On Wahpepah’s Kitchen opening day last month, customers filled every table, inside and out. It was so crowded, in fact, that the restaurant was out of food. “No one can prepare you for opening day. Nobody,” chef Crystal Wahpepah said before pausing our conversation to pull out a batch of blue corn croutons from the oven. “They came out perfect,” she exclaimed. Wahpepah ran a full-time catering business until the pandemic “shut down” everything. But this universal pause provided the leader with an opportunity to look at the bigger picture. Not only for his professional life, but for native eating habits in particular.
“It was an eye opener,” Wahpepah said. And it gave him time to reflect on what his community and future generations need to see. “That was me, opening a brick and mortar store.” Growing up in Oakland, Wahpepah remembers seeing no sign of Native American food spaces in the Bay Area. Even as a child, she noticed that her community was not represented in one of the most culturally and culinary diverse regions of the country.
“At a very young age, the kitchen chose me,” Wahpepah said. “I loved harvesting berries when I was a young child. It was one of my happy moments.” At an early age, she began cooking native dishes with her grandmother and aunts. Describing her approach of creating the menu, she said, “I really wanted things to be familiar with the native community, where they can recognize the things they have a relationship with.”
One of his favorite foods growing up was potato tacos. “It was one of the things my grandmother used to do,” she said. Wahpepah discussed the idea with his chef and they came up with a tostada. “Native foods are so simple: add smoked cedar salt for flavoring. At the same time, let’s make a pumpkin seed cream. Along with its blue corn waffle, the tostada is one of its best-selling dishes.
Wahpepah’s Kitchen opened at the Fruitvale BART station in the storefront where chef Reem Assil ran his famous Arabic bakery. Wahpepah said she had been looking for accommodation for almost a year and a half. The word got out and Assil ended up reaching out his hand. “The connection we have in this community is that our food is here,” Wahpepah said. Assil was extremely helpful to Wahpepah, answering all of his questions about cooking and how to prepare to operate in space.
“Having a restaurant is always a learning experience,” Wahpepah said. “It’s about us delivering a baby, and all of us taking care of it.” A friend of the chef told him before the opening: “Your restaurant will become what it wants to become. At the same time, you have to accept it. On opening day, nearly 200 people showed up. “I was overwhelmed with so much gratitude, for so many people who came forward,” she said.
When the Covid lockdown started, Wahpepah couldn’t keep getting supplies, and she hadn’t yet found retail space, so she developed a wild rice and amaranth energy bar. While she runs the restaurant, her daughter manages the sale and distribution of the bars. Currently, they are only available on the company’s website. Once the restaurant is where she would like it to be, Wahpepah says she will sell them there too. She explained the concept behind the bar, “I want to feel like if people can’t come to Oakland, California, they’ll have something from Wahpehpah’s Kitchen at their house.”
“For me personally, there is a right time and a right place,” said the Chief, who is a registered member of the Kickapoo Nation. “If I had done this before now, honestly, I 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 thrilled and grateful. “I’m so happy, so satisfied with the people we source our wild rice, maple and blue corn from. After several successful years in the restaurant business across the country, she has gained enough business experience and knowledge of her heritage to confidently declare, “Now I feel it’s time for Wahpepah’s Kitchen.”
Wahpepah’s Kitchen, open Wednesday to Saturday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., Sunday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.; 3301 East 12th St. Suite #133, Oakland. 510.698.4067. wahpepahskitchen.com