On opening day at Wahpepah’s Kitchen last month, customers filled every table, inside and out. It was so busy, in fact, that the restaurant sold out of food. “Nobody can prepare you for opening day. Nobody,” Chef Crystal Wahpepah said before pausing our conversation to take a batch of blue-corn croutons out of the oven. “They came out perfect,” she exclaimed. Wahpepah was running a full-time catering business until the pandemic brought everything “to a complete stop.” But that universal pause provided the chef with an opportunity to look at the bigger picture. Not only for her professional life, but for Native food ways in particular.
“It was an eye-opener,” Wahpepah said. And it provided her with time to think about what her community, and its future generations, need to see. “That was me, opening up a brick-and-mortar.” Growing up in Oakland, Wahpepah recalls seeing no sign of Native American food spaces anywhere in the Bay Area. Even as a child, she noticed her community wasn’t represented in one of the most culturally and culinarily diverse areas of the country.
“At a very young age, cooking chose me,” Wahpepah said. “I used to love harvesting berries as a young child. It was one of my happy moments.” When she was very young, she started cooking Native foods with her grandmother and aunties. Describing her approach to creating the menu, she said, “I really wanted things to be familiar with the Native community, where they can recognize things that they have a relationship with.”
One of her favorite dishes growing up was potato tacos. “That was one of the things my grandmother used to make,” she said. Wahpepah discussed the idea with her head chef and they came up with a tostada. “Native foods are so simple—let’s add smoked-cedar salt for flavoring. At the same time, let’s make a pumpkin-seed cream.” Along with her blue-corn waffle, the tostada is one of her top-selling dishes.
Wahpepah’s Kitchen opened at the Fruitvale BART station in the storefront where Chef Reem Assil ran her acclaimed Arab bakery. Wahpepah said she’d been looking for a place for nearly a year and a half. Word got out, and Assil ended up reaching out to her. “The bond that we have in this community is that our foods are here,” Wahpepah said. Assil was tremendously helpful to Wahpepah, answering all of her questions about the kitchen and how to prepare for operating in the space.
“Having a restaurant is always a learning experience,” Wahpepah said. “This is about us birthing a baby, and all of us taking care of it.” A friend of the chef’s told her before the opening, “Your restaurant is going to become the way it wants to become. At the same time, you need to embrace it.” On opening day, almost 200 people showed up. “I was overwhelmed with so much gratitude, for so many people coming out,” she said.
When the Covid lockdown began, Wahpepah couldn’t continue to cater, and she hadn’t yet found a retail space, so she developed a wild rice-amaranth energy bar. While she’s at the helm of the restaurant, her daughter manages the sale and distribution of the bars—currently, they’re only available on the company’s website. Once the restaurant is where she’d like it to be, Wahpepah says she’ll sell them there, too. She explained the concept behind the bar: “I want the feeling that if people can’t come to Oakland, California, they will have something from Wahpehpah’s Kitchen in their home.”
“For me personally, there’s a right time and a right place,” the chef, who’s an enrolled member of the Kickapoo nation, said. “If I did this before now, I honestly don’t think I would have lasted.” When she talks about getting fresh berries from the Grand Lake Farmers Market for her dessert pudding, Wahpepah sounds both delighted and grateful. “I’m so happy, so content with the people we source our wild rice from, and our maple and blue corn.” After several successful years of catering around the country, she’s gained enough business experience and knowledge about her heritage to confidently declare, “Now, I feel that it’s Wahpepah’s Kitchen’s time.”
Wahpepah’s Kitchen, Open Wed-Sat 11am to 6pm, Sunday 11am to 2pm; 3301 East 12th St. Suite #133, Oakland. 510.698.4067. wahpepahskitchen.com