A raft of new initiatives are elevating Indigenous cooking—and preserving a rich cultural heritage in the process.

The culinary industry is making a conscious effort to support Indigenous and minority chefs. In January 2021, the James Beard Foundation announced a new grant initiative for Black and Indigenous owned food and drink businesses. The initiative is part of the organization’s Open For Good campaign, which launched in April 2020 in an effort to rebuild an independent restaurant industry that is more equitable, sustainable and resilient post-pandemic.

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Mariah Gladstone filming Indigikitchen

Indigenous chefs are bringing their families’ generations-old recipes to new audiences, garnering rising recognition on a global stage. Mariah Gladstone, who runs the Indigenous cooking show Indigikitchen, was featured on The Today Show in January 2021, and the BBC featured Algonquin First Nation chef Marie-Cecile Nottaway the same month. “Beyond physical health, Indigenous cuisine is important because it demonstrates the wisdom of our ancestors, connects us with our environment, and reminds us of our resilience,” Gladstone tells Wunderman Thompson Intelligence.

Sean Sherman is also teaching Indigenous food traditions as a form of cultural preservation. The Minneapolis-based Oglala Lakota Sioux chef is the author of The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen, which won the James Beard Award for Best American Cookbook in 2018, and he was awarded the 2019 James Beard Leadership Award for his “efforts around the revitalization and awareness of Indigenous food systems in a modern culinary context.”

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Harvested fruit leathers. Image courtesy of Indigikitchen and Mariah Gladstone

In 2020, Sherman and his team opened The Indigenous Food Lab in Minneapolis. The space includes a production and training kitchen, an education studio and an Indigenous Market. He is also opening an Indigenous restaurant, called Owamni, in the spring of 2021.

Sherman’s efforts focus on “showcasing the amazing bounty of the diversity that we have, both culturally and culinarily, across North America.” He looks to the land and the people that have inhabited it to guide his recipes—working with local farmers and foragers and taking inspiration from Native agriculture techniques to promote a seasonal, community-based food model. “The Western culinary diet has never really taken the time to learn this vast amount of botany around us and all these plants that are so giving to us,” Sherman told WBUR in October. “So if you look at the world through an Indigenous lens, you’re going to see so much food and medicine and shelter and crafting in just the plant life around you.”

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Apple cranberry pecan wild rice pilaf. Image courtesy of Indigikitchen and Mariah Gladstone

Indigenous cooking has the added benefit of reinforcing local food systems for improved food sustainability and security. “What’s really come to light, because of COVID, is our vulnerability and over-reliance on over-processed and commercial foods,” Sherman told Eater. “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.”

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