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This article was updated on Sept. 12.
Just before the pandemic hit, Chef Crystal Wahpepah was finally seeing the fruits of her labor. The Native American caterer was in demand across the Bay Area and around the country, preparing her signature feasts of beautifully plated Indigenous dishes such as buffalo blueberry stew, three sisters salad with wild red rice, and blue corn flan with hibiscus berry sauce. Wahpepah, a member of the Kickapoo nation, grew up in Oakland but spent the summers with her grandparents in Oklahoma, learning to cook with traditional ingredients. Every year, she would help prepare the corn for her grandmother’s sweet dried corn soup. “I never would have been a chef without my grandmother,” she says.
For her work over the last decade, Wahpepah received the Indigenous Artist Activist Award and was inducted into the Native American Almanac as the founder of Wahpepah’s Kitchen, which the Almanac described as “the first Native American woman-owned catering business in California.” (Update: After publishing this article, The Oaklandside was made aware of other woman-led Native food and catering businesses that have been operating for years in California, including Wailaki’s Indian Tacos in Sacramento.)
Wahpepah’s path to becoming a chef, however, was not a smooth one.
As a child, she saw that many of the world’s cuisines were represented in Bay Area restaurants, but not her own people’s. When she decided to change that and become an Indigenous chef, she attended Le Cordon Bleu cooking school in San Francisco. Although she did master the classic French cooking techniques taught at the renowned culinary school, her instructors were at a loss to help her realize her singular dream.
After several detours, in 2010 she was accepted into La Cocina, a San Francisco incubator program that trains mostly low-income immigrants and women of color to become food entrepreneurs. The supportive staff at La Cocina understood her dream and helped her develop a business plan that led to the establishment of Wahpepah’s Kitchen. For her business’s logo, Wahpepah chose to combine a fork, a feather, and an ear of her beloved corn.
After several years of cooking her native foods and catering mostly for Bay Area tech companies, a friend suggested that Wahpepah apply to be a contestant on the Food Network show “Chopped.” Although she initially resisted the idea, she sent in her application—and then promptly forgot about it. Six months later came a phone call that would change her life: In 2016, Wahpepah made her mark as the first Native American chef on the popular TV program, a milestone that felt larger than a personal victory.
“When they told me that I was the first Native chef to be on there, it touched my heart,” said Wahpepah. “It was more than just a TV show about me, it’s about paving the way for other Indigenous chefs. Letting people know: We are still here, and we’re still cooking.”
While she didn’t win the competition, the experience increased her visibility and opened doors. She was able to hire a staff of four for her catering business and maintain a full schedule of engagements all over the Bay Area and across the country.
One of her favorites venues was close to home: the monthly Indigenous Red Market on Fruitvale Avenue in Oakland, which began in 2018 as a cultural event to showcase the talents of Indigenous communities through music and dance performances, promote Indigenous foods, and offer a marketplace to support Indigenous entrepreneurs. With an average monthly attendance of several hundred people, the booth for Wahpepah’s Kitchen always had a long line of fans waiting to enjoy such dishes as her Kickapoo chili, bison meatballs, and chokeberry sage iced tea.
Then, COVID forced the cancellation of the Indigenous Red Market and all the other events she was scheduled to cater for the next six months. After getting over the initial shock, Wapehpah saw it as a sign to rest, meditate, and embrace the present moment. She had been so busy for the past five years, that she didn’t have the time to devote to a special project: a cookbook that she is now writing, which she describes as “the story of how I became an Indigenous chef with recipes that helped me along the way.”
Besides working on her book, in the last few months, she has presented several cooking classes and demos online, including one in a series sponsored by Davidson College, Resilience Recipes: Native Food-preneurs. The online demos let her showcase her attractively prepared dishes using Indigenous ingredients, topped by her signature edible flowers (such as cosmos, geraniums, and bachelor buttons).
But one thing Wahpepah has missed during the pandemic is cooking food that people can enjoy. That was the inspiration behind her new Swaami Bar, which she just unveiled on her website. She makes the bar with wild rice, amaranth, maple cream, pumpkin seeds, cranberries, and striking purple and yellow dried pansies. The name comes from the Kickapoo word Swaamnaatei, a brilliant purple crystal which also signifies potential energy and honors the aunt who introduced her to the recipe.
“I’ve been making these for myself and my kids and planning to make them available to a wider audience for several months,” she said. “They come in boxes of three bars and we can ship them across the U.S.”
An important influence on Wahpepah’s life is Oakland’s Intertribal Friendship House (IFH), which since 1955 has served as a vibrant community center for American Indian people who were relocated to urban environments after being displaced from their native lands. The IFH served an early role in Wahpepah’s life, as she learned to cook there starting at the age of seven, and shared meals of traditional foods with members of many tribes. Pre-COVID, the IFH was a resource for more than 10,000 members of 100 different tribes in the Bay Area. It has a garden to grow traditional foods and medicines and was a center of activity, with pow wows, dinners, celebrations, art exhibits, and many programs for youth, such as classes in basket weaving, regalia making, beading, and abalone jewelry making. Wahpepah came full circle and taught cooking classes there, along with other Indigenous chefs.
Intertribal Friendship House director Carol Wahpepah, who is Crystal Wahpepah’s aunt, says the center is going through a particularly hard time due to the pandemic. The organization can no longer serve its primary function as a community gathering place, and its internet service is too slow to stream all of the programs they’d like to share with members; the center is currently offering just one weekly online dance and drumming class.
However, said Carol Wahpepah, “we still have our cultural gardening program, the IFH Native Youth Council is creating a digital art show called Native Quarantine, and several Native cultural keepers have created videos that cover Native language, art, songs, stories, drumming, and more. These are shared with the Native community so families can learn together.”
Also, IFH continues to fulfill the Native American cultural tradition of caring for elders through a network of volunteers who collect nutritious food and COVID supplies and distribute them to the elderly and other community members in need. IFH has set up a GoFundMe page to support that effort.
Crystal Wahpepah notes that IFH continues to also play a crucial role for Native youth. “Oakland has a huge native community, and a lot of us don’t come from a beautiful background and are struggling to find out our identity, who we are,” she said. “I was born and raised in Oakland but went back and forth to Oklahoma. I was so fortunate to have the foundation of my family to learn where we came from, our values, and how to respect our foods and present them in a humble way.”
The chef is hoping to head back into her kitchen in September. She has a lot of scheduled catering gigs and can prepare pre-packaged meals. Chef Wahpepah is determined to keep the kitchen and the business she worked so hard for, and even open a restaurant one day, when the time and place are right.
“I know I’m on the right path,” she said. “I’m embracing my cookbook. Native American food – it’s our time! I love seeing how different chefs blossom, all on the same journey, maybe on different roads. My grandmother says, ‘It’s okay to be lost as long as you know where you’re going.’”
While Wahpepah missed having an Indigenous chef role model growing up, she humbly acknowledges that she can now serve as one for younger chefs and that the interest in reviving Indigenous food is huge. “A lot of people ask me for my advice. I don’t sugar coat it,” she said. “It’s really hard.”
“You have to have a lot of passion and sacrifice. You have to really believe in what you are doing. Being a woman and Indigenous is no joke. There will be ups and downs, but believe in what you are doing. Make sure that you have passion and love…and remember our community needs you. We need more Indigenous chefs.”