Crystal Wahpepah Celebrates Spring and Native Foods in Her New Restaurant
By Anna Mindess | Photos by Scott Peterson
Alongside a majestic orange oak tree, five figures offer sacred foods from their respective Indigenous cultures: Peruvian potatoes, Mayan corn, Ohlone acorns, and Lakota bison. In the center, a Kickapoo woman holds a basket of squash. The mural, entitled Indigenous Food Warriors, was painted by Votan and Povi of the Indigenous collective NSRGNTS. It embodies the concept behind Wahpepah’s Kitchen, the first Native American woman–owned restaurant in California, where the feast features dishes from a host of Indigenous traditions.
A Single-Minded Purpose
The Oakland restaurant, which opened in November 2021, is the culmination of a lifelong dream for Chef Crystal Wahpepah. A member of the Kickapoo nation, Wahpepah spent many childhood summers with her grandparents in Oklahoma, and she credits her Kickapoo family there for teaching her how to cook her Native ancestors’ dishes. But her interest was fed equally well throughout the school year at her home in Oakland’s Fruitvale district. The area hosts many urban Native people from tribes across America, and they often congregate at the nearby Intertribal Friendship House (IFH), which for 67 years has served as a community center for American Indian people relocated to urban environments after being displaced from their Native lands.
At the age of 7, Wahpepah was welcomed into the communal kitchen at IFH to share meals of traditional foods with members of many tribes. She says she’s proud that her restaurant can celebrate the beauty of the Native foods and the communal wisdom she learned there.
As a young child, Wahpepah noticed that Oakland’s restaurants spanned a wide world of cuisines, but she couldn’t find her own culture among them. She realized early on that it was within her own power to change that scenario, but with no specific role model for the profession of Native chef, she gleaned her culinary education where she could. Crossing the Bay to San Francisco, she earned a diploma from Le Cordon Bleu cooking school and later she participated in the kitchen incubator program at La Cocina. As her cooking became known in the Native community, she was in high demand as a caterer for local events like the Stanford Powwow and the monthly Indigenous Red Market in Oakland. In 2016, she claimed the distinction of being the first Native American chef on the Food Network’s television show “Chopped,” and that wide recognition led to catering opportunities all over the country. The pandemic put a halt to her catering travels, so she pivoted to online teaching and making her Swaamnaatei wild rice and amaranth bars—in flavors such as chocolate rose hips and maple—which she now sells from her website to customers all over the country. All the while, she waited patiently for the opportune time to open a restaurant.
The moment came when Reem Assil, celebrated chef of the Arab bakery Reem’s, decided to move out of her cozy space in Oakland’s Fruitvale Village. Directors at the Unity Council (the nonprofit social equity development corporation that created the mixed-use Fruitvale Village) introduced the two chefs, both of whom had attended La Cocina but at different times. Wahpepah says their first in-person meeting at the restaurant was heartfelt and emotional. “We really connected,” she says. The space itself also has deep meaning for Wahpepah, who always acknowledges deep gratitude in saying, “Here in this building, we are on Ohlone land.”
Seasons on the Land
Wahpepah’s menu changes according to the seasons. Her opening fall menu featured many of her signature dishes like bison meatballs in berry sauce; fresh salmon with a wild rice pilaf, Hubbard squash, and elderberry onions; and a venison and roasted corn soup served with blue corn bread. “My aunties always told me that it’s way better to eat foods that are in season,” says Wahpepah. “If we eat in balance with the seasons, we will feel more balanced ourselves. For me, personally, it’s better for my emotional, mental, and physical health. Winter is time for us to relax, take care of ourselves, keep warm, and eat warm, comforting foods. The only greens we have in winter are things like chard to make soups. When springtime comes, we can eat fresh greens again.” (Her spring menu will include salads featuring native lettuces, herbs, and berries.)
“Spring is one of my favorite times of the year, because we are coming into a new season,” she says. “And not just with our plants, but with life. Spring is the time when everything is growing. The new season means new life and a new journey.”
Wahpepah’s family has always eagerly awaited the appearance of delicate wild onions (also known as ramps), which are the first green fingers to pop out of the earth after the winter cold. The chef prepares these greens, with their hint of garlic flavor, into a light and nourishing soup.
“I learned to make wild onion soup from my grandmother and aunties, who still make it to this day. Ever since I was young, it’s always been a part of our family. Everyone would say, ‘It’s wild onion time!’ It’s like wild rice: one of those gifts from nature, that when you get it, you are excited. We would harvest them in the fields of Oklahoma. But they are hard to find here.”
“What Can I Grow for You?”
One of Wahpepah’s core values is that her fresh ingredients should come from nearby Indigenous farmers, so her lettuce is grown seven miles away at the one-acre Rooftop Huichin Farm, a project of Deep Medicine Circle (DMC), a women-of-color–led nonprofit whose website describes their commitment to “healing the wounds of colonialism through food, medicine, story, and learning.” Cilantro, turnips, and watermelon radishes come from DMC’s 38-acre coastal farm in San Gregorio, which is in Ramatush Ohlone territory.
Native herbs are cultivated by the Cultural Conservancy in Novato, an inter-tribal, inter-generational, Native-led organization, whose aim since 1985 has been to “protect and restore Indigenous cultures.” She has been working with them for years and says, “I love it when the Indigenous farmers ask me, ‘Crystal, what can I grow for you?’”
For food items not available locally, she reaches out to Indigenous producers around the country. For instance, she sources maple syrup from Ziibimijwang Farm in Michigan, and smoked salmon from Indigenous fishing communities along the Pacific Coast from Northern California up to Washington.
Diners who follow acclaimed Indigenous-owned restaurants like Berkeley’s Café Ohlone and Sioux Chef Sean Sherman’s Owamni in Minneapolis admire how those chefs have worked to revitalize their own tribes’ traditional dishes. Chef Wahpepah instead aims to showcase the foods of many tribes. “We’re different from any other restaurant in what we provide to our community. I want people to understand what it means to be intertribal and experience the beauty of our Native foods.” ♦Print
3301 E. 12th Street (near 33rd Avenue), #133
Anna Mindess writes on food, culture, and travel for numerous publications with a recent focus on immigrant-run food businesses. She received the 2018 Association of Food Journalists award for Best Food Essay for her story about Berkeley’s refugee-run 1951 Coffee Company. Anna also works as an American Sign Language interpreter. Follow her on Instagram @annamindess and find her stories at annamindess.contently.com.
Photographer/filmmaker Scott Peterson presents a range of his work at scottpetersonproductions.com.