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.