Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins
Courtesy of James Tran

THE CALIFORNIA QUESTIONNAIRE: Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins

THE CALIFORNIA QUESTIONNAIRE: Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins
The San Diego chef shares her Southern California favorites, from beaches to pastries

Growing up in the San Diego area, Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins spent a lot of time with her aunt who was a restaurateur in Tijuana. By the time she become a chef herself, Zepeda-Wilkins knew a lot about the diversity of cuisine in Mexico, and the culinary traditions that straddle the border. It made her a natural as the chef de cuisine at Javier Plascencia’s celebrated Bracero in San Diego’s Little Italy (which has since turned into a different restaurant), before she went on to open El Jardín, a regional Mexican restaurant at Liberty Station in Point Loma. We asked the former Top Chef contestant for some of her favorite spots in California, around San Diego and beyond.

Where do you live? I live with my husband, daughter, and son in Chula Vista.

Why there? It’s where we found a dream house with land—we felt so lucky to find it in California as it is challenging to find that kind of turf—and we bought our first house.

Who or what is your greatest California love? My kids! And the Pacific Ocean: I feel more myself when I am near any body of water.

What is the biggest misperception about Californians? That we are flighty or always carefree.

What is the stereotype that most holds true? You can’t shovel sunshine.

What is your favorite Golden State splurge? Driving to the snow in the winter and eating pie in Julian before ending the day eating an ice cream cone while walking on the sand in Coronado.

Time for a road trip—where are you going? I’d go north to Big Sur and camp on the beach with my kids. I’d make them get up early with me so I can get a coffee at Big Sur Bakery. During the day, we can hike and explore the cliffs, and get inspired by the ocean. There’s such happiness in cooking on the beach for meals, so we would have all we need at and around our little campsite.

If you could decree an official state culinary experience, what would it be? Well, I imagine a lot of people would say In-N-Out here, but I would have to say Stardust Doughnuts in Imperial Beach, which is a small beach town next to Coronado where I grew up. Their glorious cinnamon rolls are probably my favorite pastry.

How do you define California style? Light and deceivingly simple (sometimes the most simple-appearing things take the most amount of work). Function over fashion on all accounts. Where you can go into a restaurant with flip flops and sand in your hair and no one judges you.

Best California song? I have to say “California Love” by Tupac. I grew up in the ’90s and rap and hip hop played a huge role in my adolescence. They don’t make them like Tupac anymore, but he was educated and calculated in delivering his bars. When he gives San Diego a shout out, it makes me cry to this day.

How would your California dream day unfold? I’d wake up at Hotel Del Coronado (I’m on a staycation) and I’d take some time lying in bed, just hearing the waves crash a bit, before going on a run with the morning mist filling my lungs. I’d go all the way out to the Navy SEAL base and then run back.

I’d head over to El Jardín early and take my time harvesting the vegetables and herbs from the garden to play with for specials. There’s a real magic to being able to light up my Santa Maria Grill and smell the fire, and seemingly the restaurant too, come to life before my eyes. The aroma of smoke has always been a favorite of mine, second to freshly baked bread. And then service: I legitimately love cooking for other people and can’t wait to welcome more people to our El Jardín home.

THE CALIFORNIA QUESTIONNAIRE: Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins SDRegion_Hero_Surfing_Mom_LaJolla_Myles_1280x642_sized
Myles McGuinness

Southern California

Discover San Diego County

THE CALIFORNIA QUESTIONNAIRE: Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins vca_maps_sandiego
76
September
Average (°F)
Sept - Nov
73°
High
60°
Low
Sept - Nov
73°
High
60°
Low
Mar - May
67°
High
56°
Low
June - Aug
74°
High
65°
Low

Imagine 70 miles of sun-drenched coast, an inviting ocean, and a year-round daily forecast of 70°F, and you’ll understand why this southernmost stretch of the state is all about outdoor fun. Discover top theme parks and attractions like SeaWorld San Diego, San Diego Zoo, San Diego Zoo Safari Park, and LEGOLAND California.

The first European explorer to land in California, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, came ashore in San Diego in 1542.

Relax at legendary retreats like Hotel del Coronado, find art and culture in San Diego and surrounding cities like luxurious La Jolla, and enjoy world-class golf at Torrey Pines, and enjoy culture and diversity, all at the edge of a sparkling blue sea.

THE CALIFORNIA QUESTIONNAIRE: Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins vc_luxuryminute_laubergedelmar_supplied_laubergedelmar_kitchen1540exterior_1280x640
Courtesy of L’Auberge Del Mar

L’Auberge Del Mar

Beachy vibes meet high-end elegance at this luxury resort just north of San Diego

L’Auberge Del Mar creates the illusion that you’re staying at your personal seaside villa, but it has all the amenities of a...

THE CALIFORNIA QUESTIONNAIRE: Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins vc_carlsbad_st_rf_124930877_1280x640
Steve Skinnery/Getty Images

Carlsbad

This family-friendly coastal town has feel-good appeal

Carlsbad’s legacy as a tourist hot spot dates back to the 1880s, when a local farmer tapped into mineral springs and a spa town...

THE CALIFORNIA QUESTIONNAIRE: Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins vc_oceanside_st_rm_829793708_1280x640
Joe Polillio/Getty Images

Oceanside

Find exceptional restaurants, inventive breweries, and a thriving local art scene in Northern San Diego County

It doesn’t take an etymologist to figure out how Oceanside got its name:...

THE CALIFORNIA QUESTIONNAIRE: Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins vc_encinitas_st_rm_ey252g_1280x640
Cultura/Alamy

Encinitas

Head north of downtown San Diego to experience one of the best surfing cities in the world

Encinitas isn’t just a city; it’s a vibe. Visit the coastal community 25 miles north of downtown San Diego and you’ll instantly...

THE CALIFORNIA QUESTIONNAIRE: Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins VC_DelMar_Stock_RM_CMCX08_1280x640
ZUMA Press/Alamy

Del Mar

This San Diego County beach town is home to blissful ocean views—but it also knows how to throw a party

Despite Del Mar’s idyllic oceanfront setting, this little town just north of San Diego was, in many ways, born around horses. The...

THE CALIFORNIA QUESTIONNAIRE: Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins VC_ChulaVista_Stock_RF_153222234_1280x640_0
Roy Bartels/Getty Images

Chula Vista

San Diego County’s second largest city boasts authentic Mexican food, a burgeoning craft beer scene, and outdoor activities galore

About seven miles from downtown San Diego in one direction and the Mexican border in another, Chula Vista is quickly developing its own strong...

Escondido
George Ostertag/Alamy

Escondido

Explore the craft breweries, culinary scene, and adventurous outdoors of this unique San Diego city

About 30 miles northeast of downtown San Diego, Escondido is the best little...

THE CALIFORNIA QUESTIONNAIRE: Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins VC_Questionnaire_AnnieLawless_01_Annie_Lawless_0363_COMP_alt_466_PeggySirota_1280x640
Photograph by Peggy Sirota

California Questionnaire: Annie Lawless

The Suja Juice co-founder, yoga instructor, and wellness aficionado is passionate about her Southern California home

As one of the founders of the nation’s leading organic juice brand, Annie Lawless knows a thing or two about living a healthy lifestyle. She...

Coasterra in San Diego, California
Courtesy of Cohn Restaurant Group

Coasterra

San Diego County on a map of California
Book a table at this San Diego waterfront knockout

Got a boat? That’s the only way you’ll get a better view of San Diego’s waterfront skyline...

THE CALIFORNIA QUESTIONNAIRE: Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins VC_LaJollaSunsets_RF_168579929_1280x640_0
Steve Skinner/Getty Images

Where to Watch a La Jolla Sunset

Want to nail your sunset shot? Our expert has six sensational recommendations to match any mood

As a San Diego concierge for more than a decade, Brett Hamblen is well versed in sunset recommendations. For his role as the chief concierge at...

THE CALIFORNIA QUESTIONNAIRE: Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins VCW_TI_T11_lauridsen_140702_2634-sized
Stretching 1,942 feet, the historic Oceanside Pier is the longest wooden pier on the Pacific Ocean.
Too darned pretty. Everywhere you look out there, everything's just too danged pretty! I'm usually the prettiest thing!
musician Little Richard on San Diego
SPECIAL FEATURE
Discover quintessential sun and fun at these coastal charmers

Take one part water, one part sand, one part sun-soaked coastal charm, and you’ve got the recipe for some of the Golden State’s most appealing destinations....

THE CALIFORNIA QUESTIONNAIRE: Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins SanDiego_LaJolla_preview_686x885
Lucas Himovitz
THE CALIFORNIA QUESTIONNAIRE: Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins PoliteProvisions_SD_sized
Gwynne Spann

Where to eat, what to drink

Endless Sun, Oceanfront Dining & Craft Breweries

With its endless sun and oceanfront location, as well as strong influences from Mexico, San Diego offers plenty of dining options—from flaky fish...

SPECIAL FEATURE
Kid-friendly fun zones, special kids' menus & amazing wine for the grownups

Sure wine country is romantic, but now it’s a surprisingly great destination for families too, with a growing number of vineyards trading in elegant tasting rooms for kid-friendly fun zones that...

THE CALIFORNIA QUESTIONNAIRE: Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins VCW_SI_T5_John_preview_686x885
John/Flickr
SPECIAL FEATURE
Check these amazing experiences off your bucket list

Kiss a beluga, see cool movie props, and learn about Walt’s secret hideaway on exclusive and behind-the-scenes tours at California’s theme parks and attractions. Here’s a roundup of worth-the-...

THE CALIFORNIA QUESTIONNAIRE: Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins VCW_SI_VIP_T1_MichaelSaechang_preview_686x885
Michael Saechang/Flickr
SPECIAL FEATURE
Unleash the kid within at California’s ultimate playgrounds

From Disneyland classics to beachfront carousels, the Golden State’s best-in-class theme parks deliver something for everyone. Take a tram ride to tour movie back lots at Universal Studios...

THE CALIFORNIA QUESTIONNAIRE: Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins AmazingThemeParks_preview_868x686
Lucas Himovitz
THE CALIFORNIA QUESTIONNAIRE: Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins SD_PipesBeach_Miller_1280x642
The historic 101 Café in Oceanside is the oldest continuously-operating restaurant on historic Highway 101.
A lion cub at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park
Alexa Miller

San Diego Zoo Safari Park

THE CALIFORNIA QUESTIONNAIRE: Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins vca_maps_sandiego
Find out where the wild things are

Like a journey to Africa, a day at this spectacular park lets you see some of the world’s most magnificent—and endangered—animals at close range...

SPECIAL FEATURE
Farm-fresh produce, culinary adventures

Juicy heirloom tomatoes and just-picked strawberries. Super-sweet peaches shaped like mini UFOs. Artisanal cheeses, golden-green olive oils, local wildflower honey—California’s farmers markets are...

THE CALIFORNIA QUESTIONNAIRE: Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins VCW_SI_FarmersMarket_T4_CV_DavisFrmMkt1_Flippen_preview_686x885
Laura Flippen
Thanks be to God, I arrived here...at this Port of San Diego. It is beautiful to behold, and does not belie its reputation.
Father Junipero Serra
SPECIAL FEATURE
Make memories at some of California's family-favorite beaches

Sand, water, and kids—it’s a natural combination for easy family fun. This sandy dozen offers appealing, family-friendly features, such as calm water for new swimmers, tide pools for intrepid...

THE CALIFORNIA QUESTIONNAIRE: Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins Carmel_BeachDog_Farnum_preview_686x885
Alex Farnum
SPECIAL FEATURE
World-class accommodations in world-class locations

Head to the heart of California’s cities for luxurious stays at world-class accommodations. From San Francisco’s historic hotels to celebrity hot spots in Hollywood and Beverly Hills, California’s...

THE CALIFORNIA QUESTIONNAIRE: Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins PalaceHotel_LynGateley_preview_686x885
Lynn Gately/Flickr

Highway One Classic

Highway One Classic
THE CALIFORNIA QUESTIONNAIRE: Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins highwayoneclassic_stop1_sandiego_rf_1061869034_0

San Diego is one of California’s sunniest destinations. This waterfront city is overflowing with exceptional dining and craft beer experiences, outdoor adventures, family fun, and great shopping. Explore diverse neighborhoods like Little Italy, the ...

SPECIAL FEATURE
Taste the delicious dishes from these amazing California chefs

From a candy-colored pastry shop to Michelin-starred dining rooms, top restaurants run by celebrity chefs dot the Golden State. And even if you don’t know these chefs from the TV...

THE CALIFORNIA QUESTIONNAIRE: Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins VCW_SI_T10_Milliken&Feniger_Portrait_preview_686x885
THE CALIFORNIA QUESTIONNAIRE: Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins VCW_D_SD_T7_TorreyPines_lauridsen_140618_754-sized
Dave Lauridsen

San Diego Golf

Get your daily dose of greens at oceanfront courses

Perfect weather, challenging course, and incredible settings make San Diego County a golfer’s dream destination. It’s not surprising that many of...

THE CALIFORNIA QUESTIONNAIRE: Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins VCW_D_SD_T9_lauridsen_Julian
Dave Lauridsen

Julian

Visit a surprising mountain town that’s as American as apple pie

Poised between the desert and the coast, a little more than an hour’s drive east of San Diego, this surprising mountain town makes a great day...

The sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever.
Jacques Yves Cousteau