Game Changer: Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins
American audiences might recognize Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins as the kickass upstart from last season’s Top Chef (Colorado) season on Bravo, while Mexican audiences might find similar recognition as Zepeda-Wilkins was on the second season of Top Chef Mexico. Born in the States and raised between San Diego and Tijuana, it seems fitting that the chef has logged time on both countries’ version of the popular cooking show. What’s also fitting is that she proved herself a force to be reckoned with on both editions, notably redefining the accessibility and versatility of Mexican ingredients for U.S. viewers.
In talking to Zepeda-Wilkins, her passion for Mexican food is clear and her path as a chef was defined by the flavors of her family in Mexico. With a resume that spans a bunch of San Diego’s most illustrious kitchens — including Javier Plascencia’s former Bracero and Gavin Kaysen’s former El Bizcocho — Zepeda-Wilkins is poised to make some waves of her own in a few weeks when her long-imagined San Diego restaurant, El Jardín, opens. Featuring her personal take on Mexican cuisine, with an eye toward championing women in the food industry, Zepeda-Wilkins looks to create a new standard for what Mexican food can be in a city rife with interpretations. She looks toward history and hopes to evoke the cozy, at-home feeling of her aunt’s restaurant that she grew up (and learned) within, as well as emphasizing local Mexican ingredients grown in the restaurant’s garden. The indoor-outdoor space won’t be entirely a la carte, however; a small chef’s counter will indulge her culinary whims and creativity.
We caught up with Zepeda-Wilkins as she readies for her opening on May 24th to hear a bit more about her upbringing, her influences, and the anticipation of finally opening her own place.
New Worlder: Tell us a little bit about growing up along the border in Tijuana and San Diego.
Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins: My brothers and I, like so many other children, were born in San Diego to two Mexican citizens living in Tijuana. We didn’t know the difference between the two countries, or that when we went back home to TJ we were crossing a country border. I do, however, remember being acutely aware of the 90’s crime level in Tijuana as a kid. We would go to my family’s friends Italian restaurant Vittorio’s and I would overhear my dad talking to the owners about the latest crime spree. My mom’s side comes from humble beginnings, my tio lived in El Florido — a hardworking area full of people with little means — and as a kid we were told we would be sent to him if we were bad because he was “the enforcer.” I remember using the outhouse and having to use warm water to bathe in, sweeping the dirt floors or doing dishes outside after our asadas. Food in Tijuana was tortas/tacos from spots near our house in Otay. Up until my teens I swore everyone ate meat, rice and beans daily. Yet when we crossed for errands and doctors’ visits, we would go to eat burgers and soft serve in Chula Vista next to the park, Thrifty’s ice cream after church.
It was in the early 90’s, when we moved to Imperial Beach full time, that I experienced the harsh reality of race firsthand. We were called “beaners” and “wetbacks,” by some of the other residents in our apartment complex, and the local skinheads kept a lock on the beach front area. It was my first dose of “you aren’t from around these parts.” I went to Mar Vista High where we had skate and surf P.E. — those classes were definitely not offered in the Tijuana high schools.
How has that changed since you were a kid?
I think Tijuana has evolved into a beautiful force to be reckoned with, gastronomically speaking. More and more San Diegans make day trips to eat and stay. Like in every city, crime is there if you search for it, but not in the same way as when I was a kid. I now crave going to TJ for a dose of the Mercado Hidalgo, tacos de birria, Mariscos El Paisa or the crazy, delicious Tortas Wash Mobil. My kids and I all have Sentri [to cross the border by car] to make as many trips to TJ as necessary to “water our roots.” My son loves being able to use his Spanish skills.
Tell us about some of your first memories of food. Flavors, textures, colors, people…
From the time I was three months old, I was sent to Guadalajara to visit my paternal grandma, Abuelita Lola, and my dad’s sisters. We usually stayed with my Tia Lorenza. I remember being 5 years old and not being allowed to leave the kitchen table without finishing my morning papaya shake, so naturally I would fall asleep on the table and I can no longer smell papaya without feeling nauseous. As I got a little older, I remember the vivid smells of fresh quelites, cilantro, and maiz being nixtamalized at the market when I accompanied my aunt to buy produce for her restaurant, Las Calandrias.
In summer, we would visit Santiago Ixcuintla Nayarit, where my dad was born, and the smell of tree-ripened guayabas filled the air. We would eat pescado Zarandeado by the beach in Rincon de Guayabitos, where the smell of fish grilling and frying was everywhere. At my Tia Cuca’s ranch in El Salto, outside Guadalajara, we would be greeted with a warm glass of fresh milk in the mornings and I remember the sweet taste and the grassy notes it had. My father was my food mentor, as he immigrated from Jalisco in the 60’s and found odd jobs in Los Angeles, where we developed a taste for different cuisines. When we lived in Tijuana, I remember my mother — who before meeting my dad was not much of a cook — trying to recreate my father’s wishes. Some nights we had steamed artichokes with drawn butter, Swedish meatballs, escargot. Other nights we had tacos al vapor and tortas ahogadas.
How did you come to be a chef?
I have always been a curious cook, from my days in Las Calandrias with my aunt, to the several failed restaurant ventures my dad attempted. Feeding friends and my brothers was something I always loved doing. Taking my first job at Pizzeria Uno’s as a host/expo at 16, I realized life in restaurants gave you an extended family and I loved that. But I kept the nagging feeling of wanting to be a chef at bay until I welcomed my son James. While I figured I would sacrifice a lot of his life trying to be successful, what kind of hypocrite parent would I be if I did something just for a paycheck? So, I wrote an essay about Julia Child and the fact that my brothers and I were taught English by watching her and Jacques Pepin on the KPBS channel in TJ, and I was accepted into culinary school. Since I couldn’t afford school, I dropped out and decided to self-teach and find people to mentor me.
What regional parts of Mexico, besides Baja, have shaped your cooking as a Mexican woman? Do you have family in other parts of the country?
The North Pacific coast area where Sinaloa, Nayarit, Jalisco and Colima are situated definitely have helped mold my tastes. How I season is a direct result of the region, a balancing dance of lime and salt. Over the last few years, the South Pacific coast and Central Mexico have inspired my food, incorporating the deep history and flavors of those areas. The Zepedas are primarily from Jalisco/Nayarit but my restaurant family is in the Yucatan/Oaxaca/Michoacan/CDMX so I take as many R&D trips as possible to both visit and learn.
Mexican food traditions are so heavily rooted in family, do you have any family members that stand out for you when you think of food?
My father for his love of great food, my mom for her brave approach to cooking things she’s never eaten. My Aunt Lorenza for her delicious Jalisco food and her son, my cousin Victor, an exceptionally great cook. My Abue Paula cooked for all of us up until her Parkinson’s made her hang up her pots.
You have worked for two very different chefs in San Diego – Gavin Kaysen, who comes from a Boulud pedigree, and Javier Plascencia, who embodies Baja. Tell me a bit about your experiences with each. What did you take away from them?
Working with Gavin (pre-Boulud) was definitely a shift in my career. He expected discipline from all of us without being a tyrant. I don’t think I ever saw him lose his cool. The food we cooked and the style of service was a 180 from what I’m doing now. I made soufflés of rotating flavors every night. Before we opened Bracero, I went to Spoon & Stable to stage, and something Gavin told us still rings in my ear: whenever you have a free moment in your career, go and stage at places or with people you admire. Never stop trying to grow. I still talk to Gavin when I need industry advice and I try to lead like he does.
Working for Javier was a huge learning curve but one I will always be grateful for. To Javier, food has no rules, it’s super intuitive no matter if you are cooking a private dinner or pushing 400 covers. Consistency is good, but creating is a more visceral thing for him. He has to want to eat it in order to put it on the menu and he doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to cooking Mexican ingredients. If it’s a habanero salsa you better taste habaneros. I called him the Tazmanian Devil and Ninja — he would swoop in and cook something for a guest, just blowing through everything in the kitchen, and when I’d turn around, he’d be gone. I laugh now but when he’d ask me to recreate what he had just done, I would cry on the inside. I clearly remember asking him for a recipe that we had on the opening menu and his response was, “love, support, hugs.” Javier taught me how to let go a bit and let the ingredients tell you what they want to do and where they shine. I’m a better cook and leader because of both Gavin and Javier.
The Baja food scene has been redefining what Mexican food looks like – can you talk about that a little bit?
Baja has such a unique flavor profile, we have amazing seafood but everything, in general, is turned up. The spice is spicier, the acid is more pronounced and the salt is balanced just right. We have largely been influenced by other cultures, Chinese food from Mexicali, Japanese ingredients and aesthetics. I’ve eaten Baja-inspired spots in Mexico City and just leave a little bummed because they miss the mark on the boldness that is Baja. Being a border town makes it a melting pot for so many cultures that come through it — you can even find delicious Haitian food in Tijuana!
Top Chef Mexico, Top Chef US – damn, you’re ambitious! What were those experiences like?
Top Chef Mexico was one for the books, I genuinely loved the entire experience. We saw things many people don’t often get the chance to see. Every single chef is now family — in 2017, we cooked together almost 20 times and know each other’s deepest secrets. Mexican culture just lends itself to have deeper connections with people whom you have so much in common with. I am now “tia” to all of the chefs’ kids.
Top Chef US was definitely more business. I think that had I not done Mexico, I would have had a different experience. I definitely felt like an outsider, which was hard to get past. The majority of the connections I made was while I was out in Last Chance Kitchen between the second and fifth episodes. The dynamic of filming was also much different between the two countries. A lot more rules in the US but both changed my life and I would probably do it one last time just for shits and gigs.
I learned to love losing, and I see the growth opportunity in every loss — as cheesy as that sounds. The judgment by the public has been a 180 in both scenarios, and that has been the hardest lesson. People are much more sensitive in the States than in Mexico, and at the end of the day it’s a shit ton of stress that we’re under and we have zero control over how the show is edited. Mexicans give shit to people they love — a lot of shit — and we hug it out over a tequila or mezcal. Just have fun and take everything with a grain of salt, there’s way worse things going on in the world.
The Mexico challenges were very much focused on Mexican cuisine and techniques in modernist cuisine. We got to buy ingredients in the amazing markets of Mexico. I found it difficult to stay true to my flavors with the ingredients on elimination challenges in the US edition and it messed with my head.
What do your kids think about your television career? Cool or still just mom?
JUST MOM! I love that when I get some crappy social media comment I’m usually making quesadillas for my son or passing my daughter her dinner through her door (she’s a teenager!). My home life is what keeps me sane.
You can only save one in a sinking boat — Tom or Padma?
Tom, because he laughs at my jokes.
You’re now opening your own restaurant, El Jardín. Tell us a bit about the concept, the research that went into it, what the menu will look like.
The concept is regional cuisine of Mexico on a historical level crossed with my style, where I have traveled and the techniques I have learned through the years. Mestiza cuisine is really what our cuisine is — we have merged pre-Hispanic Mexican ingredients with the ingredients, dishes, and cultures that have immigrated to Mexico over the past six-plus centuries. I think you can’t honor Mexican cuisine without paying tribute to those cultures, as well.
The research has been such a beautiful experience, from traveling to the various states and regions, to meeting the women and men that cook/grow and preserve traditions is the best part of my job. The matriarchs and the secrets the keep in the small rural villages outside of big cities has been the biggest gift. Having them trust me enough to show me how certain dishes get made, bringing ingredients that are currently not being used in the industry to grow in the El Jardín garden — these are my joys.
The menu will be constantly evolving, some dishes made solely from what is coming out of the garden. But my pozole is made with a dashi kombu base to pay tribute to my family and the Japanese influence in the North, for example. I had a Santa Maria grill specially made to have a smoker/oven in the base so that can mimic the in-ground cooking of barbacoa from Hidalgo and the cochinita from the Yucatan.
The San Diego food scene is pretty intense and Mexican food in the U.S. has evolved over the past 5 years, how will El Jardín fit into that landscape?
I think what we’re doing is different from what San Diego is currently offering — not better but different. Our guests will have to be willing go beyond normal San Diego-Mexican fare. Our service staff will be the new keepers of the stories that inspired the dishes and elements of the restaurant. I love the restaurants opening up in San Diego, there’s enough sun for everyone to shine and collaborations with each other is what truly makes a great food city.
The restaurant industry is in self-reflection mode. What’s your reaction to the #MeToo moment that has gripped many of the male chefs within the industry?
I’ve lived it, still do at times, but that is no longer a narrative I am allowing in my story. By being able to help mold future chefs and have them understand that behavior will absolutely not be tolerated will help out weed out the problem in my restaurant and empowering young female chefs that they don’t have to allow it being “the norm.”
How, as a woman, and a soon-to-be restaurant owner, do you make sure your kitchens are safe havens?
In the kitchens I’ve led, I’ve earned the nickname “Mama Bear.” I can’t help my maternal side bleeding into my leadership. I’m the hardest on the ones I care about, but I am also their biggest supporter and advocate. The line of communication is always open and I pride myself on being a protector during the times they need it and help give them strength when they think they can’t face something.
Anything we missed or you want to share? Here’s your chance!
Oh man! I feel like I’ve spilled my guts out. I just want to say with everything this world is facing, people need to be a bit more self reflective. Take reality TV for what it is: TV. At the end of the day, I wipe dirt off my daughter’s face and take my son to soccer practice, then come home to wash my doberman and my pug.
The Game Changer Five
Last supper, last cocktail?
My mom’s albondigas and a Gin and Tonic
Next up on your travel bucket list?
Gavin Kaysen/Dominique Crenn/ Salma Hayek
Best lesson your mother taught you?
Don’t listen to the noise, keep pushing forward
How do you inspire the next generation?
By telling them the truth. This life is hard and you have to be willing to do the work. No one will hand you everything and, most importantly, search for your True North and don’t deviate from it. Self expression only works if you truly know and love yourself first.