HomeHow Owamni Became the Best New Restaurant in the United States
How Owamni Became the Best New Restaurant in the United States
September 12, 2022
In the summer of 2021, Sean Sherman, a forty-eight-year-old Oglala Lakota chef, opened a restaurant called Owamni, in Minneapolis. Nearly overnight, it became the most prominent example of Indigenous American cuisine in the United States. Every dish is made without wheat flour, dairy, cane sugar, black pepper, or any other ingredient introduced to this continent after Europeans arrived. Sherman describes the food as “decolonized”; his business partner and Owamni’s co-owner, Dana Thompson, calls it “ironically foreign.” In June, the James Beard Foundation named Owamni the best new restaurant in the United States.
One evening in May, I met Sherman outside Owamni, which is situated in a park on the Mississippi River. Across the street, water plummeted fifty feet down St. Anthony Falls. The area was once the site of a Dakota village known as Owamniyomni—the place of falling, swirling water. Sherman pulled out his phone and showed me an eighteenth-century drawing depicting tepees on the shore of the falls. “There was clearly a village here. People everywhere,” he said. “But the Europeans were, like, ‘You are now called St. Anthony!’ ”
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 its decolonized rule with beverages, 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, who is 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 at 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 picture-book farm animals are not native to this continent. My first plate was raw deer, or “game tartare,” listed under a menu section titled “Wamakhaskan,” the Dakota word for animal. The dish was a study in circles: the meat pressed flat and dotted with pickled carrots, moons of sumac-dusted duck-egg aioli, microgreens, and blueberries. A blue-corn tostada served as a utensil. One bite was a disco ball in the 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.”
The gastronomy touted by auteur chefs during the past two decades is, Sherman often says, how Indigenous people ate for millennia. Ingredients are local, seasonal, organic. The traditional preservation methods that Owamni features—smoking, fermenting, drying—are au courant. But the restaurant does not provide a museum meal; the food is simultaneously 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 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 of manoomin, a hand-harvested wild rice. The only place in the world where manoomin grows is around the Great Lakes. It forms 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 the water.” Manoomin is harvested from a canoe, its grains knocked from the heads of rice stalks that grow in shallow waters. Winona LaDuke, an Ojibwe activist, wrote that manoomin is the “first food for a child when they can eat solid; the last food eaten before you pass into the spirit world.”
At Owamni, it was fluffy and a tad chewy, with a sweet, earthy aroma. I could almost smell the lake. Sherman sources as much of Owamni’s food as he can from Indigenous producers. The rice comes from a young Ojibwe 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 p.m., two men and a woman, all with little wires behind their ears, filed across the dining room. Behind them was a familiar face: Deb Haaland, the U.S. Secretary of 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 told me.) Sherman said hello to the Secretary, then stopped back by 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. The novelist Louise Erdrich, who owns a bookstore in Minneapolis, is a repeat visitor. Several cast members from the FX series “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. Leaving, I passed colorful bouquets of wildflowers placed 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 switch-on fire pits and noted that the surrounding park harvested rainwater. Next door, the ruins of the Columbia flour mill were lit in amber light. When I remarked on it all, Sherman shrugged, and said, “Different than the church basement, right?”
I first met Sherman on a freezing night in 2017, when he and Thompson hosted a dinner at the First Universalist Church of Minneapolis. Back then, they were business partners and romantic partners. They ran the Sioux Chef, a food truck and catering operation, which now owns Owamni. When I arrived, Thompson, a tall, animated woman, greeted me with cedar-maple tea. “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. Roughly a hundred people sat at folding tables. Between courses, Sherman delivered a slide presentation. “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. By the thirteenth century, domesticated maize and sunflowers had spread in a green-and-yellow blaze from Mexico to Maine. “We still have Hidatsa shield beans and Arikara yellow beans,” Sherman told the diners. “There’s a Lakota squash—the awesome one with the orange flame—and gete okosomin,” a squash that looks like a lifeguard buoy, which Baca used for the soup course.
Native Americans hunted game like bison, which roamed as far east as Buffalo, New York. They harvested fish and shellfish. Tribes in the Pacific Northwest and elsewhere employed controlled burns, creating meadows among redwood groves where desirable plants would thrive and animals would graze. Everywhere, the people told stories and sang songs about their food; in many Indigenous languages, plants and animals are referred to as 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.”