Female Chef Series

Right where she needs to be

Chef Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins

Living so close to the Mexican border I have had the fortune of getting to work with some of the best chefs that country has to offer. Chef Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins is no exception. I first got to know her while she was working under acclaimed Baja chef Javier Plascencia. On the cusp of her opening her own restaurant we sat down to discuss her heritage and love of food.

How important was food in your family when growing up?
“Well my Dad’s family is from Guadalajara and my Mom’s family is from Tijuana, so I spent most of my family time between the two places. From a very young age I would get sent on a plane to be with my Grandmother in Guadalajara. As young as I can remember, maybe 5 years old, I would help my aunt in her restaurant in Guadalajara where she served traditional Jalisco style food. I helped her with the garnishes for her famous posole. My family is full of great cooks, the men in my family are amazing cooks. So we are always surrounded by great food, and a culture of food.
When my Mom and Dad got together my Mom didn’t have the palette my Dad had developed from living in Los Angeles for many years. She came from humble beginnings so when my Dad wanted things like beef bourguignon my mom was like what the hell is that? But credit to my Mom, she was always reading and learning. I clearly remember having lots of food magazine and cookbooks. Julia Child and Jacques Pepin were always on TV, also what helped my brothers and I learn english. Food was always a focal point in our house.”
Since leaving Bracero you have extremely busy. Tell me what you have been up to and what’s in the works
“I’ve been doing a lot of pop ups, from places like Canada to Cape Cod. I knew that Top Chef Mexico was in the works so I slowed down on finding a new restaurant. I spent several months in Baja cooking with chef Drew Deckman. The end of the year was spent in Mexico City filming Top Chef Mexico. 2016 was spent trying to find my voice in the industry and really focus on what I wanted to say with my food. I wasn't sure what the next project would be but I knew I didn’t want to be second in command anymore. The next project I needed it to be my own. I met with Johan from Rise and Shine Group to talk about his project. He showed me the preliminary menu. So after Top Chef Mexico I joined the group as R&D chef for Breakfast Republic and helping with the growth of the group in 2017. Eventually break off of that and solely focus on El Jardin. Through all of this I’ve been really focusing on what I want El Jardin to be. I want it to be about the experience I want to give, from the service and down to all the little details like the spoon for the salsa. The force behind El Jardin will be the people.”
What inspires you?
“Lots of things. My children, music, traveling, art. I’m inspired by my experiences.”

Who do you admire?
“That question is tricky. I look up to a lot of people. Gavin Kaysen is someone I admire as a boss and as a friend. He is always willing to take my call so I can bounce thoughts off of him and give me advice. I also admire Chef spouses, they are the backbone and what really makes a chef’s world go round.”

What are your feelings on being labeled female chef?
“To me labels don’t matter. I consider myself a cook. I want to be on the line with my cooks. I want to be a mentor to other young chefs. But it is harder for women in this industry to get ahead. You hear ‘she’s good..for a female chef’. It’s still there. For example the World’s 50 Best, out of the 50 only 3 were women. Three! Out of fifty, that’s pretty jarring.”

If you weren’t a chef what would you be doing?
“I wanted to be a lawyer. I think I would be a corporate lawyer.”

What would your last dish be?
“My mom’s albondigas for sure.”

At still a young age, Claudette has a lifetime of experiences. She may be a little rough around the edges for some, but clearly sincere and passionate about her craft. She has a lot on the table for El Jardin and I am sure it will be a garden from which to choose from. She is right where she wants to be.