“I’m a border kid who was oblivious to the line in the sand.”
Chef Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins and the power of personal story.
October 18, 2018 ● 4 min read
by Shanika Hillocks | Photo courtesy Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins, Art by ChefsFeed
Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins’s grandmother gave birth to 16 children. Only eight of them survived early childhood, and by the time the youngest was born, her grandfather had abandoned the family.
“My relationship with food stems from a history of tragic stories where women are at the forefront,” Zepeda-Wilkins explains. “As a result, food is a product of survival, followed by love.”
As a result, she conveys her personal narrative as the Executive Chef of San Diego’s El Jardín with an unapologetic vigor. It’s even seeped into her voice, firmly authoritative while still tinged with maternal concern. We recently caught up to discuss the Mexican cuisine and the realities of its perspective on the West Coast, embracing the cultures represented in the back of the house, and the balance of motherhood.
Shanika Hillocks: You’ve gone from former Top Chef contestant to executive chef. How has your philosophy on food shifted?
Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins: My food philosophy has [gone] from one end of the spectrum to the other. When you’re a young chef, you place so much of your focus on impressing with the visual that you miss the whole point of how it tastes. In general, my current philosophy is to keep it simple and soulful. Edit versus add.
When it comes to the food I make at El Jardín, I embody what I like to call grandma chic: It’s the food that makes someone happy. I want to feel like you’re having dinner at the most loving grandma’s house.
Tell us about the role women have played in your career.
I am both blessed and cursed with the devastating stories life handed the women in my family. I had my kids at 18 and 21, respectively, and was a single mom for many years before getting married to my husband five years ago. As a result, I will always have the “single mom” chip on my shoulder. That said, survival is unprecedented, and I am amazed and very proud of that.
My grandmother’s spirit is a living part of the restaurant. Whether I’m thinking of new ingredients to incorporate into a dish, or revisiting a classic, I think about what my grandma would say about my food, which is refreshing because she was a simple woman. Thinking of her honest feedback is a part of my standard operating procedure as a chef.
Mexican food, in many ways, has been packaged as a trend. What are misconceptions about Mexican cuisine and how are you involved in shifting these misconceptions?
Mexican food is a super sensitive topic for where I am geographically in the world, whereas in Los Angeles, you have a wonderful promotion of Mexican cuisine. As a Mexican chef, there’s this “I should know better” mindset, because here in San Diego, you can throw a rock and hit a taco spot.
Being so close to the border, the perception of Mexican food is that it’s street food. As a result, folks want to pay street food prices, but no one thinks of how much labor and cost goes into Mexican food. The barbacoa lamb shank at the restaurant takes three days to make: we cure the meat, then marinate it, smoke it in agave and avocado leaves, which I personally source, and then cook it low and slow, but the fact is I can’t charge what I should without jeopardizing my bottom line.
The biggest misconception about Mexican food is that it’s immigrant food. A lot of ingredients found in Mexican food—cinnamon, ginger, lemongrass, jackfruit, coconut—they came through trade ships from the original Spanish lands. I like to acknowledge that I am not indigenous. Many Mexican are transplants.
Do you see food as political?
As a California girl married to a Southern man, I try to stay very neutral, but having a father who was an attorney, I grew up with my family being very involved in politics. As a child living in Tijuana, I emigrated every day to go to school; simply put, I’m a border kid who was oblivious to the line in the sand.
San Ysidro, just north of the U.S.-Mexico border, is right in my backyard. You can see the wall near Friendship Park where people go to visit family members at a fence that separates San Diego and Tijuana. When I sit at a table and talk about these issues, food is [what] helps bring together tolerant human beings. This serves as a reminder to me that food does have power. My dishwashers may not speak English, but we all can understand the language that is food, and the cuisine in my restaurant is made by and dedicated to the immigrants of Mexico.
What are you most excited about currently within the food space?
The best compliment I could receive from a guest is that my food tastes just like something their mom made for them as a child. Those flavors are often birthed from simple ingredients, and in general, I feel like the movement of cooking simple food is getting a bit more of an upswing, which is exciting to see.
As chefs, we should be instructing our kitchen to cook the food they know and what they grew up eating. Folks in the kitchen must realize that we are storytellers who have the gift to invoke and give memories.
In addition to a chef, you’re a wife and mother—can you talk about the balance as a modern-day woman entrepreneur?
Every single day, I feel like I fail, and I also have a win. In all honesty, if it weren’t for Amazon Prime, my family would starve. I call my crock pot my sous chef.
When my kids were younger, I instilled in them that no one is going to take care of you like yourself and your siblings. Now that my children are teenagers, they are incredibly self-sufficient, which I have taught them since it was just us three. Regardless of how early or late I’m in the restaurant, I check in with my kids every day and carve out one-on-one time.
What change do you hope to see in the food space?
Overall, I’d like to see more camaraderie. Within the food space, my hope is that we be more open-minded and tolerant about food, and not consider a menu less-than. I’d like to see Mexican food be accepted.
Describe your ideal gathering.
My ideal gathering includes cooking together—especially over the grill. Eating together and cleaning together, accompanied by laughter and good music.
What ingredients are you enjoying currently?
The pit of the mamey sapote, a tropical fruit eaten everywhere in Mexico and native to Cuba and Central America, tastes like the most pungent almond flavor you can imagine.
I also enjoy grasshoppers and dried shrimp as great subtle enhancers of flavor. Aged cotija is also a favorite, and an ingredient I use in my Caesar salad.