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Dalton Walker
Indian Country Today

OHLONE LANDS, California — Indigenous chef Crystal Wahpepah places sliced venison tenderloin into the large pot on her stove and stirs. Already simmering in the pot is hominy corn, Hubbard squash and other ingredients.

She stirs some more. The Kickapoo chef wants it to be perfect.

Bright yellow and green walls, photos and different spices sit in a line on the shelves inside. A large sign welcoming customers is posted above the cooking area inside the restaurant.

“Wahpepah’s Kitchen is looking to reclaim, transform and sustain changes to the food system through utilizing an Indigenous food sovereignty model in Oakland, California and beyond,” reads a part of the sign.

The soup is almost ready and it smells delicious. Or maybe it’s the bison meatballs, or the cedar salmon sweet potato tostada being prepared? Or maybe it’s the blue corn waffles? Perhaps, the only real answer is that it’s all of the above.

It’s about 20 minutes before Wahpepah’s Kitchen opens its door on a Saturday morning in late November. Crystal’s staff is preparing for the day.

It’s been less than a month since the grand opening and people have taken note. The line of customers outside is already six or seven people deep ready for a taste. The restaurant sits in a busy shopping plaza and next to a rail station stop. The area is also a hub for Indigenous people who call the Oakland area home, and a short walk from the Native American Health Center.

Wahpepah said the purpose of this space is for her community. Some of the meals Chef Crystal prepares include cranberry wild-rice turkey balls, Kickapoo chili, roasted turkey, and blue corn polenta. The menu items are somewhat fluid, and some items such as wild rice and chocolate chokecherry bars are available inside and online to order. Additional online items are coming soon, she said.

“They want to eat their foods and this is something I feel is very important to be visible to our community and people just need to know where foods come from, and they come from this land,” she said.

Wahpepah’s Kitchen is part of a growing trend of Indigenous chefs opening restaurants with a menu rich with Indigenous foods. Sean Sherman’s Owamni restaurant in Minneapolis is perhaps the most well-known, but Wahpepah’s shop may not be far behind. Sherman, Oglala Lakota, is also known as the Sioux Chef. He is a friend and mentor of Wahpepah’s, and his achievement has created a path for her and others to find similar success.

(Related: Decolonized menu at Owamni by the Sioux Chef)

Wahpepah’s Kitchen opened on Nov. 13. Chef Crystal has been in the catering business for more than a decade, and she was the first Native American chef to be featured on Food Network’s “Chopped” TV show in 2018.

Oakland is Crystal’s home. She’s born and raised here, and it wasn’t long ago that opening an Indigenous food restaurant was only an idea.

“We have so many different tribes here and so when they do taste something back from home for me personally, when I have the sweet corn soup I can close my eyes and I’m in my grandmother’s kitchen. I want people to have the same feeling,” she said.

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Joshua Hoyt, Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, is a line cook at Waphepah’s Kitchen. He said being a part of the team was an opportunity he had to jump on.

“The only way I was going to go back to the restaurant was to cook Native food,” he said. “So when Crystal presented me with an opportunity that only exists in a couple of places in the whole country, I could not resist.”

Wahpepah’s staff is intertribal, with Natives like Hoyt from all over the country. The back of their work shirts say #IndigenousFoodWarriors.

Sandino Wahpepah, Kickapoo and Chef Crystal’s cousin, usually comes for the blue corn waffles. “It’s hella good,” he said.

Sandino said the restaurant’s opening is “huge” for their family and the community.

“Us, as a community, we had a lot of struggle as urban Natives, just seeing this restaurant gives us a lot of hope, plus the food is good,” he said.

The traditional venison and corn soup was delicious. Wahpepah knows this because on this day, a special guest visited the restaurant and told her so by saying it tasted like home.

A Kickapoo elder was in town and Wahpepah’s friend brought her by to sample the goods. In other words, she felt some pressure making the soup.

“The corn soup with the Hubbard squash, that one is to always pay tribute and remember my ancestors when it comes to that,” she said. “That’s my grandmother, great-grandmother, my tribe, where we come from, so it’s always good to have that in the restaurant because that’s from home, my homelands.”

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