Crystal Wahpepah is in her colorful restaurant, which is said to “reflect the colors of the indigenous people”. Photo credit: Melati Citrawireja
3301 E. 12th St. (near 33rd Avenue), Oakland
Expected opening: October 29/30, 2021
As a little girl growing up in Oakland, Crystal Wahpepah wondered why she could see many restaurants with cuisines from different cultures but none that represented her own indigenous heritage. “I knew what was going on at a young age,” she says. “They took our food away from us.”
She is Kickapoo and spent the summers with her grandmother in Oklahoma, who inspired her to become a cook. Every August they harvested the corn together, roasted it, dried it and made corn soup. From the age of 7, Wahpepah often shared meals of traditional foods with members of many different tribes at the Intertribal Friendship House in Oakland. “Although I was still a child,” she recalls, “I was never thrown out of the kitchen, so I was always allowed to join.”
Then she realized her dream: one day opening a restaurant where native foods are celebrated. Over four decades later, that dream came true when they officially opened Wahpepah’s Kitchen in Fruitvale Village (in the former Reem’s room) at the end of October.
In the intervening years, Wahpepah was one of the first to pave the way to becoming a professional local chef. After studying business administration at the American Indian College in Phoenix, the next step for her was attending a culinary school and enrolling at Le Cordon Bleu in San Francisco. But when she told the teachers at the prestigious French cooking school that she wanted to serve indigenous food, they didn’t know how to help her.
With the help of members of her local community, she eventually found La Cocina, the San Francisco-based kitchen incubator program. The incubator supported her in setting up her catering business and in creating her distinctive logo: an ear of wheat and a feather suspended from a fork. In 2016, Wahpepah became the first local chef to appear on The Food Network show Chopped. Even though she didn’t win, she says it gave her the chance to “showcase the beauty of our food, something our local youth must see. What is an indigenous cook? It’s not just business, it’s historical, it’s respect. “
Her new restaurant brings her back to her old neighborhood; she grew up a few blocks away. “My family was an activist in the American Indian Movement. We went to Alcatraz every Thanksgiving. My uncle had this house in Oakland that had indigenous people from all reservations, from all different tribes. When I was a little kid, I wandered around there and saw them prepare different foods in the kitchen. I’ve always had this vision here in Oakland with its strong indigenous community, and I’ve finally reached this place! I love showing people how beautiful our food is. “
Contemporary Navajo artist Tony Abeyta added a mural to the dining room at Wahpepah’s Kitchen showing corn stalks and blue clouds. Photo credit: Melati Citrawireja
The restaurant’s interior is bright red, yellow and turquoise, “to reflect the colors of the indigenous people,” says the cook, pointing to the pearl earrings she often wears. It was these earrings that led her to meet renowned Navajo contemporary artist Tony Abeyta – of all people – at the Berkeley Bowl. A few years ago he noticed her native earrings when he saw her basket full of vegetables in line behind her.
“Are you Navajo?” he asked. “Because you have too much healthy food there to be Navajo!” This was the beginning of a deep friendship and led Abeyta to paint an atmospheric blue mural with glowing corn stalks climbing the central pillar of the restaurant. “Corn is the Navajo symbol of food and fertility,” Abeyta said.
Stephen Cheney (Lakota) of the High Rez Wood Company creates redwood tables for the restaurant with a dragonfly design. Eventually there will be 50 seats inside and outside, but initially there will be by far half as many. Pendleton ceilings in Native motifs will line the benches. Hanging baskets dangle playfully from the ceiling.
The buttercup-yellow shelves on the back wall house “Wahpepah’s Pantry” with glasses showing ingredients such as amaranth, mohawk corn, pumpkin blossoms, algae and smoked prickly pears. Films by indigenous farmers and local chefs are shown on a big screen. Various music genres from the Intertribal community are playing in the background.
“This will be a place to eat, study, and also a place to heal,” says Wahpepah. “I want to acknowledge that we are here in this building on the Ohlone land and I am happy to be supported by the Sogorea Te ‘Land Trust. When people come in, I want them to realize and also that there are many different tribes here. ”
On the walls of the monthly Indigenous Red Market on nearby International Boulevard (one of the local events closest to Wahpepah’s heart) will be photos of the Alcatraz takeover and of indigenous people moved to Oakland under the Indian Relocation Act come.
Wahpepah’s Pantry contains glasses with some of the chef’s favorite ingredients. Photo credit: Melati Citrawireja
Wahpepah’s Kitchen is open Thursday through Sunday and serves a local breakfast (the chef’s favorite). The morning menu includes dishes such as acorn waffles with pine nuts, blue ice cream cake, bison and blueberry sausage, fried hominy and smoked sweet potato hash.
Lunch and dinner include dishes such as Three Sisters Salad, Quinoa Amaranth Salad, Kickapoo Chili, Corn Soup, Corn Bread, Turkey Wild Rice Soup, Bison Burger in Blueberry Sauce, Turkey Burger, and Kickapoo Rabbit Stew. It is a menu that Wahpepah describes as “modern local cuisine”.
Vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free options will be in abundance, as will many take-away options like the Swaamnaatei bars, which she created during the pandemic and now ships nationwide in flavors such as chocolate apple cherry, blue corn, and maple. The drinks include their popular iced teas, which are flavored with blueberry, blackberry sage or elderberry hibiscus with pineapple.
A signature of Wahpepah’s cuisine are the edible flowers she uses to accentuate her dishes, including pansies, rose hips, cosmos, geraniums and bachelorette buttons. “We eat with our eyes,” she said, “and flowers look beautiful on local dishes.”
Wahpepah has been planning this restaurant for over a year and is carefully considering where to get its ingredients. Your menu will feature products from local farmers, fishermen and ranchers, and other local food vendors. For example, she sources indigenous herbs from The Cultural Conservancy in Novato and Sebastopol, bison from J Bar S Bison Ukiah, maple syrup and maple cream from Ziibimijwang in Michigan, and smoked salmon from indigenous fishermen of various tribes from Northern California to Washington. The time of their opening is ideal for the offers of many of these providers. Not only is November Native American Heritage Month, but – since her menu reflects the seasons – fall is the time to showcase her beloved pumpkins, including turban, acorn, Lakota, and Hopi white squash.
Wahpepahs bison blue corn meatballs with blueberry sauce. Image Credit: Wahpepah’s Kitchen
“My staff will include my two daughters, Rikki and Kala Hopper (Pomo), as well as other staff who are Navajo, Pueblo and Sioux,” says Wahpepah, who is considering educating her staff about the food they serve is an important part of acceptance. Local food. She is thrilled that her job posting for the head chef has attracted more than half a dozen indigenous chefs.
For years, Wahpepah’s fans and supporters asked her when she would open a restaurant. Her answer was always the same: “If the time and place are right”. After the pandemic forced the closure of the commercial kitchen she used in Oakland, she had to find another place. She turned to the Unity Council behind Fruitvale Village for help, and they made the connection between Chef Wahpepah and Reem Assil. Both had visited La Cocina, but at different times. When the two women finally met, “it was sincere and emotional,” says Wahpepah. “We really bonded and were both in tears. Reem told me, ‘If I have to leave my restaurant with someone, it has to be you.’ It was really meant that way. “
It seems that the current moment is drawing more attention to local restaurants like Sioux Chef Sean Sherman’s new Owamni in Minneapolis and Berkeley’s Cafe Ohlone, slated to reopen later this year. Wahpepah quoted Vincent Medina, the owner of Cafe Ohlone, that “our meal slept. Now our generation can revive it so that we can pass it on. ”
“We all worked very hard,” said Wahpepah. “That has to happen for our native community. It is time now. For our beautiful, holy food, there is healing in the air. “
Wahpepah’s kitchen opens on October 29th or 30th, starting with breakfast and lunch service through to dinner.
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