The Interview: Chef Sean Chaney
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Chef Sean Chaney, the chef and owner of Hermosa Beach, Calif.'s Hot’s Kitchen, isn’t a household name, at least not yet, anyway. But he’s been in the news lately in a big way: he’s openly defying California’s ban on foie gras, serving up a burger with a "complimentary" side of the fattened duck or goose liver. The law was passed in 2004 and went into effect July 2012, and states that any restaurant that sells the product will face a fine of $1,000 per sale, per day. He’s skirting the law, however, by giving it away for free.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) filed a lawsuit in Los Angeles Superior Court back in November, claiming that Chaney was breaking the law. Chaney, who’s vehemently against the law, sued the State of California the following day, calling the law unconstitutionally vague, and they’ve been embroiled in battle ever since.
"I thought it was interesting that a group such as PETA would pick on a little mom-and-pop business operation," he told The Daily Meal. "The restaurant business is one they feel they can come and tell you how to run your business."
We chatted with Chaney about his feelings on the ban, and also asked him about his background and what he loves about the restaurant industry.
The Daily Meal: Why are you against the foie gras ban?
Chef Sean Chaney: I don't believe that we should be telling people what they can and can't eat. If you want to eat it, you should be able to eat it. And the ban doesn't say you can't eat it, it says you can't sell it. What's next? Chicken? Pork? "
TDM: What was your first restaurant industry job?
SC: You know, the funny thing is, when I started cooking, I started off just cooking privately for professional athletes, and then my first restaurant industry job? I owned the restaurant!
TDM: When you first walk into a restaurant, what do you look for as signs that it’s well-run, will be a good experience, etc.?
SC: The atmosphere, the attitude of the place, the vibe. If people are having a good time, that's a good sign.
TDM: Is there anything you absolutely hate cooking?
SC: I hate prepping all the time! Does that count? I do hate cooking some of the staples that you see on the menu all the time, some of the standards that we've had on our menu for a while... because I hate when people don't venture out and try something new, when they stick to the same old thing. People should try new things.
TDM: If one chef from history could prepare one dish for you, what would it be? And who?
SC: My grandmother’s potato latke.
TDM: What do you consider to be your biggest success as a chef?
SC: Opening our first restaurant, and staying open, and now opening our second and third. The favorite part of my job is being able to employ people, it’s definitely fulfilling.
TDM: What do you consider to be your biggest failure as a chef?
SC: I haven't had it yet!
TDM: What is the most transcendental dining experience you’ve ever had?
SC: I'm still looking for it!
TDM: Are there any foods you will never eat?
SC: I'll eat anything and everything. Well, cannibalism; I won't eat people.
TDM: Is there a story that, in your opinion, sums up how interesting the restaurant industry can be?
SC: It's different every day. It's not like going to work at an office every day where you see the same people.
Sean Sherman, The Sioux Chef: ‘This Is The Year To Rethink Thanksgiving’
Sean Sherman won a 2018 James Beard Award for his cookbook, “The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen ,” and a 2019 James Beard Leadership Award for his efforts toward the “revitalization and awareness of indigenous food systems in a modern culinary context.” In this Voices in Food story , as told to Julie Kendrick , Sherman discusses the harmful lie of the traditional Thanksgiving story and suggests that this year — maybe more than any other — is the right time to change our understanding of the past and reframe our thinking about what we’re eating on Thanksgiving Day.
On his geographical, cultural and culinary roots
I’m an enrolled tribal member of the Oglala Lakota Sioux, and I grew up on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, which is the poorest county, with the lowest life expectancy , in the United States. When I was 13, I started working at The Sluice restaurant in Spearfish, South Dakota, and I worked in restaurants throughout my teens and 20s. I got my first executive chef job, at a tapas restaurant in Minneapolis, when I was 27.
Eventually, I realized that I knew a lot about European cooking, but very little about how my own people hunted, gathered and prepared their food. That realization changed the focus of my life, and now I’m the founder and CEO of The Sioux Chef , an organization that focuses on decolonized regional foods and avoids precontact ingredients like dairy, wheat or processed cane sugar.
On the traditional Thanksgiving story
In reality, Thanksgiving has nothing to do with Native Americans and everything to do with the lies we’ve been told. Non-native people perpetuate the sanitized story of Thanksgiving, but it’s such a slap in the face of Indigenous people. This story of a peaceful feast among colonizers and tribes ignores centuries of land-grabbing and annihilation.
On why — and how — he celebrates the holiday
Just because I clearly see the lies that have been told to us for years, it doesn’t mean I can’t be hopeful for the present. I reject that false “pilgrims and Indians” narrative , but I do look at Thanksgiving as a day to appreciate what we have right in front of us, whatever that is. So much has happened this year, and so many people have suffered and are suffering. I hope we can all have a chance to be grateful for the people we love and the food we have.
“One thing this pandemic has taught us is how vulnerable we are to outside sources for our food and nutrition. . Indigenous communities had wonderful systems to utilize the things around them for food. . We can reclaim that resourcefulness.”
This is the year to rethink Thanksgiving. We can all acknowledge the true history of the land we’re on and honor the hardships endured by those who came before and allowed us to be where we are today. It’s definitely time for a change of focus, and I think there’s no better year to do that.
We’ve all been through so much, and maybe through everything we’ve already survived, and everything we’re worried lies ahead, we can create a new kind of celebration. We all need food and we all need love. Understanding food helps us understand people who may be different from us.
Why this Thanksgiving is different
One thing this pandemic has taught us is how vulnerable we are to outside sources for our food and nutrition. Most of us buy everything we eat, and we throw so much of it away and are so wasteful. Indigenous communities had wonderful systems to utilize the things around them for food, medicine, crafting, tools, clothing, artwork and lodging. They had the resourcefulness that comes from living so close to nature. We can reclaim that resourcefulness, especially now when there are so many good reasons to do so.
How to eat on Thanksgiving
We Americans love our comfort food, but there are better things to do on Thanksgiving than frying a turkey while you’re drinking beer all day. Especially in the middle of a global pandemic, we should be sharing healthy meals with the people we love.
“This is the year to rethink Thanksgiving. We can all acknowledge the true history of the land we’re on and honor the hardships endured by those who came before and allowed us to be where we are today.”
There are so many parts of our Thanksgiving menu that have an Indigenous American background, like corn, squash, wild turkey, wild rice and cranberries. Begin by showcasing those ingredients, especially if they’re part of your community-based food system.
My suggestion is to keep it simple — cook simple, eat simple. You don’t need to douse wild mushrooms in butter and cream, for example — you just need to cook them enough to let their taste shine through. Do your best to make your food taste more like where you are. When I’m cooking with things like walleye, cedar and rose hips, for example, I can stand on the shore of any lake in Minnesota and see all those ingredients around me.
On The Sioux Chef’s latest projects
My co-owner and co-founder, Dana Thompson, and I just opened the Indigenous Food Lab in Minneapolis’ Midtown Global Market . It’s a professional kitchen and training center for Indigenous food research, preparation and service. The lab shares ancestral wisdom and skills such as plant identification, gathering, cultivation and preparation of Indigenous ingredients. Our goal is eventually to replicate this model across North America as a way to empower Indigenous food businesses, because we believe that food is at the heart of cultural reclamation.
Our first restaurant, Owamni by The Sioux Chef , will open this spring as part of Water Works , a Mississippi Riverfront park project in Minneapolis. It will showcase real American food, the food that was eaten for thousands of generations before Europeans ever showed up, and all the wonderful diversity that Indigenous people bring to our country’s cuisine.
Sean Sherman and Dana Thompson
Sean Sherman, the Sioux Chef, and Dana Thompson, co-CEO and cofounder of all Sioux Chef enterprises
Up the limestone-dusted stairs, in one of the many abandoned riverfront mills that even today line some of the priciest core downtown real estate in Minneapolis, I found a window covered with construction cloth. “We found the millstone,” calls Dana Thompson, behind me. She’s explaining interesting tidbits about the city’s wildly ambitious Water Works construction project, transforming this space between the Stone Arch Bridge and the Hennepin Avenue Bridge into several public spaces including Owamni by the Sioux Chef, an Indigenous-foods restaurant coming this spring from the Sioux Chef team.
“We found train tracks,” she adds. They also found something the size of a bathtub that looks like a spiral screw. Whenever they found anything, archaeologists came to determine whether the found thing was valuable. The enormous rusting spiral screw was valuable enough to keep, yet valueless enough to keep outside in the rain on the plaza planted with indigenous edible and medicinal plants. This plaza is where folks will lunch after parking bikes or docking kayaks on the river docks. It will seat 150 the restaurant will seat 65 indoors. The whole thing will be familiar to anyone who lives in Minneapolis—Owamni will look almost exactly like the Mill City Museum, barrel vaults and limestone, pale stone reclaimed ruins, and spare. Owamni will follow the park pavilion model, like Sea Salt, giving a percentage of sales back to the city. Through a slit torn in the construction cloth, I peered out at St. Anthony Falls, the rest of the view blocked. For a moment, there was nothing but Mississippi falls and me—the enormity of the moment rose up, almost too much to take in.
In the year 1700, out that gap of window on the same river, I would have seen the people we now call Dakota and Lakota under the airplane-free sky, doing the things people do, watching little kids throw rocks in the water, eating lunch. What kind of lunch? Maybe roast duck, stewed river fish, smoked bison, grilled squash, ground corn.
St. Anthony Falls was a stairstep waterfall then, as magnificent as Niagara Falls, wrote old Father Louis Hennepin, when he came paddling in to put his name on everything. (Would the old friar be mad or glad or simply puzzled to find his name on the avenue that leaps past a landmark Grain Belt beer sign as it connects gay landmarks like the Gay 90’s and the Saloon to old Ukrainian Nordeast?) Come check this out, he wrote to the world: It’s beautiful, it’s powerful, we’ll call it St. Anthony Falls, actually.
“The islands in the river were really sacred,” explains Thompson, coming to stand with me and peer at the remaining islands. “Dakota women would travel hundreds of miles to have their babies. It was a place of peace, with eagles above, and was supposed to be lucky and create a good life for your child.” Thompson, who is Dakota from northern Minnesota, likely had great-great-grandmothers who gave birth by these falls.
Sean Sherman Is Decolonizing American Food
A chef and educator, Sean Sherman is one of North America’s loudest voices speaking to the challenges and opportunities within Indigenous food systems. Sherman and partner Dana Thompson co-founded the Sioux Chef, an organization that highlights Native American cuisine while documenting a “decolonized” diet, as Sherman, along with co-author Beth Dooley, did in the James Beard Award-winning cookbook The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen.
Sherman, who belongs to the Oglala Lakota tribe, grew up on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, where he learned firsthand the food security challenges Indigenous communities face in the United States. As he told the New York Times in 2019, his family’s Pine Ridge pantry was often stocked with government-issued rations that they sometimes supplemented with food foraged on the reservation. When he was a teenager, Sherman left Pine Ridge to take a kitchen job in a Minneapolis restaurant. Over the years, his vision evolved to focus on researching and introducing contemporary cuisine made with pre-colonial ingredients to diners around the country, and creating pathways to more nutritious and culturally appropriate foods to Indigenous communities across the U.S.
Sherman and his partners also operate the nonprofit North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems (NATIFS), which is working to establish a network of leaders in Indigenous farming and culinary communities. Prior to the pandemic, NATIFS and the Sioux Chef were in the process of opening a restaurant, education center, and commercial kitchen focused on providing healthy food to the community. The current health crisis has made that path more difficult, but it’s also made clear the need for a more resilient, accessible food system that helps prevent the types of preexisting conditions that make BIPOC communities more susceptible to diseases like COVID-19. “We want to help support more young Indigenous entrepreneurs as we grow,” Sherman says, “especially once we get past COVID, helping to see more Indigenous chefs to come out of the woodwork and follow their dreams.”
Eater spoke with Sherman about his vision for the future of food and how it fits within the larger context of a global health crisis and social uprisings in Minneapolis and beyond.
Eater: What do you see as the future of food, especially coming from an Indigenous communities and foodways perspective?
Sean Sherman: A lot of our work in the beginning was just raising awareness to what Indigenous foods are and why that’s important and relevant information to understand. Showcasing the amazing bounty of the diversity that we have, both culturally and culinarily, across North America in particular, is our main focus. So for us, it’s been quite a few years of networking, researching, and visiting all these different regions and seeing the amazing food culture that exists everywhere.
What’s really come to light, because of COVID, is our vulnerability and over-reliance on over-processed and commercial foods. And it really strengthens our argument: The understanding of Indigenous food systems is the understanding of how regional food systems work, and I really believe that’s where we need to be moving toward in the future.
We need community-based food systems. We need a lot more local community-based farming systems. We need better usage of our land. Our work is focused on the culinary aspect and developing a lot of education around that. So we’ll be using our commercial kitchen as a showcase for utilizing these healthy and regionally produced foods, and doing it for us, in a cultural way — focused on Indigenous cultures of where we are. But anybody can be learning from these systems.
What sorts of real, concrete change do you see happening in Indigenous communities looking forward five years? Do you have any vision for what could actually take place?
With Indigenous Food Lab, it’s the whole vision. We were originally going to open up the first unit of Indigenous Food Lab this year, with a restaurant, a commissary production kitchen, and a classroom area to teach Indigenous curriculum. Since COVID hit, we decided that we can’t really invest in a dine-in restaurant at this moment, but we’re moving ahead and opening up the educational and production side.
Here in Minneapolis, we’ve been the epicenter of all this social uprising our community member George Floyd was murdered just a few blocks from our kitchen. Our kitchen is on the main street all the buildings around us are completely razed to the ground. So there was a lot of community food insecurity happening, which is why we mobilized and started pushing out free meals every day. We’ve been pumping out two to 400 meals every single day this entire summer, and we’re looking at doing it through the whole winter, because who knows what’s going to happen.
But the original vision was setting up the production kitchen so it could be a training center. People would come, and we would show them how to process Indigenous foods for 400 people a day.
Our goal is to work directly with tribal communities. We’re helping them to develop their own focused Indigenous kitchen for their community: menus and recipes that are relevant to that tribe with their language and their environment in mind. Hopefully, once we get those systems set up, we can give them the tools they need to grow better community gardens [with] Indigenous seeds, utilizing some of our partners that are focused on that.
If they have surplus of foods, that they could trade or sell. We’ll have a demand that we’re creating and be able to plug it into our system. So they can sell through us if they want to, or trade with some of the other tribal communities that are going to be doing the same kind of programming.
Our goal is to open up Indigenous Food Labs in cities around the nation. But each Indigenous Food Lab would do the same work of becoming a regional training center, education and support center for creating Indigenous food systems. And we can eventually cross borders.
The globe had been swallowed up by colonialist and capitalistic efforts for so long that we’ve lost touch with a lot of these really amazing foodways that still survive in many regions around the world. It’s going to be really important to understand that cultural diversity and that knowledge base that sits out there. We’re just trying to create something where we can become a center point to save that knowledge for this next generation.
With the pandemic, more people are seeing the cracks in the system that created so many issues for food insecurity. Do you see any opportunity to convince people that this is a model that’s more sustainable than the current one that we have?
We’re not super concerned with what other people are going to think. We see a very clear path for ourselves. We’ve been problem solving [this] even before COVID. It strengthens the work that we’re doing by showcasing [the fact that] if we did have better community-based and regionally based food systems set up, that we could be more food secure.
This is going to be a weird winter. We’re still surging with pandemic cases right now. There’s going to be a lot more unemployment, because restaurants are going to continuously be shut down, and we have no idea what kind of support we’re getting from our own government to get through this. What’s going to happen when flu season hits again?
I think it’s a great time to reset. It’s a great time to reflect, for people to think about something that they could be doing differently. Where are they getting their food? How are they writing their menus? They shouldn’t be relying on these big-box trucks bringing foods in from all over the place. We should be really focused on supporting our local growers, no matter where they are, and developing menus around that.
It doesn’t have to be ego projects. It should be not about the chef in charge. It should really be about, “How can we do this because it’s just beneficial for our own community?” We made the conscious decision ourselves to only serve healthy Indigenous food, and regional Indigenous food on top of that. You have to be socially conscious and aware of the food that you’re serving it directly impacts your customers, your clients, and their health. So why not make people healthy and happy, and get people used to having this healthy food out there?
You’ve been planning this for a long time, and it seems like there’s been a long coming movement toward more Indigenous food sovereignty in this country. But do you feel more hopeful now than you were before, or do you feel cautious?
We feel absolutely hopeful. This has been a long time building, but our vision keeps expanding and we keep seeing how we can integrate with other communities and other leaders in the food sovereignty movement.
We see a very bright future, and we’re basically stealing some parts of franchise models. If a Five Guys Burgers and Fries can open up 200 units in a few years, why can’t we use a similar system, but do it for good and push healthy food out there? We want people to be aware of the special history of the land that they’re standing on, the true histories of the Indigenous peoples from there, how it differs from other regions, and all the plant diversity that’s around them. We hope we can be really positive role models. We feel like tribal Indigenous communities can be great role models to showcase how they can turn something around.
We have this vision of one day being able to drive across the country stopping at Indigenous-run businesses that are particular to the land that they’re on, from people that are still there, and showcasing the immense amount of diversity that you would see. Every few hundred miles, you’d be in a new region with different foods, with different language, with different cultures and histories. That’s something really to think about, celebrate, and preserve for future generations to see, instead of trying to whitewash everything and say, “American food is hamburgers” or “Canadian food is poutine.” There’s so much more we could be doing that is relevant to where we are, and weaving the Indigenous histories into the fabric of who we are. It’s going to be really important to not ignore those histories.
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But convincing people to change the way they eat is not easy. Food plays a big role in our daily lives. Food is more than just survival it’s joy, comfort, and escapism. This is where chefs come in. A delicious, expertly crafted meal can make a vegan-skeptic want to try the plant-based lifestyle. It can show them that there is another way to enjoy all those same textures and tastes they’ve grown up with, and introduce them to a whole new way of thinking.
Sean Sherman: My life in five dishes
The chef fighting to bring true Native American cuisine back from the brink of extinction.
After decades of racism, persecution and forced assimilation, Native Americans had lost many of their traditional foods and recipes. Award-winning chef Sean Sherman has made it his life’s mission to bring them back from the brink of extinction.
He tells Graihagh Jackson about a “feral” childhood spent on a vast reservation in South Dakota, USA, and how his impoverished community was forced to rely on highly processed, government-supplied commodity foods, which he says have had serious and long-term health implications for his people.
A successful but highly stressful career running restaurant kitchens pushed him to the point of burnout – he explains how a recuperation mission to Mexico led to an epiphany about his own food heritage and a meticulous effort to revive it and rid it of colonial influences.
He’s since written an award-winning cookbook, set up a non-profit to educate others about North America’s native cuisines, plans to open a restaurant next year, and tells us he wants to make his indigenous food movement a global one.
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She wrote on Twitter about her ordeal in September: ". I have been avoiding making this post, but I pride myself on being perfectly real and open and honest on social media, especially in days of late. As most of you know, I have been insanely sick on and off since getting #covid back in March," she tweeted before describing how difficult the experience was for her. The chef has been slowly recovering and getting back on track, though her illness and being out of work has made things difficult for her financially, which is something she shared on Instagram in early December.
The Interview: Chef Sean Chaney - Recipes
Sean Kenniff: north’s recipes that you submitted to us had a particular style. Instead of standardized measurements, you used units like the three-finger-pinch. Can you tell us a little about how this reflects your cooking style?
James Mark: I wrote those recipes in the most honest way I could. The way we cook here is a constant evolution and very reliant on teaching our cooks and interns how to cook how to rely on their senses and develop their palate in ways that will allow them to make a dish beyond just a recipe. Ultimately, someone may make a dish slightly different, but hopefully they have been taught to make the dish taste good. And that is the key to our kitchen, to our cooking.
On top of this fact, I don't know any restaurant that measures out to the gram the amount of something that they put on a plate during a service. While a kitchen may weigh out what they put into a base recipe, the final pickup is often up to the discretion of the person cooking on the line that night. And I feel like it would be dishonest for me to say that we put exactly fifteen grams of basil leaves in each salad, or exactly ten mint leaves. We put a two or three finger pinch of something, taste it along the way, and make sure it goes out to the dining room delicious. Your plate may be slightly different from the next person’s, but it will certainly be just as delicious.
SK: What is your favorite dish you’ve ever made?
JM: Hanging out at my best friend's house before we opened the restaurant, dumping a giant pot of lobsters, crab, and chouriço onto an old door held up by paint buckets. We had a ton of cheap beer, a raging fire, bottle rockets, and a handle of whiskey. It was one of those perfect Providence summer nights that inspired us to open a restaurant in the first place.
SK: What were some of your formative kitchen experiences?
JM: My time, initially at Momofuku Ko with Peter Serpico, and then at Momofuku Milk Bar with Christina Tosi is really the period that cemented my cooking philosophies.
SK: Tell us a little about your philosophy regarding your staff and the community at large.
JM: We pay our staff really well, good salaries. We pay for health insurance, all 15 employees. And 50 cents from every dish on the menu goes to the food bank. We donated $20,000 last year, which was more than my salary.
SK: How does this philosophy apply to your menu?
JM: In food cost. We don't serve a lot of meat. Quality Rhode Island meat is really expensive. Seafood is dirt cheap, we never pay more than five dollars a pound. So, we focus on seafood. Six or seven fish or vegetable dishes and only 2 meat.
SK: What’s the biggest challenge you face at north?
JM: Working with farmers is tough in New England in winter.
SK: What's your five year plan?
JM: We’re opening a bakery down the street. A non-traditional American bakery, a little different, in the vein of what we do here. Beyond that, maybe something downtown in a year and a half. We made enough money last year and now we have to grow. But with no investors or loans. We opened north with $40,000 a $35,000 down payment on the property and $5,000 to start. The same team is still here.
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