Holiday Your Way: Tis' the season with Claudette Zepeda
As a female-owned business we love celebrating female entrepreneurs, and when we think of powerhouse women, Claudette Zepeda immediately comes to mind. An award-winning chef who was born in the United States to Mexican parents, Zepeda’s food is a love letter to her childhood on the border between two cities – Tijuana and San Diego.
Spending summers in Guadalajara with her aunt, who owned her own restaurant, planted the seed of entrepreneurship in Zepeda. The creative visionary built a name for herself serving as an award-winning food and beverage consultant, owner, and chef.
From a pastry chef at El Bizcocho to Chef de Cuisine at the iconic Bracero in San Diego, Zepeda then competed on Top Chef Season 15 and Top Chef Mexico Season 2. In 2018 Zepeda partnered with Johan Engman's Rise & Shine Restaurant Group to open El Jardin in San Diego, where she held the title of Executive Chef and Partner. During her time leading the kitchen, Zepeda won the Eater San Diego and San Diego Union-Tribune’s Chef of the Year in 2018, and was a James Beard Best Chef West semifinalist in 2019.
After facing issues of conflicting creative visions with her partner of El Jardin, Zepeda parted ways with the restaurant in 2019. She kept building on her career as a chef, traveling around the world and breaking down cultural borders through food. In the spring of 2022 she founded Chispa Hospitality, which saw culinary spaces pop up in Australia and Mexico – Taqueria Zepeda recently opened its doors in Sydney on September 1, 2022, and a burger spot in Mexico City is soon to follow.
As a trailblazing Latina in the food industry, Zepeda has carved her own path through perseverance and adapting to different environments, especially when working as a single mother while breaking into the industry. Having experienced the hardships and difficulties that single working mothers can endure, giving back is of utmost importance to her. And so, in 2019 she founded Viva La Vida, which focuses on supporting single women in Mexico by establishing small businesses that can import their ingredients that were previously unavailable in the United States.
We were beyond inspired hearing of Zepeda’s story and had to know more. We were lucky to have Zepeda share with us her journey, her creative process, and the importance of sharing stories in beverage curation.
The Zepeda’s started in Santiago Ixcuintla Nayarit and by the time my father immigrated to Los Angeles in the 60s, my family moved to Guadalajara. As the only daughter (5 brothers) in a Mexican household, feeding the family and keeping the house affairs in order was my birth purpose, according to my father.
My first core memory from my childhood is cleaning dry shrimp with him to make his favorite botana (snack) when we lived in Tijuana. A dried shrimp and habanero aguachile – a memory I unconsciously tap into regularly when making tweaks to a dish to balance the acidity, salinity, bitterness, and textures.
After I was born, my family would load up our Lincoln Continental aka the “lancha” (speedboat), and take our annual road trip from Tijuana to Guadalajara, stopping at every beach down the Pacific along the three-day journey to eat. Through the years, once we got to Guadalajara I would assume my position at my aunt’s restaurant doing odd jobs that a 6-17-year-old kid could do.
A combination of the beautiful attack of my senses by the kitchens and roadside palapas in the central and border region of Mexico helped form a hunger for creative and culinary stimulation that I didn’t fully embrace until my son James was born when I was 18. By the time I became a mother I realized two things: feeding and then watching people say “yum” when eating my food fed me in a way nothing else did.
I, with the help of the fire that my son sparked in me, found myself applying to culinary school. Lasting a couple of semesters before being dismissed for lack of funds to cover tuition. Pivoting like I had become a pro at doing, I began looking for teachers and mentors in the industry. The last 22 years of my life in kitchens has given me some of my best and worst memories and life lessons that I am grateful for. From working as a pastry chef for 8 years to learning how to butcher and transitioning to the savory side of the kitchen.
Her Inspiration and Creative Process
In 2014, I took my first trip abroad. I left feeling defeated and like a live wire that was lost in a career that I didn’t seem to fit into. I came back with a vision of who I wanted to be in the world of hospitality. My connection to the divine feminine and ancestral Mexican warrior women has kept me on my true north and the destination was and continues to be Mexico, food and its women. I have traveled across my motherland over and over and each time I learn something new, I lock eyes with a new soul at the market who I feel called to know and ask her about her family and how she uses the new ingredients I run across.
My creative process is a bit unorthodox; my passions lie between food, fashion, music, and art. Fashion, music, and art – like food – are ever-evolving, but like clockwork gives nods to trends of the past with a current fingerprint.
I love spring collections because it reminds me of the produce to come, matching a hue on the runway with a vegetable and adding salt and acid to it has birthed my favorite aguachiles. Extra spicy and funky if said runway show is matched with a bit of punk rock and metal studs. It’s my purpose to show people through my plates that Mexican food is not bound by time nor ingredients. We are a cuisine of the world and what we know as Mexican cuisine is due to the hundreds of migrants who made Mexico home, shared ingredients with us, and we created a dish that married two worlds together – over a stack of tortillas.
Her Beverage Curation
In 2018 when opening my restaurant in San Diego I made it a mission of mine to be as thoughtful in the beverage program as I was in the food. Enlisting the best of San Diego to curate such a vision – Christian Siglin on the bar and Molly Brooks on the wine list. The wine list is where I truly fell in love with curating experiences and sharing stories. The people I chose to have on my list were just as important as the wine in the bottle. Women, people of color, LGBTQ, generational biodynamic vineyards, all in all change makers. The power in our purchasing has the ability to give these families hope and every dollar helps keep their doors open. I find it exciting to find a new winemaker, like Christmas morning excited.
Her Wine Selection
Molly has been helping me source the wines from around the world since. We sit, she tells me a brief on the winemaker, brand, and the varietal or blend we’ll taste. Keeping her [sommelier] terms like poker cards, she waits for me to be me haha, and starts connecting the dots with my food and ingredients.
At first sip my pallet acclimates and the second sip gives me a sort of tick where I start naming things the wine reminds me of, and we laugh as she and I jot down what I am saying. “This reminds me of a frozen gansito while sitting on the porch because the house is stuffy,” or “the tamarindo con chile lollipop with the saladito embedded in the middle of it. The sugar from the pop mixing with the salt on your face from sweating while running around.” Like I mentioned before, unorthodox.
I love bright wines, there are no rules in pairing that I follow. If I taste it and it tells me that it would work with a dish I am dreaming up, I’ll try it. The pairings that give my dishes that lace shawl it needed as the wind picked up at night, or the cooling magic on a hot summer day while people-watching in Rincon de Guayabitos, Nayarit.
Whether that’s a McBride Sisters Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough New Zealand 2021 served alongside octopus al pastor that was grilled over white oak and accompanied by a cilantro and purslane slaw, and burnt carrot and passion fruit puree to cure any winter blues and put you on a beach with every bite. Or a bold and lightly chilled Black Girl Magic Zinfandel California 2018 to pair with a smoked lamb shank barbacoa with charred pineapples and a sweet and spicy salsa borracha (drunken salsa that is spiked with the same wine) served with saucey rice and black beans and fresh tortillas.
Apart from being a culinary master, Zepeda’s mission is to help free Hispanic women from generational poverty in the United States – a goal that we’re here to help amplify. Stay tuned with Zepeda’s philanthropic activities on her Instagram and culinary adventures on the Netflix show Iron Chef: Quest for an Iron Legend.