For Crystal Wahpepah, Native American cuisine isn’t just a burgeoning food movement; rather, it’s long been a joyous way of life. For more than a decade, the 52-year-old Afro-Indigenous chef and activist (Kickapoo/Sac and Fox) has been serving up traditional fare in the Bay Area and beyond, including at Silicon Valley giants like Google, Facebook, and Twitter. Her beloved family recipes, like her grandmother’s bison chili, finally got a permanent home with the 2021 debut of Wahpepah’s Kitchen in Oakland, which celebrates its one-year anniversary this month. Now highly sought after by American institutions like the White House and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, she is poised to make an even bigger impact on the national culinary scene.
Trail blazing doesn’t scare the self-proclaimed Indigenous food warrior. In fact, Wahpepah’s career is full of firsts: In 2010, she launched one of the first Native woman-owned catering businesses (documented in the Native American Almanac). Then in 2016, she was the first Indigenous chef to appear on Food Network’s Chopped. And when her eponymous eatery opened last year, it became Northern California’s first woman-owned Native restaurant. Wahpepah’s unwavering fortitude and infectious zest for life were forged early on, thanks to the strong example set by the courageous women in her life.
She grew up surrounded by a tight-knit urban Native community in the Bay Area, home to a sizable Indigenous population estimated at 18,500, with multiple tribes represented. “I was raised by a single Native mother, my grandmother, and my aunties,” says the 2022 James Beard Emerging Chef nominee. “I got to be raised around so many beautiful Native women, and to this day, I call them my aunties.” Although she’s biracial, Wahpepah had little connection to her African American heritage on her dad’s side after her parents separated.
Summers were spent on a family farm in Oklahoma, where Wahpepah connected with her Kickapoo roots and helped tend to the cows and pigs, harvest the corn, and the like. “I always say I have two homes: Oakland and Oklahoma,” she explains. Although seemingly disparate, these two places have commonalities for Wahpepah: “One of my aunts is the director of Intertribal Friendship House in Oakland (one of America’s first urban Indigenous community centers), where I first embraced cooking. Then in Oklahoma, I was always in the kitchen with my grandmother or my aunties. We used so many of the same ingredients — deer, corn, berries — so everything felt familiar.”
Her catering business was born out of her love of cooking but quickly became a platform to showcase Indigenous cuisine to everyone including, yes, Silicon Valley execs. Those doors opened thanks to Native connections, who would invite her in to serve traditional teas and foods. “That’s when I realized, my gosh, nobody really knows about Native food,” Wahpepah says. “Which I guess I always knew deep down because of colonization and historical trauma, but it’s more of a reality check when you’re actually in that world. At the same time, I met the most wonderful people representing their tribes in these spaces, like the tech world. It reminded me that I’m not alone; we’re doing this together.”
But she found herself often dumbing down Native cuisine in these settings, preparing fare that people were more familiar with, like so-called Indian tacos. “There were times when I thought, What am I doing?” she says. “But then something in my heart told me that this was where I needed to be. I realized it was an opportunity to educate.” Over time, Wahpepah began integrating more of those family recipes into her catering menus. Thus began a lifetime of educating others about Indigenous foodways.
When the pandemic stymied her catering company, she decided to pursue her dream of opening a brick-and-mortar restaurant, much to the delight of local followers. But even a decade spent catering couldn’t properly prepare Wahpepah for this massive undertaking, so she tapped celebrated chef Sean Sherman of Minneapolis’s Owamni, widely considered one of the most important Native restaurants across the country. Though growing, the network of Indigenous chefs is small, so they knew each other from gatherings like food summits.
“I call Sean my restaurant mentor because, wow, no one can prepare you for opening a restaurant,” she says. “There are no words to express what he’s done for me. It’s like he put a seat belt on me and said, ‘Get ready for the ride.’”
That included a “crash course” visit to Sherman’s Indigenous Food Lab, an incubator kitchen and training center designed to foster Native culinary innovation. “Sean flew me and my team out there, because he wanted me to get the full picture before I opened my restaurant,” she says. “I’m forever grateful, because there’s a lot I wasn’t fully aware of. That experience really inspired me and sealed the deal in my heart.”
Sherman returns the admiration, even giving Wahpepah a shoutout during his acceptance speech for the 2022 James Beard Award for Best New Restaurant. “I consider Crystal a friend and want to see her succeed,” he tells us. “We really want to be a support center for Indigenous entrepreneurs, and working with Crystal was the perfect opportunity to do just that.”
Much like its owner’s varied upbringing, Wahpepah’s Kitchen reflects the diversity of the many Native communities across America, from the staff to the farmers to the menu. The in-house team — including Wahpepah’s three daughters, who she says will eventually take over the eatery — represents 17 different tribes. Nationwide producers provide food like smoked salmon (Lemhi Nation), corn (Arizona’s Ramona Farms), and acorns (Mono Nation). Wahpepah lovingly brings these ingredients to life in popular dishes like blue corn waffles, cedar-smoked sweet potato tostadas, and bison meatballs with berry sauce and turnip slaw.
All this fare is served up with a healthy helping of education. “As an Indigenous chef, my main duty is to heal our community, but I also have a certain responsibility to educate,” says Wahpepah, noting that many people are surprised upon learning about the robust Native population in the Bay Area. “Once non-Natives are educated, that’s where the respect comes in — acknowledging and really seeing us.”
Although her menu is Indigenous-focused, Wahpepah points to the commonalities across various foodways. “A lot of Native American and African American heritage is similar, with intertwined history,” she says. “Both mush and grits are made from corn, for example. Maybe someday I can take a trip to Africa and come back feeling more connected with that part of my heritage. But when it comes to what you see on the plate, this is who I am and how I was raised.”
Wahpepah’s driving mission goes beyond just the food she’s cooking. “My top objective is always to acknowledge whose land you’re on; we are on Ohlone land,” she says, gesturing to an oversize mural showcasing Native food traditions. “The Ohlone Nation is represented on our mural of Indigenous food warriors, which encompasses everyone from our chefs and servers to our farmers to anyone helping reclaim Native foodways on this path of healing from historical trauma.”
That mural, created by Indigenous art and activism collective NSRGNTS, acts as the centerpiece of Wahpepah’s colorful eatery. A bright yellow wall dubbed the Indigenous pantry proudly displays jars full of various seeds, paying homage to the tribal tradition of seed saving to preserve crops and pass down cultural knowledge from one generation to the next.
The response to the restaurant has been remarkable. “Native people come into this space, get teary-eyed, and tell me, ‘I feel like I’m home,’” she says. “A lot of Native people haven’t had the opportunity to go back home, but they’ll remember a certain dish from growing up. And that’s why we’re here — to hold that space. Not only does Wahpepah’s Kitchen represent my family and who I am, but it also represents our food producers. It represents our community. It represents food justice and sovereignty.”
Although it’s no longer the main focus of her business, the catering requests have been rolling in as of late. That includes high-profile jobs like the recent Academy apology ceremony to Sacheen Littlefeather. The late actress and activist famously shocked at the 1973 Oscars when she declined the award for best actor on behalf of Marlon Brando, who boycotted the ceremony to protest Hollywood depictions of Native peoples. (Although a widely publicized, highly criticized San Francisco Chronicle op-ed recently called into question Littlefeather’s ancestry, many Indigenous thought leaders were quick to point out the complicated nature of Native identity, particularly as it relates to controversial colonialist constructs like blood quantum measurements.)
Littlefeather selected Wahpepah to make the meal for the private reception that followed that September ceremony. “What an honor,” she recalls. “Sacheen had come into the restaurant and told me, ‘If I ever had a Native restaurant, this would be it.’ I was brought to tears. Then a few months later, I got a call from the Oscars explaining they were going to honor her and that she handpicked me to cook. When I talk about the path we’re on, this is what I mean. She gave us such a gift with her wisdom and grace, and even at that ceremony, she was still paving the way and opening the doors of opportunity for us.” Wahpepah also served the dinner reception following Littlefeather’s October funeral.
Then there was this fall’s White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health, which brought together more than 500 policymakers and thought leaders for the first time in 50 years. The James Beard Foundation, a partner on the event, asked Wahpepah to cook alongside other BIPOC chefs like Adrian Lipscombe and Erik Bruner-Yang. She eschewed using suggested ingredients from corporate sponsors and instead brought in fare from her go-to Native producers for dishes like braised bison with smoked cedar salt; a three sisters veggie bowl with corn, quinoa and squash; and heirloom blue cornbread with mixed berry compote. (She was back in Washington, D.C. earlier this month for the first-ever Native American Heritage Month Reception at the White House, personally invited by First Lady Jill Biden.)
“It was such an honor to represent our people, but I wouldn’t have felt right not having my Native producers’ foods with me,” she says. “I was amazed to see so many people of color representing our country and talking about how to move forward toward better health. It’s time for us to heal when it comes to nutrition and hunger.”
All these seemingly happy coincidences are in perfect alignment with the path that Wahpepah plotted out so many years ago, back when she was cooking in the kitchen with her aunties. “I know the path I’m on: to bring awareness to Indigenous food and to the fact that Native Americans are still here and still matter,” she says. “No matter who you are, what tribe you are, or what you represent, we still matter. We’re on this path of healing from historical trauma, and I want the next generation to have the tools we never had.”
Wahpepah has exciting developments on the horizon — a cookbook, an expansion, and more — but what brings her the most joy is contemplating the future of the Native American food movement. “A lot of doors are going to be opening for Native chefs,” she affirms. “If I can open these doors for other Native chefs, for our producers, for our land, I’ve done my work. This is what it’s all about — holding this space for the next generation and being proud of who we are, because we’ve never had the voice that we have right now.”
An Alaska Native Tlingit tribal member, Kate Nelson is an award-winning writer and editor living in Minneapolis.
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