Photo by Eliesa Johnson of The Restaurant Project
Wampanoag Tribal member Chef Sherry Pocknett believes the bounty of each season should be embraced and celebrated. “Preparing Indigenous cuisine means cooking with sustainably raised, hunted, and fished animals,” says Pocknett, who recently won the prestigious James Beard Award for Best Chef Northeast. “We use our original crops, like the Three Sisters’ combination of corn, beans, and squash. I feel that we are here to take care of the land, and that is important to our food.”
Pocknetts’ restaurant, Sly Fox Den Too in Charlestown, Rhode Island, which she opened in 2021, is named in honor of her late father, Mashpee Wampanoag Chief Sly Fox, Vernon Pocknett. She recalls growing up on Cape Cod, learning how to cook and forage with her mother and grandmother, and waitressing at The Flume, her uncle’s restaurant in Mashpee. “I didn’t cook there, but I began catering through the restaurant and traveled to different pow-wows and events,” says Pocknett, who eventually relocated to Connecticut when she became the food and beverage manager at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum & Research Center in Ledyard.
Pocknett, who still lives nearby in Connecticut, runs Sly Fox Den Too with her daughters, Jade and Cheyenne Pocknett-Galvin, where they serve dishes including frybread, venison skewers, and succotash, which continue to reflect their tribal traditions. Breakfast is one of her favorite meals to prepare for customers. “I make my own rendition of Johnny cakes,” she says, “with dried cranberries and scallions in them.” One of her other specialties is a smoked bluefish hash with poached eggs and dark kidney beans. “We serve lots of great local protein.”
Her road to culinary success has not been without obstacles, including battling cancer, but she was able to take a moment to soak in the distinction of winning the James Beard Award, the first Indigenous woman to do so. Proudly wearing traditional Wampanoag regalia, Pocknett accepted the award at the national ceremony earlier this year. “I was so surprised that I even got nominated,” says Pocknett. “It’s an amazing honor, and I’m still flabbergasted.”
Winning the award has bestowed more national recognition, which Pocknett appreciates, but her focus moving forward will be on more regional efforts to promote, celebrate, and protect her Indigenous heritage. Slated to open in the fall of 2024, Sly Fox Den Restaurant and Cultural Center in Preston, Connecticut, will be a space where visitors can experience Northeast Indigenous foodways and lifeways. “You’ll be able to enjoy Wampanoag-centered cuisine overlooking Poquetanuck Bay, where many Indigenous peoples like the Narragansett, Mohegan, Pequot, and Wampanoag communities would socialize, harvest, and trade.”
Pocknett says the center, in addition to serving more of her award-winning food, will offer interactive experiences of traditional Northeastern homes, gardens, oyster farms, and canoes. “It’s going to be a fun destination,” she says. “And I feel it’s important to let the public know that we’re still here and we still have our traditional lifeways. I also think of my children and grandchildren and how they need to know and love their heritage and make sure it stays alive.”
She says that while the James Beard Award was an incredible honor, if she can pull off opening the Cultural Center, it will be as significant. “This will really be a lifetime achievement for me,” she says, “It’s going to be everything.”