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3 Culinary Insiders Dish on the California Scene

Tanya Holland, Claudette Zepeda, and tour operator Lauren Herpich discuss the Golden State’s delicious diversity

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Posted 24 days agoby Ann Marie Brown

If there's one thing that brings people together to celebrate multiculturalism, it's food. Tacos, hummus, Thai noodles, naan, collard greens—these dishes reflect the experiences and identities of various peoples, yet they're all important elements of California cuisine.

In the latest California Now Podcast, three culinary experts discuss diversity's role in the Golden State's food scene.

Tanya Holland

Celebrity chef Tanya Holland of Oakland's Brown Sugar Kitchen is involved in an array of new projects, including opening a new cafe at the Oakland Museum of California.

"I am going to be moving away from just cooking soul food and really cook food that represents the diversity of Oakland," she says. "There's over 100 languages spoken here. There's so many different ethnicities, and I want everybody to be represented."

Holland also discusses her new TV cooking show, Tanya's Kitchen Table, which debuted last November on the Oprah Winfrey Network, and her podcast, Tanya's Table, now in its second season.

Guests on Tanya's Table have included chefs Samin Nosrat and Alice Waters, human rights activist Ericka Huggins, musician Bonnie Raitt, and actor Danny Glover. The wide range of personalities is part of the fun, Holland says.

"I love talking to people from different backgrounds and finding common denominators," she says. "I love to learn, and I love to learn through conversation."

Holland's agenda also includes serving as a board member for the James Beard Foundation, an organization that she says is "really focused on making an impact" on the restaurant industry.

One of the foundation's goals is to ensure that all chefs have equal access to funding. "We've started a Black and Indigenous investment fund," she says. "The big focus is on diversity, equity, and inclusion."

Claudette Zepeda

Award-winning San Diego chef Claudette Zepeda, who appeared on the TV shows Top Chef and Top Chef Mexico, talks about San Diego's global food scene.

"You have to go eat tacos in San Diego, obviously. We're a taco-shop culture," Zepeda says. "If you want really good tacos, go to Chula Vista. Tacos El Gordo does it right. They do exactly what you would expect without crossing the border and going to Mexico."

For sampling a variety of Asian foods, Zepeda recommends the Convoy District in Kearny Mesa, one of the largest Pan-Asian business districts in the West.

"Convoy has the best dumplings. You can get amazing Korean barbecue," she says. "Go to Jasmine for dim sum if you like traditional dim sum carts. Dim sum is traditionally served in the morning, so it's one of my favorite ways to start my day."

Zepeda also discusses the cultural influences behind her menu at Vaga, the restaurant at Alila Marea Beach Resort in Encinitas that's opening in March. As executive chef, Zepeda envisioned Vaga as "a love letter to San Diego as a border town." International ingredients star in dishes like jollof rice with West African spices and a brazed oxtail soup dumpling in a tomatillo broth.

"Obviously soup dumplings are a Chinese delicacy, but I grew up in Tijuana, where Chinese and Mexican culture is so intertwined. It is one," Zepeda says. "So I started riffing off what the soup can be."

Lauren Herpich

Also on the podcast, Lauren Herpich, owner of the Oakland tour company Local Food Adventures, talks about why food tours are a great way to get to know California's vibrant cities.

"The best way of learning about a new place is through the food. When you're sitting down at a table together, you're having a conversation, and you're learning about the people that make up a certain place," she says.

Herpich's tour guests visit restaurants, specialty shops, and marketplaces in a mix of Oakland neighborhoods, each having its own distinct character.

In Oakland's Rockridge neighborhood, her guests chat with a chef at the award-winning restaurant A16 Rockridge. "They get to come into the restaurant before it opens. They sit at the chef's counter and talk with the pizzaiolo. They get to see how they make these really authentic Neapolitan wood-fired pizzas," she says.

Herpich says most culinary tours are run by an individual who's an expert in the food culture of one particular city or neighborhood. "These are small, mom-and-pop enterprises, individuals who really love where they live. They love their community."

The job has plenty of perks, she says. "Do we get to eat really good food all the time? Absolutely."

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