Owamni made a momentous win at this evening’s James Beard Awards: The iconic, full-service Indigenous restaurant was named the best new restaurant of 2022. Co-owned by Dana Thompson and chef Sean Sherman, Owamni opened in summer 2021 to great acclaim; the award marks a tremendous moment not only for Thompson, Sherman, and their restaurant staff, but for Indigenous cuisine and traditional foodways.
“People of color everywhere have been affected by colonialism, and we just went through centuries of racist bullshit,” said Sherman in an acceptance speech at the Chicago ceremony. “This is showing that we can get through that, that we’re still here. Our people are here, our ancestors are proud tonight. We’re doing something different. We’re putting health on the table, we’re putting culture on the table, and we’re putting our stories on the table. We hope that one day we can find Native American restaurants in every single city.”
The best restaurant win isn’t chef Sean Sherman’s first nod from the Beard Foundation: He won awards for best American cookbook (The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen) in 2018 and for leadership in 2019. But it’s his first Beard win as a chef and restaurant owner. Owamni’s menu features only those foods that existed on North American soil before European settlers arrived. In place of beef and pork, flour, dairy, and white sugar are thoughtful compositions of Indigenous ingredients, like Cheyenne River bison tartare with duck egg aioli, grilled forest mushroom tacos made with heirloom corn tortillas, and wild rice sorbet. The restaurant sits in a white stone building on the banks of the Mississippi River not far from St. Anthony Falls — Owámniyomni in the Dakota language, a sacred place of peace and well-being.
“We were able to name the restaurant Owamni because of a book that my Dakota grandfather helped to write with his best friend Paul Durand,” said Thompson. “Where the Waters Gather and the Rivers Meet helped preserve the Indigenous names of so many important waterways in the Eastern Sioux. Our ancestors are here with us tonight — with our staff, with all of us, and in this theater. They’re with us every day in that restaurant.”
An Oglala Lakota chef from Pine Ridge, South Dakota, Sherman opened the Sioux Chef in the Twin Cities in 2014. He and Thompson, a descendant of the Wahpeton-Sisseton and Mdewakanton Dakota tribes, now co-own the business. A year later, he debuted the Tatanka Truck, which served modern Indigenous dishes from the Minnesota and Dakota territories, like bison tamales and smoked turkey wild rice bowls. Sherman eventually shuttered the food truck to channel energy toward founding the nonprofit North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems (NATIFS) with Thompson and opening Owamni, which got a momentous Kickstarter boost in 2016 and later received funding from the Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board and Minneapolis Parks Foundation. (The Tatanka Truck, happily, has since been resurrected.) NATIFS also operates the Indigenous Food Lab, which supports Native foodways access and education, in Minneapolis’s Midtown Global Market. All together, these efforts have helped establish Minnesota as a hub for Indigenous cuisine and traditional foodways.
This year’s James Beard Awards come on the heels of a two-year hiatus, the result of both the pandemic and a bitter reckoning with the awards’ integrity and historic lack of diversity. In response, the foundation ran an audit of its selection processes, formed an ethics committee, and diversified its voters and judges. The 2022 semifinalist list, Eater editors noted, appeared to easily be the most diverse in the awards’ history, though it was not without controversies.
Sherman was also nominated in the Best Chef: Midwest category, along with fellow Twin Cities 2022 finalists Yia Vang and Jorge Guzmán — all three lost to chef Dane Baldwin of Milwaukee. Vang parlayed his roving restaurant Union Hmong Kitchen, which celebrates Hmong cuisine and culture, into a permanent location this year. His forthcoming restaurant Vinai — an homage to his parents, who met in Ban Vinai refugee camp in Thailand — debuts as a restaurant residency this summer. Guzmán, former head chef at Surly Brewer’s Table, helped open Petite León in 2021. The restaurant’s menu plays to his roots in the Yucatán peninsula, with dishes like mole poblano duck confit and black garlic adobo steak bavette.
Many Twin Cities chefs have previously won in the Best Chef: Midwest category, as the Star Tribune reports: Tim McKee of La Belle Vie in 2009, Alex Roberts of Restaurant Alma in 2010, Isaac Becker of 112 Eatery in 2011, Paul Berglund of the Bachelor Farmer in 2016, Gavin Kaysen of Spoon and Stable in 2018, and Ann Kim of Young Joni in 2019. Chef Gavin Kaysen was named Rising Star Chef of the Year in 2008. Find a full list of the 2022 James Beard Award winners here.