Tulips, daffodils and the return of hummingbirds are, for many, the harbingers of springtime. But for chef Sherry Pocknett, a member of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe and finalist for a prestigious 2023 James Beard Foundation Award, seasonal stalwarts are entirely edible: herring, polliwogs and fiddlehead ferns.
“It’s just exciting to see all this bounty,” she said. For Pocknett, spring’s offerings recall harvesting during her childhood on Cape Cod, and her parents’ teaching, ”‘In every season, there’s a blessing.’”
A skilled forager who grew up hunting for food alongside her sister and father, Pocknett has preferred the cooking part over hunting since she was young. “I used to take all the food out of the refrigerator… it could be eels, it could be deer meat, it could be quahogs, scallops — whatever my father brought home,” she recalled. “Everything I cooked, they loved.”
Pocknett opened her Charlestown, R.I., restaurant Sly Fox Den Too, in 2021, named for her late father, Chief Sly Fox, Vernon Pocknett. She said she was completely caught off guard when she learned about the Beard nomination. Admittedly, at first she didn’t know much about the awards, often dubbed “the Oscars of the food world.”
”The first nomination; that was just pure luck and I was really surprised. Then to be in the final cut? The final five of all these people? It’s amazing,” Pocknett said. “People must really like what I do.”
The nonprofit James Beard Foundation, with a mission to “celebrate, support, and elevate the people behind America’s food culture and champion a standard of good food anchored in talent, equity, and sustainability,” created the awards program in 1990. Today, restaurant and chef semifinalists are recognized across 23 categories, including the category in which Pocknett is nominated, Best Chef: Northeast. In the semi-finalist round, she was joined by two other Rhode Island nominees: Robert Andreozzi of Pizza Marvin, and Milena Pagán of Little Sister, both in Providence. As a finalist, she’s vying for top prize among four other notable chefs around the region.
These days, the phone keeps ringing at Sly Fox Den, Too.
“Having a South County chef be a James Beard finalist is so exciting. Our restaurants are part of what drives tourism and we’re sure visitors will be flocking to Charlestown to taste Chef Sherry Pocknett’s cooking,” said Louise Bishop, the president and CEO of the South County Tourism Council. “The fact that this is an Indigenous chef, cooking Indigenous food is even more special, as we don’t really have many Indigenous restaurants in New England.”
“We have a set menu that we have every day, but I’m always flooding the menu with different specials,” Pocknett said. “It’s springtime now, so the striped bass are in.”
Pocknett prepares the fish in a variety of ways, sometimes seared with in-season fiddlehead ferns in a wine sauce, or stuffed, as she did for an episode of “Taste the Nation” with “Top Chef” host, Padma Lakshmi, which aired in November 2021: “I stuffed it with firecracker shrimp and quahog stuffing, and I used butter, and of course I used Ritz crackers, onions, peppers and great spices,” Pocknett said.
The restaurant’s menu commonly boasts rabbit and duck dishes, the latter she prepares with sunchokes, part of the sunflower family also known as Jerusalem artichokes. Nasaump, traditional Wampanoag yellow corn grits, is served at breakfast, and sandwiches can be served on Indian fry bread, a fried flatbread. For dessert, there’s a classic Indian pudding with cornmeal and molasses.
Soon Pocknett will be adding her seafood stew, predicting it’ll be very popular. “It’s almost like a bouillabaisse. It’s got clams, mussels, fish, lobster and shrimp, and it’s just very light; [with] onions, bay leaves and stuff like that,” she said.
While the James Beard Awards have long been regarded as the food industry’s highest honor, this recognition for Pocknett and her work comes as the awards program has come under scrutiny in recent years for, among other criticisms, a lack of diversity of nominees, the nomination of chefs facing serious allegations of physical and sexual misconduct, and a lack of transparency surrounding the awards process.
The awards were canceled in 2020 and 2021, returning last year following an internal audit of policies and procedures. “The audit was really to take a full overhaul of the entire awards program,” explained Dawn Padmore, vice president of awards at the James Beard Foundation. Along with stakeholders, committee members, and consultants, Padmore says the foundation looked at its policies and procedures, which she described as the “bones’' of the awards, to ensure they aligned with the foundation’s mission and values, including working toward removing any systemic bias, increasing the diversity of the voting body, and increasing transparency.
“And also to make sure we were reaching out to communities far and wide with the goal of making sure that at the end of the day, the awards represented the vast diversity in the independent restaurant industry, not just in terms of race and gender, but also region,” Padmore said.
A sign of that change unfolded last year, when Sean Sherman, known as The Sioux Chef and co-owner of Minnesota-based restaurant Owamni, took home the James Beard Award for Best New Restaurant, likely the first Indigenous chef to do so. The foundation cannot say definitively that Sherman was first; it has only begun to intentionally collect demographic data for the awards in recent years, Padmore said. In his acceptance speech, Sheman remarked, “Our ancestors are proud tonight because we’re doing something different: We’re putting health on the table, we’re putting culture on the table, and we’re putting our stories on the table.” Sherman was in Providence in February for a talk on the (R)evolution of Indigenous Foodways at Johnson & Wales University.
Although data on past award winners and nominees is incomplete, Padmore believes around four Rhode Island women have been nominated previously, putting Pocknett in rare company. Maria Gonzalez-Trasvina of Bar ‘Cino in Newport was nominated a Rising Star Chef in 2020. Al Forno’s Johanne Killeen was a semifinalist for Outstanding Chef in 2018, and in 1993 won Best Chef: Northeast with her late husband George Germon. (Killeen and Germon were nominees in this category in 1991 and 1992.) Kate and Matt Jennings of La Laiterie and Farmstead in Providence were finalists for Best Chef: Northeast in 2012. And Jeanie Roland, chef and owner of Ella’s in Westerly, is a seven-time nominee for Best Chef: South, for her Florida restaurant, The Perfect Caper.
For her part, Pocknett is not only trailblazing, she’s teaching the next generation. Her daughters, Jade Pocknett-Galvin, 34, and Cheyenne Pocknett-Galvin, 30, have played an indispensable role in the growth and success of Sly Fox Den, Too, and Pocknett’s catering business, even though that trajectory wasn’t originally in the business plan.
“Jade really didn’t want anything to do with it at first, and then I got sick, so she didn’t have a choice — she had a choice, but she chose to help her mother,” said Pocknett, who is battling breast cancer. She said she’s more than halfway through her chemotherapy treatments and expects to have surgery upon completion. Pocknett has a palpable positive spirit and an inspiring drive. She has big plans for the next chapter of Sly Fox Den, Too.
When Pocknett opened the doors of the 30-seat restaurant two years ago, she planted gardens to grow herbs, fruits and vegetables to include in her modern-meets-traditional Indigenous dishes. But her greater plan has been to use revenue from the small restaurant to renovate a bigger restaurant, catering and event space that she bought just before the start of the pandemic in nearby Preston, Connecticut. It hasn’t been easy.
“We own the property, it just needs more work,” said Pocknett. She’s already put about $70,000 into the space and needs about $200,000 more to complete the work to open the second location, Pocknett said, where she also envisions a small living museum and an oyster farm, as the property sits on the banks of Poquetanuck Cove. She’s hopeful the location will open in a year’s time. “It could be sooner than that if we had the money, but unfortunately, I’m sick,” she said. “I’m really anxious and excited to get this project done, because this is my lifelong dream.”
“I love what I do and it shows. I love putting a smile on somebody’s face and they say they can’t wait to come back and try something different,” she said. “I love teaching as well, my children and grandchildren, how to cook and forage like my parents and grandparents taught me.”
With the James Beard Restaurant and Chef Awards ceremony set for June 5 in Chicago. Pocknett said her entire family shares her excitement.
“I am flabbergasted that I even got nominated, and to be in the finals is like I won,” she said. “Whether or not I get first place, I still feel like I got first. Truly, I’m grateful.”