Update: On March 29, the James Beard Foundation announced that chef Sherry Pocknett of Sly Fox Den Too is one of the five finalists for the regional award.

This is one of three stories on the Rhode Island semifinalists for the James Beard award for best chef in the Northeast region. Click here for our story on Milena Pagán of Little Sister, and click here for our story on Rob Andreozzi of Pizza Marvin.

A couple years ago, chef Sherry Pocknett was driving through Charlestown after a ceremony at the Narragansett Indian Tribe reservation, looking for a gas station. She came across a small, red building at a fork in the road, surrounded mostly by woods and a few homes. A sign said the space was available for lease.

“I said, ‘Oh, that's a cute little place,’” Pocknett said. “And I came back and wrote the number down and called, and we were in here the next month, I think. Took a while to open up. It doesn't happen overnight. But we did it. Now we're going on our third year.”

Pocknett’s restaurant is called Sly Fox Den Too. In the few years it’s been open, the restaurant has gotten a lot of attention and praise. It draws in regulars, summer vacationers, and foodies who’ve seen the restaurant featured in media coverage. 

The menu features everything from spicy firecracker shrimp and grits, to bison bratwurst over Indian fry bread with peppers and onions, to a vegan bowl with corn cakes and three sisters rice. 

Seafood is prominent on the menu. Depending on the season, you might find smoked salmon, soft shell crab, seared bluefish, quahogs, scallops, littleneck clams, mussels, and more. On a recent visit, Pocknett reflected on her career and cooked a recipe for black sea bass.

“They’re a New England fish, and they're delicious,” she said. “They're the most flavorful fish, I think. My favorite. They're more meaty than cod fish. They're more flavorful than haddock. And it’s a white fish, and people like white fish. And I like to personally stuff these babies.”Pocknett began by cutting off the fins and clearing the cavities where she’ll fill the bass she bought from a local fish market. She left the heads on and scored the meaty part of the fish with a knife to make it easier to eat when it’s done. 

Pocknett then heated up a pan on the stove for chopped celery, peppers, onions, and a slab of butter. She added in thick-cut chunks of cooked lobster meat, and when that was done cooking, she mixed in crushed Ritz crackers. 

As she cooked, Pocknett described her path to becoming a chef.

“I grew up on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. I'm a part of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe,” she said. “And we love fish. I grew up in the bay. My dad was a fisherman. My brothers–all fishermen. And we just really loved fish.”

Pocknett said she began cooking around eight years old after she got a Suzy Homemaker as a gift. 

“I got it for Christmas and stole everything out of my mother's refrigerator: deer meat, quahogs, rabbit, whatever it was my father caught,” she said. 

Pocknett cooked up meals and gave them to her brothers. “They ate everything,” she said.Pocknett said you can taste the influence of her Wampanoag background in the seafood dishes at Sly Fox Den Too, and in the inclusion of indigenous, seasonal ingredients.

“Indigenous, meaning right from here,” she said. “Right now, I wouldn't serve asparagus even though you see asparagus served everywhere. It grows somewhere. But I only do asparagus at asparagus season, in April to May.” 

Pocknett filled the black sea bass with lobster and slid the fish into a 400-degree oven. After about 15 minutes or so, she pulled out the pan with stuffed bass for tasting.

“Isn’t it yummy?” she said. “Yummy, yummy.”

When asked what she loves about cooking, Pocknett said, “I love feeding people.”

“It makes them happy. It educates them,” she said. “If someone hasn't had deer meat before, you know, deer’s indigenous. It was the meat [we ate]. We didn't have pigs. We didn't have chickens, or we didn't have cows before the Mayflower got here. And for us to teach people about what was here and how we cooked, it's a great joy for someone to say, ‘Oh, wow, really? I didn't know that.’”

“And that's just like educating people, so that they're going to end up educating other people and telling other people the story,” Pocknett said. “And it's just a great way to do it, through food and stories.”Pocknett learned much of what she knows about cooking from her mom and grandmother. She didn’t go to culinary school. She worked in her uncle’s kitchen when she was younger and learned by watching cooking shows on TV. 

Pocknett has cooked for powwows and run a catering business for years. Before opening her own restaurant, she worked at the Pequot Cafe at the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe’s museum in Connecticut, helping transform the menu to include dishes like frog legs, corn chowder, and turtle soup. 

When she found out she was a regional James Beard Award semifinalist, the news was unexpected.

“Somebody called me and said, ‘You got nominated for the James Beard.’ I was like, ‘I did?’” Pocknett said. “I was shocked. Honestly, I was shocked. I mean, I'm just a small-time girl. You know, I'm just a small-time girl that loves cooking by the seasons.” 

Pocknett said the nomination has brought in new visitors who want to try Sly Fox Den Too. But even with the success and recognition, she said running the restaurant has come with challenges.

“It's very hard. And this is a small restaurant, and it's hard to keep afloat, because you have your ups and your downs. We're getting popular, though. And we're getting more busy,” she said. “Right now I have cancer. I have breast cancer. So I'm not even cooking, my daughters’ cooking. And I'm lucky that they learned everything from [when they were] little kids, because we've been on the road for different powwows, and they've been catering with me their whole life, since they were eight years old. And they're really, really good at it. So I'm lucky that I have them to, you know, run this restaurant while I get better. And then that's upward from there, we hope.” 

Pocknett has a big project ahead of her. She’s working to open another restaurant in Preston, Conn. – a plan that’s been in the works since before opening Sly Fox Den Too. It will be much larger than the small, diner-style space in Charlestown. The total capacity is nearly 200 people. 

“My youngest daughter and I will be over there. We'll have to hire, of course, a big, big crew to go in there. But we got a lot of work to do before we can open,” Pocknett said. “We're hoping to get open within the next six months.”

“But I love cooking, and I love what I do. And I think my kids love it too, or else I don't think they'd be here,” she said. “And they both are really good cooks. I'm extremely happy and proud of them.”

Alex Nunes can be reached at anunes@thepublicsradio.org