Crystal Wahpepah stands inside her brightly-colored restaurant, which is intended to “mirror the colors of Native people.” Credit: Melati Citrawireja Credit: Brian Yurasits/Unsplash

Wahpepah’s Kitchen
3301 E. 12th St. (near 33rd Avenue), Oakland
Expected opening: Oct. 29/30, 2021

As a little girl growing up in Oakland, Crystal Wahpepah wondered why she could see plenty of restaurants featuring cuisines of different cultures, but none representing her own Indigenous heritage. “I knew at a young age what was wrong,” she says. “They took away our food.”  

She is Kickapoo and spent summers with her grandmother in Oklahoma, whom she credits with inspiring her to become a chef. Every August, they would harvest the corn together, roast it, dry it, and make sweet corn soup. Starting at age 7, Wahpepah often shared meals of traditional foods with members of many different tribes at Oakland’s Intertribal Friendship House. “Even though I was just a kid,” she recalls, “they never kicked me out of the kitchen, so I always got to participate.”

That’s when she realized her dream: to one day open a restaurant celebrating Native foods. Over four decades later, that dream will come true, when she officially opens Wahpepah’s Kitchen in Fruitvale Village at the end of October (in the space that formerly housed Reem’s).

In the intervening years, Wahpepah was one of the first to blaze a trail to become a professional Native chef. After studying business at American Indian College in Phoenix, she figured the next step was to attend cooking school and enrolled in Le Cordon Bleu in San Francisco. But when she told the instructors at the acclaimed French culinary school that she wanted to serve Indigenous food, they didn’t know how to help her.

With help from members of her Native community, she eventually found La Cocina, the San Francisco-based kitchen incubator program. The incubator supported her in developing her catering business and creating her distinctive logo: an ear of corn and a feather suspended from a fork. In 2016, Wahpepah became the first Native chef to compete on The Food Network show Chopped. Even though she didn’t win, she says it gave her a chance to “present the beauty of our foods, something our Native youth needs to see. What is an Indigenous chef? It’s not just a 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 were activists in the American Indian Movement. Every Thanksgiving we would go to Alcatraz. My uncle had this house in Oakland where Native people would come from reservations all over, all different tribes.  I was running around there as a young child, seeing them make different foods in the kitchen. I’ve always had this vision, here in Oakland, with its strong Native community, and I finally reached this place! I love showing people just how beautiful our foods are.”

Navajo contemporary artist Tony Abeyta has added a mural depicting cornstalks and blue clouds to the Wahpepah’s Kitchen dining room. Credit: Melati Citrawireja

The restaurant’s decor features bright red, yellow and turquoise “to mirror the colors of Native people,” the chef says, pointing to the beaded earrings she often wears. Those earrings led to her meeting renowned Navajo contemporary artist Tony Abeyta in — of all places — Berkeley Bowl. Several years ago, he noticed her Native earrings when, behind her in line, he saw her basket piled high with vegetables.

“Are you Navajo?” he asked. “Because you have too much healthy food there to be Navajo!” That marked the beginning of a deep friendship and led to Abeyta painting a moody blue mural with glowing cornstalks that climb the restaurant’s central pillar. “Corn is the Navajo symbol of sustenance and fertility,” Abeyta said.

Stephen Cheney (Lakota) of High Rez Wood Company is creating redwood tables for the restaurant, featuring a dragonfly design. There will eventually be 50 seats inside and out, but at first, with distancing, there will be half that number. Pendleton blankets in Native motifs will line the benches. Hanging baskets will dangle playfully from the ceiling.

The buttercup yellow shelves on the back wall are home to “Wahpepah’s Pantry” with glass jars showing off ingredients such as amaranth, Mohawk corn, squash blossoms, seaweed, and smoked prickly pear. A large screen will feature films of Indigenous farmers and Native chefs. Assorted genres of music from the Intertribal community will play in the background.

“This will be a place to eat, to learn and also a place of healing,” says Wahpepah. “I want to acknowledge that here in this building, we are on Ohlone land and I feel fortunate to be supported by Sogorea Te’ Land Trust. When people come in, I want them to recognize that and also that there are many different tribes here.” 

There will be photos on the walls of the monthly Indigenous Red Market on nearby International Boulevard (one of the local events closest to Wahpepah’s heart), of the Alcatraz take-over and of Native people coming to Oakland after the Indian Relocation act

Wahpepah’s Pantry contains jars of some of the chef’s favorite ingredients. Credit: Melati Citrawireja

Wahpepah’s Kitchen will be open Thursday-Sunday and will serve a Native breakfast (the chef’s favorite meal). The morning menu will feature dishes such as acorn waffles with pine nuts, blue corn cakes, bison blueberry sausage, fried hominy and smoked sweet potato hash.

Lunch and dinner will include dishes such as Three Sisters salad, quinoa amaranth salad, Kickapoo chili, corn soup, corn bread, turkey wild rice soup, bison burgers in blueberry sauce, turkey burgers and Kickapoo rabbit stew. It’s a menu Wahpepah describes as “modern Native cuisine.” 

Vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free choices will abound, as will plenty of grab-and-go options like the Swaamnaatei Bars that she created during the pandemic and now ships across the country, in flavors such as chocolate chokecherry, blue corn and maple. Beverages include her popular iced teas, which are flavored with huckleberry, blackberry sage or elderberry hibiscus with pineapple.

A signature of Wahpepah’s cooking is the edible flowers she uses to accent her dishes, including pansies, rose hips, cosmos, geraniums and bachelor buttons. “We eat with our eyes,” she said, “and flowers look beautiful on Native foods.”

Wahpepah has been planning this restaurant for over a year, carefully considering where to source her ingredients. Her menu will feature produce from local farmers, fishermen and ranchers and other Native food vendors. For example, she gets Native 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 in various tribes from Northern California all the way up to Washington. The timing of her opening is ideal for many of these vendors’ offerings. Not only is November Native American Heritage Month but —since her menu will reflect the seasons — autumn lets her showcase her beloved squashes, including Turban, acorn, Lakota, and Hopi white squash.

Wahpepah’s bison blue corn meatballs with blueberry sauce. 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 considers educating her staff about the foods that they serve an important part of embracing Native foodways. She is thrilled that her job posting for head chef attracted more than a half-dozen Indigenous chefs.

For years, Wahpepah’s fans and supporters would ask her when she was going to open a restaurant. Her answer was always the same, “when the time and place is right.” After the pandemic forced the closure of the Oakland commercial kitchen she used, she had to find another space. She asked the Unity Council behind Fruitvale Village for help, and they made the connection between Chef Wahpepah and Reem Assil. Both had attended La Cocina, but at different times. When the two women finally met, “It was heartfelt and emotional,” says Wahpepah. “We really connected and were both in tears. Reem told me, ‘If I have to leave my restaurant with anyone, it has to be you.’ This was really meant to be.”

It seems the current moment is bringing more attention to Native-owned restaurants, such as the new Owamni in Minneapolis by Sioux Chef Sean Sherman and Berkeley’s Café Ohlone, the reopening for which is planned for the end of the year. Quoting Cafe Ohlone, Vincent Medina Wahpepah said that “our food has been asleep. Now, our generation can revive it so we can pass it on.”

“All of us have been working very hard,” Wahpepah said. “This needs to happen for our Native Community. The time is right.  Healing is in the air for our beautiful, sacred foods.”

Wahpepah’s Kitchen will open on Oct. 29 or 30, beginning with breakfast and lunch service, and easing into dinner. 

Anna Mindess has two professions. She is a freelance journalist who focuses on food, culture, immigrants and travel. Her work has appeared in The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, AFAR, Lonely Planet, Oakland Magazine, Edible East Bay, and Berkeleyside. In 2018, her essay about 1951 Coffee Company was awarded First Place by the Association of Food Journalists. Anna also works as an American Sign Language interpreter and is the author of Reading Between the Signs, a book used to train sign language interpreters around the world.