Crystal Wahpepah sits for a portrait at her restaurant, Wahpepah’s Kitchen, in the Fruitvale neighborhood of Oakland on June 23, 2023. Wahpepah sees her restaurant as a place to reclaim and celebrate Indigenous food systems and to recognize that we live on stolen land. (Kori Suzuki/KQED)
Flavor Profile is our new series looking at how people, some with little or no experience, started successful food businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Crystal Wahpepah wanted to be a chef since she was 7 years old.
“I really, really loved cooking,” she says. “And I have that connection when it comes to the soil, to the land … this is something that just always came just so naturally.”
Like her grandfather and mother, Wahpepah is a registered member of the Kickapoo tribe of Oklahoma. She remembers learning to make fry bread with her aunty and grandmother and picking berries on the Hoopa Reservation where she spent time as a child.
While growing up on Ohlone land in Oakland, Wahpepah was struck by the Bay Area’s lack of Native restaurants, despite the region’s large Indigenous population and palette for diverse cuisine. So she decided to change that. It wasn’t just a matter of culinary representation, it was a matter of reclaiming Native food sovereignty.
“I feel this is the human right for everybody to have their own cultural foods and to eat it and to have that relationship with it on their homeland … or even not on their homeland,” she says.
In 2010, Wahpepah graduated from Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts. One year later, she launched one of the state’s first Indigenous woman-owned catering businesses.
She became the first Native chef to appear on the Food Network show, Chopped. Wahpepah and her team started cooking for high-profile clients like the White House and the James Beard Awards. But she says she wasn’t just feeding people, she was also educating them.
“I’m in San Francisco, in the tech world,” she says. “[I’m] going out of my Native community, serving these foods no one’s never heard of. So I had all the questions brought at me … all the way up to, ‘Oh yeah, this [is] Native American land?’”
At the beginning of 2020, she had just started selling snack bars online — made with wild rice, amaranth, pepita and cranberries — when COVID hit. Then, she found out that the kitchen where she ran her catering business was closing.
She reached out to her community, to see if anyone had kitchen space she could share. A friend came back with a different proposal — she offered Wahpepah an entire restaurant in Oakland’s Fruitvale Station.
At first, Wahpepah was hesitant.
She was used to cooking behind the scenes. A restaurant was different.
“When you have a restaurant, this is who you are,” she says. “This is your personality. This is your heart and your soul.”
During the pandemic, the Bay Area had some of the strictest COVID restrictions around indoor dining. Even if people could go out to eat, a lot of them were too scared to do so.
Opening a restaurant in the middle of that climate was a huge risk. Wahpepah meditated on the offer for about a year, weighing the financial uncertainty against what had always driven her. Ultimately, she decided it was time that Oakland needed a Native restaurant.
“We have a huge Native community here in the Bay Area. I felt the need for our community to have that space and to represent when it comes to our foods,” she says. “Without knowing where we come from and who we are and what we ate … you have to ask yourself, who are we?”
She opened Wahpepah’s Kitchen in Oakland’s Fruitvale Village in November 2021. Although she wasn’t sure what to expect, the response on opening day blew her away.
“I was just only expecting about like maybe 50, 75 people to show up on our opening. We had almost 1200. There was dancing, drums, music, celebration … I can still tear up to this day,” she says. “I was like, ‘Wow, our time has come.’”
‘Lost from this land’
From the moment white settlers made contact with Native Americans, they strategically used food as a tactic of subjugation and suppression.
In the mid-1800s, the U.S. Army “solved” what President Ulysses S. Grant called the country’s “Indian Problem” by slaughtering American bison — the main food and spiritual source of the Plains Indians — to near extinction.
A century later, the Indian Relocation Act of 1956 forcibly removed tens of thousands of Native Americans — including Crystal Wahpepah’s grandparents — from their rural reservations into urban cities, severing Native people’s ties to their land and foodways.
Today, members of the Standing Rock Sioux are fighting to keep the Dakota Access Pipeline from slicing through its reservation and poisoning its tribal water supply.
“All of us [have] the same story of how our foods were lost, just because … being displaced … our foods were pretty much taken away from us,” she says.
As a result of this historical trauma, Wahpepah says many Native people are “lost from this land.” Her vision for Wahpepah’s Kitchen is a physical space to heal Native American people by reconnecting them with their Native foods.
“Our food is medicine. Our food is healing,” she says. “If we don’t have these foods in the community … how are we going to heal from the past?”
Healing starts with the people. The restaurant’s staff represents 17 different tribes. This includes Wahpepah’s three daughters, who are members of the Big Valley Rancheria Pomo Tribe.
Then, of course, there’s the food.
‘A little place of home’
The menus at Wahpepah’s Kitchen are written in the Kickapoo language with English translations.
Starters include ihskopihpeniiya peeskoneiihi taquitos — hand-rolled taquitos with smoked hibiscus and a mixture of sweet and white potatoes. You can order a side of peesekithi-a, deer sticks with a chokecherry dipping sauce. For dessert, there’s the popular sweet miinaki keetaheehi, which is a fry bread topped with mixed berries and coconut whipped cream.
All of the ingredients Wahpepah uses come directly from Native food producers: The blue corn comes from the northern Ute nation, the bison comes from the Cheyenne River, the beans come from the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Nation and the maple comes from the Ottawa.
“In our culture and our beliefs, we are honored to have these foods … because this is something they have been reclaiming and reviving and protecting and saving,” she says.
Her favorite dish on the menu is the Three Sisters Veggie Bowl with rice, squash and beans. The other ingredients rotate seasonally, so the bowl features produce from as many as five different tribes at once. This summer, the bowl includes strawberries, which she says remind her of those summers spent with her grandfather.
“It’s my little place of home, of happiness. If you can spark that little food memory, it’s actually a really good endorphin to heal,” she says. “I just want people to come here and be in this space and … relate to the foods.”
And they’re not just coming to eat.
People come to Wahpepah’s Kitchen bearing gifts. There’s an entire wall in the restaurant displaying the presents people bring for Wahpepah: mason jars packed with butternut squash seeds, seaweed, and blue corn flour, bundles of dried sage, and clay pots filled with succulents. These are gifts of gratitude from her community, to thank her for the home she’s created.
“A lot of elders come in,” she says. “They’ll sit here and they say, ‘I never thought I would sit in a Native American restaurant. And I wanted to come here today.’”
Others come with an almost spiritual purpose, like the man who traveled all the way from Arizona by himself to spend his birthday at Wahpepah’s Kitchen.
Odelia Young and Vina Vo stopped by the restaurant on a Wednesday afternoon lunch break. Young has been a fan of the place since it opened. She’s not Native American and says coming here to eat is an opportunity for authentic connections with Indigenous culture and people.
“I feel like it’s always like a sharing of culture with us,” Young says. “It isn’t just a place to come and consume — but it’s a place to come and connect.”
Vo, who is Vietnamese American, agrees.
“The flavors are very different than what I’m used to,” she says. “I think when you’re able to look at different ingredients [and] different flavors, you can kind of get a feel for what was available at that time, in that land … and there are stories behind that.”
Wahpepah hopes to share her food beyond the Bay Area. She is now working on a cookbook, which, on top of running a restaurant, is tough.
“It’s pretty much seven days a week. You definitely got to love what you do … and it’s definitely not about finance,” she says, with a laugh.
But she says it’s worth it when she adds warm corn soups and fresh-baked cornbread to her menu in the fall — and feels her grandmother’s presence.
“She might not be here physically, but she’s here,” Wahpepah says, smiling. “She would love it.”
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