Growing up in the San Diego area, Claudette Zepeda spent a lot of time with her aunt who was a restaurateur in Tijuana. By the time she become a chef herself, Zepeda 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 in Point Loma that received rave reviews and a spot on the Michelin Bib Gourmand list during her tenure. We asked the former Top Chef contestant and current executive chef at Alila Marea Beach Resort in Encinitas for some of her favorite spots in California, around San Diego and beyond.
Where do you live? 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.
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.