persons and animals are called persons. “The diet of our ancestors, it was almost a perfect diet,” Sherman went on. “It’s what the paleo diet wants to be: gluten-free, dairy-free, sugar-free.”

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