Indigenous Chef Wins James Beard Award



LBJ Click for Today LBJBy Maria Lynders

Sherry Pocknett made history in June as the first Indigenous woman to win a James Beard Award for culinary excellence—an honor considered “the Oscars of the food world.”
Pocknett is a member of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe and grew up practicing Indigenous ways to hunt, fish, and forage for food. Now she is the owner of Sly Fox Den Too, a restaurant in Rhode Island that specializes in Indigenous cuisine.
LDEQ 1The menu features the food her family grew up with, using seasonal ingredients and local fish and game. “It’s all about the bounty of the season and what we can do with it and how we treat it and how it’s gonna treat us,” she said.
Chef Sherry PocknettPocknett’s father was a fisherman and would often bring back blue fish and mackerel for her mother to cook for dinner. Despite having six children to feed, her mother would always cook extra. “She said somebody might stop by so you always want to have a little extra on hand so you can offer someone food if they happen to drop in,” Pocknett said. “That’s a native thing, feeding people.”
If there were any leftovers in the fridge, her mother would cook them into fish hash the next morning, paired with poached eggs on top—one of Pocknett’s favorite meals to this day. “I thought it was poor people’s food, but it was rich people’s food—rich in love, rich in health, and rich in tradition,” she said.
Pocknett now serves food inspired by her family and her tribe. She serves daily caught fish, venison, Indian fry bread, and quahog (hard clam) chowder—a Mashpee Wampanoag original dish. She also serves dishes of her own invention such as corn cakes and rice made with the “three sisters,” an Indigenous name for corn, beans, and squash because when planted together they nurture each other to grow.
Amid the celebrations, Pocknett recognizes this award came at the lowest time in her life. She is currently battling breast cancer and recently finished chemotherapy. “And I’m trying to be strong, that’s for sure. This award has helped and it makes me just want to keep going. Keep fighting, and keep creating,” she said.
While on the road to recovery, her two daughters have taken over responsibilities at the restaurant. She said her daughters learned how to cook while traveling the powwow circuit with her as a food vendor, serving frog legs and smoked seafood.
Pocknett also worked as the food and beverage director at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center.

Then, with the vision to open her own restaurant named after her father, Pocknett purchased 3.5 acres of land in Preston, Connecticut. But, this dream needed a lot of work with money she did not have.
Pocknett then came across and purchased a smaller building in Charleston, Rhode Island. She decided to open a restaurant there in an effort to build revenue for opening the original spot. She also is raising money through a GoFundMe.
“It's just a matter of time,” she said. “It's when the Creator wants us to get there and I believe He does. He made me get this little one on purpose just to show me how hard it is to run a restaurant.”
And despite the challenges of opening a restaurant in 2021 during a global pandemic, Sly Fox Den Too not only survived, but is thriving. Pocknett said the restaurant is now packed with customers every day.

“It's a whole lot to run a restaurant, to work with food and people and serving people. And you have to make sure you're on point,” she said. “And I think that's what I love about it. I feel like sometimes it's a challenge, but it's a fun challenge.”
She said her favorite thing about running a restaurant is educating people on Indigenous food and culture. She also makes it a point to talk to her customers about caring for the earth and the dangers of polluting the land and water with pesticides.
Pocknett hopes her restaurant in Connecticut will become a destination spot where Indigenous history is taught. She also plans to have a Native American living museum and oyster farm on the property.
“My vision of that place is that people are going to love it. People are going to come and they're going to come back again and again. And the food is going to be fabulous,” she said.

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