Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins - R&D Chef
I have been in kitchens my whole life. Coming from a family of food lovers, I was constantly surrounded by flavors and introduced to food that most children aren't exposed to. My family in Guadalajara, Jalisco, was the biggest influence on my love for the industry. My aunt let me cut vegetables and serve drinks in her restaurant Las Calandrias as soon as I could reach the counter, and helping Doña Moni make her famous Pozole. The most vivid memories I have is of going to the open-air markets in Guadalajara to buy the restaurant's produce and meats with my aunt, and eating whole wheels of Panela with my Grandmother at the age of five.
By the time I was 17 years old, I knew that my calling was to be a professional cook. The first chef that trusted me Chef Denise Roa, had me work as her dish/ prep/ line/ pastry cook in an Italian restaurant. Once I gained some momentum in my cooking career, I sought out a position in fine dining; I became a pastry cook at Jack's La Jolla. Within the year, I was informed that Chef Gavin Kaysen was looking for a pastry chef at El Bizcocho. This was the year he was awarded Food & Wine’s Top 10 Chefs, and on the heels of competing at the Bocuse d’Or. I was sent off to develop my own menu and own the pastry department. Soon after Chef Kaysen left for New York I went on to take a job as Pastry Chef Jsix downtown. I left the comfort of the pastry station and learned all I could about everything from artisan breads to Charcuterie and whole-animal butchery. The three years I spent there were truly the hardest and most fruitful years of my career. It was at that time when I decided that maybe I didn’t want to only do pastry. I wanted to do it all.
I spent the following years honing my craft and lending a hand to any chef that needed help in restaurants around the country. From 2013-2014, I spent the majority of my time traveling to Europe and starting a successful confections company. Most notable however was my time in Marrakech, where the people and the food evoked truly a soulful experience. The food was similar to the food I grew up with in Mexico, full utilization of the animal and warm flavors. When I returned from that trip, I was undoubtedly confident in the fact that I wanted to be the best cook I could be and go back to my roots with Mexican cuisine. Knowing Chef Javier Plascencia and his project in Little Italy was opening soon I wanted to join his team. It took a couple of words with Javier and eating his food meal at Doña Estelas to know that I wanted to work for the man. Though I originally signed up to be a butcher for him, my role soon evolved to being at the helm of Bracero as Chef De Cuisine. Sharing my kitchen cooking with amazing Chef’s Carlos Salgado, Rick Bayless and team, Ray Garcia, Trey Foshee, Ned Elliott. Receiving the Semi Finalist nomination from the James Beard Foundation for Best New Restaurant is a testament to the drive to be the best. Cooking unapologetic Mexican food and staying true to the flavors and heat of such a rich cuisine. 2016 kicked off with the Crux Rust Belt Tour cooking alongside Brandon Baltzey, Laura Higgings-Baltzley, Pat Shering, Kyle Patton and so many more. Driving from Chicago to Pittsburgh and finishing in Ontario, Canada. Cooking alongside Chef Drew Deckman at his restaurant, Deckmans in Valle de Guadalupe for the summer season was an amazing experience in cooking outdoors and completely sustainable. The end of 2016 I spent three months cooking and eating the food of Mexico City for inspiration. Coming back to San Diego to join the Rise & Shine Shine Restaurant Group as their Research and Development Chef. On the horizon is El Jardin which is slated to open January 2018 where I will shift to Executive Chef of the restaurant. The focus being, making regional Mexican cuisine with exclusive products imported straight from Mexico for us apart from our own garden where will will grow indigenous herbs to use in our food.