Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins was born and raised in San Diego, but has deep ties to Mexican cuisine. Her aunt Lorenza owned a restaurant called Las Calandrias in Guadalajara and other family members versed her in different regional dishes, as did extensive food-focused travel. She started working in restaurants at age 19 and has logged time at landmark San Diego restaurants like Jack’s La Jolla, El Bizcocho (working for Gavin Kaysen) and Jsix. Along the way, she developed pastry, bread-making, and charcuterie skills.
International travel inspired Zepeda-Wilkins to refocus on her heritage. In 2015, she started working for chef Javier Plascencia on high-profile Mexican restaurant Bracero in San Diego’s Little Italy, progressing from butcher and kitchen lead to chef de cuisine. Earlier this year, Zepeka-Wilkins partnered with Johan Engman and Rise & Shine Restaurant Group on El Jardín, a seasonal Mexican restaurant with regional focus and thriving garden at Liberty Station.
Zepeda-Wilkins has also proven to be a fierce culinary competitor, defeating Jason Fullilove in a Chef’s Roll Chef’s Plate battle, finishing in sixth place on Top Chef Mexico, and reaching Episode 8 on Top Chef: Colorado. I recently met her for coffee in Santa Monica, and she subsequently shared insights into her background and approach.
Josh Lurie: Did you always plan to cook for a living, or did you consider other careers?
Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins: When I was younger, I thought I wanted to be a lawyer…and there was also that brief period where I wanted to be some sort of exec in the fashion industry. But ultimately, once I stepped foot in the kitchen for my first job at age 15, I realized it was the only job I was actually passionate about. No matter how blistered my feet got, or how many burns and tongue-lashings I earned, I kept going back for more.
JL: How did you end up partnering with Johan Engman and Rise & Shine Restaurant Group on El Jardín? Describe your collaboration in refining the concept.
CZW: Johan reached out about the potential of a new restaurant project in the fall of 2016, right as I was about to leave to film Top Chef Mexico. He had a vision of bringing the patio dining feel that is best experienced in the Guadalupe Valley to San Diego, with Baja-inspired Mexican food. We decided that I would contact him once I was out of filming to discuss further. To say filming that season changed my life is an understatement! When the conversations started back up many months later, I pitched the idea of a restaurant that showcased Mexico as a whole — regionally, historically and in a contemporary presentation. Him believing in my passion for Mexico helped forge a solid friendship and partnership from the start.
JL: What are the criteria for a dish to make El Jardín’s menu?
CZW: A question we ask ourselves often is: “Does the dish make sense with our ingredients in the pantry, garden and have a connective thread to our culture?” Mexican food is really Mestiza cuisine. Many cultures have immigrated to Mexico and brought their spices and recipes with them. I love the fact that Mexico and its cuisine can’t be put into a box: it is only limited by our imaginations. I truly like creating dishes inspired by something I ate when I was a child, going back and forth across the border — and even my cooks that are not Mexican or have Mexican heritage can come to the table with their family recipes because at the end of the day Mexico has collaborated in so many of our staple dishes.
JL: How do you balance authenticity with innovation at El Jardín?
CZW: Authenticity is a really tricky word. I think it applies more to spirit and approach, rather than technique. What is “authentic” or “traditional” to one person is likely really different for the next.
At El Jardín, it all starts with a story. Then we might get weird with it — like how we use kombu to fortify our stock that we use as the base for “traditional” dishes like pozole and carne en su jugo. Then we edit it and refine the entire thing, and it creates a new memory. Nothing goes on a plate and out our kitchen that we cannot justify. A lot of our day to day is teaching some of our guests that Mexican cuisine includes much more than just tacos and burritos. We’re not a tablecloth restaurant — the service we aspire to give is that of a welcoming Mexican home.
JL: At what point in your career did you feel like you found your culinary voice? Was there a particular eureka moment, or was it more of a progression?
CZW: I’d like to think it was a slow progression, but it started with my first trip abroad in 2014. I had been in the industry then 15 years and experiencing the markets in Marrakesh and walking through the local spice shops and butcher spots, I felt a weird nostalgic feeling, like if I had been there before. I realized that it reminded me of home, Mexico is home. I visited my family in Guadalajara and spoke to my aunt about that feeling and she said something I will never forget. She said, “La madre tierra siempre the llamara de regreso a donde perteneces ” (Mother Earth will always call you back to where you belong). In 2015, I met Javier Plascencia and I remember telling him I would work for him (at his soon to open Bracero) that May I started cooking next to him and my journey to dive 10000% into our beautiful country commenced. My culinary voice was fortified in filming Top Chef Mexico through the people I met and the places we saw.
JL: Tell me the story about the most recent dish you created. What was your inspiration and approach?
CZW: I tend to have dreams of food or ideas that I have with dishes I want to make with my style. My grandmother and mother make killer liver and onions. As children my brothers and I ate whatever was put in front of us (or else), but we liked when that was on the menu! In the restaurant I wanted to bring those flavors in a playful snack, with the addition of our chicharron and goat’s milk cajeta. I smoke foie and caramelized onions then whip with some reduced vinagre de Jerez and layered it in a metal tin with foie on the base, cajeta on top, and the chicharron gets dusted in a dukka spice mix. It is fun and an almost carnival-like menu item.
JL: Pulling from all of the dishes you’ve created for El Jardín, construct a dream dinner for yourself. Also, which people would join you at the table?
CZW: The spread would consist of smoky lamb shanks, chilorio, and fresh flour tortillas, my mother’s albondigas, grilled whole fish with so much garlic butter, salsa mocha, aguachiles with callo de hacha, fresh corn, and tostadas raspadas.
My dream guest list in no particular order: my kids, husband, Johan and (his fiancé) Yasmin, the Queen of England, Helen Mirren, Martha Ortiz, Gavin Kaysen, Dominique Crenn, Javier [Plascencia], Juana Bravo, Celia Florian and my Top Chef Mexico family.