How Chef Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins Found Her Voice
And her advice for entertaining at home: Hide the mess and stress less!
February 25, 2019 ● 2 min read
By Aralyn Beaumont | Illustration by Zoe van Dijk
In Chef Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins's family, being a strong woman is par for the course. As she told ChefsFeed last year, her grandmother raised eight children on her own. Zepeda-Wilkins's mom raised Claudette and her brothers while also running restaurants on and off. Now, Claudette does things her own way, as a partner and the executive chef El Jardín in San Diego.
"I don't cook Mexican food. I don't want to put it in a box because I don’t like labels. It's more about the flavors,” she says. “The flavors I cook with are from my childhood. We say it's in our DNA—the seasoning—it's not something that you learn, it's something you just kind of have."
Zepeda-Wilkins grew up in kitchens. Her aunt had a restaurant in Guadalajara, which began as a pozole stand and expanded into a full-format restaurant. In Tijuana, her parents opened a lonchería, where her mom made the tortas. After moving to San Diego, her dad bought an Argentinian restaurant that eventually fell to her mom to run.
A love for food always ran strong in the family. Zepeda-Wilkins remembers her dad bringing home escargot when she was five; she grew up watching famous chefs on TV with her brothers, which is how they taught themselves to speak English. Shortly after Zepeda-Wilkins turned eighteen, she had her son. Confronted with the reality of supporting another human, she was forced to question what she was going to do with her life. "I realized cooking was a viable option," she said, so she left her job at a pizza restaurant and enrolled in cooking school, which led to a career in pastry.
"Pastry doesn’t really pay well, if you're feeding a child," she conceded. "And then I had my daughter a couple years later, so feeding two kids off of a pastry cook wage is pretty much not feasible. I went into savory to survive."
Just like the women before her, Zepeda-Wilkins has built a full life as a single mother. Not only is she rounding out the first year of her successful restaurant, she has competed in two seasons of Top Chef, the first of which gave her the opportunity to return to Mexico.
"I wanted to go back to my country, back to the basics of my roots," she says, a pull that has continued to inspire her cooking. Her menu is studded with ingredients from across the border, smoked and grilled meats and seafood, soups like pozole roja, but also fresh, raw dishes like crudos, tartars, and salads that show off local ingredients. "I don’t ever talk about what the food is, I just want to talk about how the food makes you feel. For me, the food that my grandmother would make for me or the food at my aunt's restaurant—that soul-satisfying food—that's what I cook."
Below, her signature ritual for entertaining at home.