Washington University explores American Indian cuisine

american indian dish

Earlier this fall, chef Sean Sherman’s Native American restaurant concept  The Sioux Chef  became the most-backed restaurant in Kickstarter history, with 2,358 people pledging a total of $148,728 in 33 days to fund the Oglala Lakota tribe member’s Minneapolis eatery.

Native cuisine is spilling over into noncommercial dining as well. Washington University in St. Louis has experimented with Native American-inspired fare for the past four years, thanks to a dedicated effort from dining services.

The impetus to do so was twofold, says Campus Executive Chef Patrick McElroy.  “As a culinary team, we were looking at ourselves to see what cuisine we really hadn’t touched,” he says. “We decided, let’s look internally in our country and explore what we haven’t really touched on.”

Form educated connections

“There are very little recipes for Native American culture; you can find some, but we wanted to see if we could find someone who had the in-depth knowledge of the foods,” McElroy says. Robert Marx, general manager of dining services, and McElroy first connected with Wash U’s active Native American culture group, as well as the school’s Kathryn M. Buder Center for American Indian Studies.

The desire to train with a culinary expert led Marx and McElroy to Nephi Craig, founder of the Native American Culinary Association. McElroy and Executive Chef David Rushing trained with Craig, who identifies as White Mountain Apache and Navajo, at the NACA’s indigenous foods conference and Craig also visits Wash. U’s campus for an annual culinary event.

Cook with sensitivity

Fry bread is recognized as a traditional food, but it has a fraught history. The deep-fried flatbread originates from Navajo Indians, who cooked with government-issued rations of lard, flour and salt during the “Long Walk,” when American Indians were forced to relocate from Arizona to New Mexico.

Ultimately, Wash U dining services chose not to incorporate fry bread in its menus. “In some of the tribes, it’s frowned upon,” McElroy says. “Our goal when we started this program was to educate ourselves through different resources and really represent the food.”

Leave room for interpretation

Authenticity is much talked about when it comes to international menus, but with Native American cuisine, Marx and McElroy are both quick to point out that their approach has been more about inspiration—and that’s not just because of a lack of documented recipes. “Part of the education piece is keeping the interest of your public,” McElroy says. Traditional Native ingredients have inspired hot dishes as well as grab-and-go options. One dessert—a flourless black bean cake with candied butternut squash puree and a white chocolate-corn garnish—was inspired by the three major Native crops: corn, squash and beans, known as The Three Sisters.

Listen to reactions

McElroy says he and his team noticed a fair amount of misinformation among diners about what truly is Native. “People are like, ‘Wow, I’ve had succotash. That’s a Native American dish?’” he says. “There are common things that are part of culture that people didn’t even realize.”


The modern native pantry

Sherman spoke to the New York Times in August about his plans for The Sioux Chef and the indigenous foods of the Upper Midwest, where he draws inspiration. Here are a few of his favorite ingredients that FSDs can incorporate in or adapt for their kitchens.

  • Wild rice
  • Maple syrup
  • Walleye
  • Chokecherry syrup
  • Buffalo jerky
  • Wild plum jelly

More From FoodService Director

Managing Your Business
management team

Last week’s NACUFS National Conference proved to be a treasure trove of management and staffing takeaways. Here are a few we noted at the annual event , held this year in Providence, R.I.

1. Make it scalable

When explaining something new to staff, instead of asking, “You got it?” or “You with me?” have employees rate how well they understand the new material on a scale of 1 to 10, said Ron Paul, a senior consulting partner for Partners in Leadership, during a session on building accountability in the workplace. People are likely to say yes even when they don’t fully grasp what you’...

Ideas and Innovation
song break

Once per month in a daily huddle, we dedicate a few minutes for the staff to sing a short song. The staff has responded so positively to this. They now bring costumes and other props. It's a few short minutes, but the payoff has been tremendous.

Photo courtesy of iStock

Ideas and Innovation
plastic straws

An item about the size of a pencil has become the latest target in foodservice operators’ sustainability plans. Though small, plastic straws are said to have a large impact on the environment, with Americans using approximately 500 million straws each day, according to a release from Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium, which temporarily ditched plastic straws as part of an Earth Day promotion this year.

In recent months, a growing number of eateries and cities across the United States have scrapped plastic straws. In July, Seattle enacted a ban on plastic straws and utensils, requiring...

Industry News & Opinion

Medford High School in Medford, Mass., is looking to add an orchard to its campus, Wicked Local reports.

The idea for the orchard was brought forth by students looking to help combat food insecurity. They are working with the school’s nutritionist to make the orchard a reality.

If planted, the orchard would be located inside the school’s courtyard and would grow fruits such as apples, paw paws, blueberries, peaches and plums. It would also include an outdoor classroom space.

The school committee signed off on the project last year; however, some administrators are...

FSD Resources

Code for Asynchronous jQuery Munchkin Tracking Code