Among the many deserving Bay Area nominees for this year’s James Beard Foundation awards, perhaps none is as notable as Crystal Wahpepah of Wahpepah’s Kitchen in Oakland. Wahpepah — a member of the Oklahoma Kickapoo tribe and long-time food professional turned restaurateur — was recognized as one of the nation’s Emerging Chefs. We chatted with her to learn more about her path, her food, her Fruitvale restaurant, and her mission surrounding Indigenous American ingredients.
Resy: You ran a catering company for more than a decade before opening up a restaurant. What inspired the move into opening a brick-and-mortar restaurant? Why now?
Crystal Wahpepah: I lost my kitchen during the beginning of COVID. But then an opportunity came for a restaurant space — I felt it was the right time.
You work with Indigenous ingredients not often seen on Bay Area menus — chokecherries, for example. Where do you source them?
We source these Indigenous berries from Nevada and South Dakota. If you eat them raw, it’s bitter, but once you cook them, they turn sweet, so people can make them into jams or teas. I mostly use them in sauces, like for our buffalo sticks.
Our ingredients are sourced from other Indigenous business owners, growers, and farmers as much as possible, like squash from Cotati, Red Lake wild rice from Minnesota, maple syrup from Michigan, Seka Hills olive oil, and more. We have a private farmer in Cotati that does squash for us. Dandelion, yerba buena, and watercress come from Sebastopol.
The Indigenous bars are a big thing— what inspired them?
We’ll sell them at the restaurant and all over the nation, too. They are made with wild rice, amaranth, and maple syrup that’s tapped especially for us twice a year from Michigan. We started doing the bars when everything went to a complete stop with COVID; I ended up putting together these bars as a way to use these ingredients.
What are some other Native American and Indigenous-owned organizations in the Bay Area that you like to frequent and support?
Let’s talk about the restaurant. Tell us more about the head chef you hired to help run the kitchen, Diego Cruz.
Diego is a gem, for sure. He went to culinary school in Ecuador. In Chicago, he worked in a Japanese restaurant, and worked with Nikkei food in Brooklyn, too. He is very humble, respectful, and open to native cuisines.
What’s the collaborative creative culinary process? How do you two come up with dishes on the menu?
I love to create with Indigenous ingredients. I have a vision for the native ingredients, and Diego helps tie it together. He understands the creative part. Our menu changes with the season, too.
What is your favorite dish on the menu?
If I had to choose one today, it would be Oklahoma pearl hominy — it reminds me of my family that connection to Oklahoma.
What does your name – Wahpepah – translate to?
Leader of the Eagles in the Kickapoo language.
If you could change one thing about the way the restaurant industry operates, what would it be?
People don’t see how hard restaurant owners work — it’s a labor of love. To me, it’s so fast-paced, and people are missing the whole point. I just want everyone to slow down — the diners, the workers, everyone. If you want everything fast and go-go-go, how can you take it in and digest?
People don’t see how hard restaurant owners work — it’s a labor of love … I just want everyone to slow down — the diners, the workers, everyone.— Crystal Wahpepah
OK, lightning round. What are some of your favorite restaurants in The Bay Area?
I love Thai food — Chai Thai, Daughter’s Thai. I like Champa Gardens. Agave Uptown –that’s my jam right there.
Kitchen tool you couldn’t live without?
If you could have dinner with one person, who would it be?
I have too many to answer, but it would probably be an elder.
Where would you like to travel to next for inspiration?
Do you have a favorite cookbook?
Right now it’s “New Native Kitchen.”
Who are some of your inspirations, both culinary, and in general?
Native people that keep our food alive and loved. There are so many.
If you had to only eat one thing for the rest of your life, what would it be, and why?
Squash, because you can do so much with it.
What else do you have up your sleeves for Wahpepah’s Kitchen in the near future?
We have lots of new surprising things coming up, but we can’t say anything quite yet. We’ll have a new menu — that changes three to four times a year.
Omar Mamoon is a San Francisco-based writer and cookie dough professional. Instagram: @ommmar