A three sisters salad, featuring corn, beans and squash. (Wahpepah's Kitchen)
For the past 10 years, customers have been asking Crystal Wahpepah when she would turn her Oakland-based Indigenous catering business, Wahpepah’s Kitchen, into a proper restaurant. Her response was always the same: “Right time, right place.”
Now, that time has come: Wahpepah has taken over the Fruitvale BART–adjacent space formerly occupied by Reem’s, the groundbreaking Arab bakery. When the new Wahpepah’s Kitchen opens there later this fall—hopefully by the end of October, Wahpepah says—it will be an all-day Indigenous restaurant serving blue corn waffles, blueberry bison meatballs and a variety of colorful Native salads and stews. It will be the only place of its kind in Oakland.
For Wahpepah, who was born and raised in East Oakland, the restaurant’s debut will also be a homecoming. “I went to elementary school not too far from here; I live a few blocks away,” she says. “What better opportunity to literally serve the community you grew up in?”
The restaurant is also part of a modern Indigenous cooking movement that has been ascendant in the United States for several years now, most visibly in the Bay Area through Berkeley’s Cafe Ohlone and Wahpepah’s own catering business, whose popularity helped land the chef a spot on the Food Network cooking competition show Chopped. Wahpepah was the first Native chef chosen to participate.
Wahpepah, who identifies as Indigenous Black American, says her business was thriving before the pandemic brought all catering to a standstill, forcing the chef to give up her commercial kitchen space. “I was trying to make ends meet,” Wahpepah says, when she started inquiring about potential kitchen spaces in Fruitvale. Reem’s founder Reem Assil wound up reaching out to her a little over a year ago, and the two women connected over their shared vision for serving Fruitvale. At the time, Assil was already contemplating a move to a larger kitchen, and she told Wahpepah that she wanted to pass the original Reem’s space on to her. “That touched my heart big time,” Wahpepah says.
“It was really important that we pass the torch to someone from the neighborhood,” Assil says. “It was also really important to be an ally to an Indigenous Black chef as fierce as Crystal and to continue the legacy of a strong, diverse ecosystem of local business that serves the community.”
It wound up taking a year to complete the transition, during which time Wahpepah kept her business afloat by selling a line of nutrition bars made with Indigenous ingredients, including a chocolate and chokeberry bar she’s especially proud of.
As a registered member of the Kickapoo Tribe of Oklahoma, Wahpepah is part of what she describes as a small but vibrant Kickapoo community in Oakland. (“When I run into another Kickapoo, it’s pretty cool,” she says.) Naturally, Kickapoo dishes will be well represented on the restaurant’s menu, with crowd pleasers like Wahpepah’s Kickapoo chili, which she likes to serve with a side of cornbread, and a version of the hominy and venison soup that her grandmother made back home in Oklahoma.
Wahpepah is no purist, though. She talks about growing up in Oakland’s “multi-tribal, tight-knit, urban Native community,” whose foodways spanned ingredients and influences far beyond those specific to any one tribe. The Ohlones and the Pomo tribe, both native to Northern California, were particularly influential.
“I’ve seen so many different beautiful tribes and different foods,” Wahpepah says. “So all these foods that I cook, it’s something that I grew up with and something that means a lot to me.”
That approach translates into a modern, varied cuisine that isn’t locked into any one tradition. The food at Wahpepah’s Kitchen is “just kind of what’s going on in Native cooking today,” as Wahpepah puts it. She’s probably best known for her blue corn blueberry bison meatballs, her vibrant, colorful salads made with whatever’s in season—gorgeously multi-colored flint corn, for instance—and her various hearty, wholesome corn and squash stews. But she’ll also serve french fries seasoned with sage or cedar salt. She’s experimented with snow cones that feature Indigenous flavors like blackberry-sage.
At the restaurant, the meal Wahpepah is most excited to serve is breakfast, which will feature things like sweet potato hash and waffles made with acorn or blue corn batter. “I just love creating with Indigenous ingredients,” she says.
“Crystal has always been as much about this place, the Bay Area, as she is Native and Indigenous foods,” says Caleb Zigas, the departing executive director of the La Cocina kitchen incubator, recalling the time when Wahpepah went through the program about a decade ago. “That kind of relationship to place is so special to me, and I think you can really taste it in her food.”
Wahpepah says the restaurant’s prominent location should give her the opportunity to reach new customers who haven’t experienced Indigenous food, but she believes her Native customers (“my number one clients”) will continue to form the backbone of the business. And Wahpepah sees herself as very much aligned with the broader movement to revitalize Native cuisine in the U.S.—a movement that’s deeply connected to issues of food sovereignty and healing from trauma, she says.
Ultimately, Wahpepah wants Native customers who walk into her restaurant to feel inspired. “If they see a dish from their tribe, I want them to feel pride. I want people to taste and feel the love. To know that these foods matter.”
Wapepah’s Kitchen is tentatively slated to open in late October at 1419 34th Avenue in Oakland, adjacent to the Fruitvale BART station. Follow the business on Instagram for updates.
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