Crystal Wahpepah Champions Native American Foods

She shares the importance of food sovereignty as well as the dishes of her Kickapoo ancestors through her catering company, Wahpepah’s Kitchen.


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Photo courtesy Crystal Wahpepah

One of Crystal Wahpepah’s friends suggested that she try to compete on the popular Food Network show Chopped. She initially resisted the idea, but let her friend talk her into filling out the application and then forgot all about it.

“Six months later, I got a call from The Food Network, and found out I was one out of 25,000 chefs to be accepted,” recalled Wahpepah, a Native American. “To demonstrate my cooking on Chopped, I chose foods I grew up with, including salmon and wild rice, since my children are Pomo and we are on California native land. The rice represented North America and the way we hand-harvest our wild rice. I wanted to present the beauty of our foods, the real indigenous foods. I knew I would have a national and international audience on the show. When they asked me how it felt to be the first indigenous chef on Chopped, I cried. Because this is something we’ve been fighting for in the indigenous food movement. Something our native youth needs to see. And people need to hear: We’re still here, and we’re still cooking. We’re still showing the beauty of our foods. It wasn’t about winning; it was about me representing Native-American foods.”

Wahpepah grew up in Oakland amid a multitude of restaurants featuring the cuisines of many cultures, but she always wondered why there were no American-Indian restaurants that reflected her heritage. That missing piece motivated her to become an indigenous chef and the first Native-American woman to own a catering business in the Bay Area. She maintains a busy schedule catering local dinners and travels around the country, preparing traditional foods for powwows and other tribal events.

Wahpepah said she was drawn to cooking as a young girl. Starting at age 7, she often shared meals of traditional foods with members of many different tribes at the Intertribal Friendship House. Established in 1955, the vibrant Oakland community center still offers workshops in drumming, dancing, beading, and other cultural arts to the American-Indian people who were relocated to urban environments after being displaced from their native lands.

Photo courtesy crystal wahpepah

Her family was active in the American Indian Movement and took her to Alcatraz every Thanksgiving, as well as other events, which exposed her to a large array of indigenous foods.“Even though I was just a kid,” she said, “they never kicked me out of the kitchen at IFH. I always got to participate.”

“I knew at a young age what was wrong,” she said, “how they took away our foods, and the importance of food sovereignty.”

But it was the summers she spent in Oklahoma with her grandparents that instilled Wahpapeh’s devotion to her ancestral Kickapoo foods, especially her grandmother’s sweet dried corn soup.

“My grandma cooked all the time,” she recalled. “Any time you went to her house, she always had something on the stove or in her Crock-Pot. And in August, we would harvest our corn. Then we would roast it, dry it, and use it to make sweet dried corn soup for the winter holidays or our birthdays.”

Wahpepah’s path to becoming an indigenous chef was not an easy one. After studying business at American Indian College in Phoenix, she returned to the Bay Area. “I knew I wanted to become an indigenous chef,” she said, “but at the time, I didn’t know how to go about it. Because we had never heard of anyone doing that before.”

She attended Le Cordon Bleu in San Francisco. When she told the instructors at the acclaimed French culinary school that she wanted to be an indigenous chef, they didn’t know how to help her. But she did benefit from learning the broad, classical skills that any chef needs.

“I realized there really weren’t any indigenous chefs yet,” she said. “That was a very hard, eye-opening experience. I wanted to pursue it, but didn’t know how to go about it.”

She considered what it would mean to be an “indigenous chef.” “It’s not just a business,” she said, “it’s historical; it’s about what my people have been through. It’s about respect.”

PHOTO COURTESY CRYSTAL WAHPEPAH

Wahpepah was not alone on her quest to become an indigenous chef. “My Native-American community really supported me,” she said. “They sought out resources for me. My business, Wahpepah’s Kitchen, would never exist without them. They knew how important it was for me and for our community.” Community members recommended that she apply to La Cocina, the San Francisco incubator program that trains mostly low-income immigrants or women of color to become successful food entrepreneurs, and they endorsed her application.

At La Cocina, Wahpepah finally found the resources to help her develop her catering business. The logo she created for her business features a feather, a fork, and an ear of her beloved corn. “There’s always a right time and a right place for everything,” she said. “La Cocina told me I had the first Native-American catering company in California. I had to learn for myself about being an indigenous chef. That was something no one else could teach me.”

At a recent dinner event for the San Francisco Jewish Community Center’s Foodways series, Wahpepah was the featured chef. Her menu included bison meatballs with blueberry sauce, cornbread with cranberries, three sisters wild rice salad, her grandmother’s sweet dried corn soup with pumpkin, and for dessert, blue corn polenta with huckleberry sauce.

As the attendees enjoyed her meal, she compared notes on a panel with other Native-American chefs, including Vincent Medina and Louis Trevino, who recently started Café Ohlone, their indigenous supper club in Berkeley. All agreed on the priority of working with other tribes to source their ingredients from indigenous farmers and ranchers.

“Our food has been asleep,” said Wahpepah. “Now my generation can revive it so we can pass it on. It’s up to us to make this change. My struggle has been being recognized as an indigenous chef in the Bay Area, but it’s all about the right time and the place. Now, there are other people like me on the same journey and we can collaborate. It feels good to learn more about food sovereignty with other tribes and indigenous chefs to make a bigger impact. People always ask me, ‘When are you going to open a restaurant?’ Of course, I would love to, but I say, ‘when it’s the right time and the right place.’”

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