In the past decade, there has been a resurgence of newly-opened restaurants devoted to empowering Native cuisine and communities. Since opening in October 2021, Sioux Chef’s Owamni has been booked for months. From collectives like I-Collective and The Sioux Chef to individual cooks and activists, the next generation of Indigenous food leaders are committed to celebrating the cultural history of their roots—and paving new futures for Indigenous cuisine.
Owamni’s menu is ‘decolonized’, highlighting ingredients that have been native to the continent prior to European colonialism: game, corn and squash, wild plants. Chef Dana Thompson describes the restaurant’s sourcing priorities as Indigenous first, then local, then organic. Highlighted dishes include cedar-braised bison, leek, and amaranth tacos with corn tortillas, grilled root vegetables in dandelion pesto, and for dessert–forest berries and walnuts. Beverages are largely non-alcoholic, featuring a range of ingredients such as agave, black currant, sumac, birch, and single-origin coffees. 75% of staff members are Indigenous and the restaurant prioritizes storytelling as service.
Chef Sean Sherman (Oglala Lakota), is perhaps one of the earlier pioneers of the most recent movement. He founded the Sioux Chef as a catering business in Minneapolis/St. Paul in 2014, and has received multiple James Beard awards and the First Peoples Fund Fellowship. Since then, it has become a cooking and education-oriented organization with the mission of empowering Native techniques and ingredients. The Sioux Chef team (consisting of Dakota, Navajo, Northern Cheyenne, Oglala Lakota, Anishinaabe, and Wahpeton-Sisseton Dakota chefs including Owamni’s Dana Thompson) also co-founded the nonprofit North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems (NATIFS). A primary NATIFS project is Indigenous Food Lab, a soon to open tribally operated training center which provides Indigenous-focused culinary, nutrition, and kitchen management skills.
Other Indigenous chefs in the spotlight include another Minneapolis chef Brian Yazzie, who converted cultural center Gatherings Cafe into a site of direct food aid for elders during the pandemic. Gatherings Cafe has since opened to the public as a fast-casual concept featuring Minnesota wild rice, blue-corn waffles, and more. Matt Chandra and Ben Jacob’s Tocabe is another Indigenous fast-casual chain based in Colorado, which became a farmers market to support indigenous farmers as well. Ever since, Chandra and Jacob are looking to transition the Tocabe marketplace as a comprehensive Indigenous grocery store with produce, butchered meats and seafood, and to-go deli products. And to the Southwest in Albuquerque, New Mexico, chef-activist Andi Murphy runs Indian Pueblo Kitchen, which features a menu of traditional and contemporary Indigenous foods including “red chile stew, corn mush, Frito pies, wild rice, quinoa, and salmon” with Chef Ray Naranjo.
Many restaurants and food concepts operated by Indigenous chefs are also affiliated with museums, further cementing the connection to education. Examples include Chefs Richard Hetzler and Freddie Bitsoie’s Mitsitam Native Foods Cafe in the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian (D.C), and Potawatomi chef Loretta Barrett Oden’s newly opened Thirty Nine at the First Americans Museum (Oklahoma City).
For a list of Native-owned food companies, restaurants and catering companies curated by Andi Murphy, see here.