Chef Crystal Wahpepah on the power of Indigenous cuisine: “Indigenous foods are neglected” | Food


Out on the sunny terrace of Wahpepah’s Kitchen, sizzling plates of buffalo and deer make their way to a table full of Native American educators from across the country. Game meat joins other native dishes on the kitchen’s menu, such as leafy salads topped with striped red corn and blue corn porridge sweetened with berries and maple.

Chef Crystal Wahpepah, owner of Wahpepah’s Kitchen and member of the Kickapoo tribe, is proud to see the gathering. Food is medicine in the Native American tradition, and his Oakland restaurant is all about bringing together native growers and ingredients — sustainable meats, fresh berries, ancient corn and herbs — to help people heal.

“Being a Native American chief is more than being a chief. It’s deeper than that,” Wahpepah says. “It’s about how you connect to community and health. It’s about our impact on people and what we put in our food.

In the seven months since the opening of Wahpepah’s Kitchen, one of the few indigenous restaurants in the country, Wahpepah has become the toast of the culinary world. She speaks at national conferences, prepares for a food sovereignty symposium and festival in Michigan, and is a finalist for the James Beard Foundation’s 2022 Emerging Chef Award.

Chef Crystal Wahpepah has achieved overnight success and is a finalist for a James Beard Award. Photograph: Gabriela Hasbun/The Guardian

But despite all the buzz, Wahpepah’s overnight success lasted a lifetime. Wahpepah, 50, grew up in the close-knit Native American community of Oakland. She is enrolled in the Kickapoo Tribe of Oklahoma, like her mother and grandfather. When her parents separated, her father, who was black, moved back to Louisiana.

She says it was hard being the only mixed-race child in the family, the only one without a father in her life. But food traditions anchored her to her family and her Native American heritage. “I ended up kissing him,” she said.

Wahpepah, a graduate of San Francisco’s La Cocina food incubator program, started a restaurant business 12 years ago specializing in Native American foods such as salmon, acorns, berries and Kickapoo buffalo chili from her grandfather. -mother. During the pandemic, when his rented catering kitchen closed, fellow Bay Area chef Reem Assil invited Wahpepah to take over his former restaurant space just under the Fruitvale BART station.

Bright yellow shelves hold jars of cereals and seeds as a woman's hand reaches up to select a jar.
Left: Wahpepah’s kitchen is filled with bright colors and indigenous foods. Right: Crystal Wahpepah’s mission is to introduce people to real Native cuisine at her restaurant in Oakland, California. Photograph: Gabriela Hasbun/The Guardian

Today, Wahpepah’s Kitchen is a bustling center filled with bright colors and artwork that tells the story of the food they serve. A mural by artist Votan Henriquezan depicts Indigenous food warriors from across the Americas, while columns painted by Diné artist Tony Abeyta are adorned with golden corn – Navajo symbols of fertility and sustenance – against a backdrop of turquoise and cobalt blue clouds.

Working alongside his three daughters, Rosario, Rikki and Kala Hopper, who are Big Valley Pomo registered, his sous chef Josh Hoyt (Ojibwe) and Ecuadorian chef Diego Cruz, Wahpepah’s mission is to introduce people to the real native cuisine while ensuring that his family traditions live on. Take the elderberries and blackberries she likes to cook with, for example.

“I think berries are the most beautiful thing. These are memories of my childhood and blackberry picking with my grandfather,” she says. “It’s the best times and actually one of the healing times for me. I believe life is a circle in how everything comes back; and if he did it for me, he can do it for me. someone else.

The Guardian sat down with Wahpepah to discuss how her upbringing and heritage have shaped her cooking, her passion for food sovereignty and healing her community through food. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

A woman in a gray toque stands in her restaurant, one arm leaning on a counter.  A sign behind her reads 'Wahpepah's Kitchen'.
Crystal Wahpepah’s food philosophy is to eat the natural way based on what’s in season and what’s local. Photograph: Gabriela Hasbun/The Guardian

Crystal Wahpepah: “Everyone can make a difference in our food system”

Your food looks like what you would eat if you had a garden and could forage for foods that were in season. How would you describe your culinary philosophy and your approach to recipes?

It’s exactly what we like to represent when you eat [our food]. If we look at how the universe works, we are supposed to eat in a natural way according to the season. I also believe our food shouldn’t travel that far. When you taste our food, you taste the cleanliness and the fact that it does not travel. That’s my philosophy and I’m sure I’m right.

Some of our recipes, like the Kickapoo pepper, are things my tribe always makes. I also gather recipes by going to the library and reading Native American stories, and getting recipes.

We have forgotten how beautiful native foods are and where they come from. Our origin comes from a lot of protein, so I specialize in game meat, such as venison and rabbit. My grandfather was a hunter, so when my brother hunts he knows how to bring it to me and I know how to cut it.

How would you describe your job as a chef and what do you enjoy most about your job?

Our food system is really bad. It affects who we are, our energy, our way of thinking. It has a lot to do with depression. My mission is to make our food known, and at the same time make it visible to our community, using indigenous knowledge and expertise to transform the food system. And also to cultivate and maintain ties with indigenous farmers.

The best thing about being a Native American chef is the community and who you work with… When I started out as a caterer, sometimes I only had one restaurant job a month. I’ve been to many food sovereignty summits and supported many Native American organizations. These are the people who created Wahpepah’s Kitchen.

I wouldn’t do what I do without my community, here in Oakland but also across the country. And to be in solidarity and to be with Indigenous-led people, and to make a difference in the lives of every child and every Elder. Everyone can make a difference in our food system.

You use ingredients like amaranth, purple corn, and Oklahoma red hominy. Where do you find them?

I have been very fortunate to work with Native American food producers. We smoked cedar salt made for us by Sakari Farms in Oregon. Maple sugar comes from Michigan. Blue Corn comes from the Ute Nation in Colorado. Chocolate comes from Belize. Wild peppermint from South Dakota, smoked salmon from the Lummi Nation in Seattle. A member of the Fresno Mono Nation makes acorn flour and delivers it every two weeks. When someone comes to me from another state, they bring corn or wild rice. Deep Medicine Circle [a non-profit farm and Indigenous food collective] grow our green vegetables.

Everything you see on the menu comes from a Native American or Indigenous producer. Anyone who comes into my life and can offer some positivity…I know it will transfer to us and the people who eat our food.

A mural with a bright orange-red background shows a woman standing under a tree.  Four others stand near her, offering food.
A mural by Votan Henriquezan in Wahpepah’s Kitchen depicts Indigenous food warriors from across the Americas. Photograph: Gabriela Hasbun/The Guardian

How did you design your healing menu?

We come from a gluten-free diet. When people ask what is gluten free [on the menu], I say everything except blue cornbread. If you want to treat yourself, treat yourself, and blue corn contains lots of good iron. And I like to offer a lot of teas, different berry teas and mint teas. You have wild mint, peppermint, and yerba buena. Teas heal, they comfort.

Who taught you to cook and what are your earliest culinary memories?

My grandmother Cecile. My grandparents are from Oklahoma, and I used to come and go from Oakland in the summer. I come from a cooking family and have always been fascinated to be in the kitchen with my grandmother and aunt. I always asked my grandmother, “Where did you learn that? and she always told me.

One of the first things I made was dried corn. My aunt had a farm, pigs and all that stuff. I was seven years old and we went to collect the maize during the harvest, cut the maize and put it on the mosquito nets. That’s how we used to dry it in Oklahoma, because it’s so hot, and it dries for three or four days, and then we make it for soups. It was one of the first things I did and one of the things I almost always copy from there.

Growing up in the Midwest, we did a unit on local Native American nations, but that probably wasn’t accurate at all. Do people have a lot of misconceptions about Native American foods?

We haven’t talked about fried bread – a lot of people think that’s what [all Native Americans] made. It’s not true. And I always knew that, just because of the different foods we had. [Fry bread] looks more like pow wow food. It was something that was given to Native Americans on the reservation when they first moved there, probably in the 1800s. To this day we eat it when I go back to Oklahoma, but I eat it as a party, not like an everyday meal.

There’s a lot of talk today about food sovereignty with people of color, especially African Americans, but it was an issue for Native Americans first. How has being uprooted from your land and traditional eating habits affected people’s health?

It was almost [devastating] health. Can you imagine being expelled from your homeland? I can only come from my own experience, but my family has been affected by diabetes and loss of limbs, heart disease, cancer and things like that.

Me and my sister were a year apart. And she died of cancer, leaving behind seven children. Does that make you think that if we ate better, could we have done more to prevent this? It makes me want to work harder.

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