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Fire Side Chat with Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins

Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins

Growing up, how did you know that you wanted to become a Chef and what influences do you bring from home?

Well, I grew up in Guadalajara.  Every chance I could, I would go to my Aunt’s restaurant.  I was always involved in the preparations of the little things at her restaurant.  I would help shred the meat or other tasks like that.  I would always want to be around the kitchen.  My dad always had a dream of owning a restaurant.  My kitchen is what I cook.  It is a mish-mosh with a focus on regional cuisines.  I look at different regions and ingredients.  My inspirations are the people from all these regions.

I know you can’t reveal anything, but what was it like to compete on Top Chef that premiers in December? 

I can’t talk at all.

How was your Top Chef Mexico experience?

Top Chef Mexico was amazing.  One of the best parts of the entire show is that it doesn’t focus on a particular state of Mexico.  We traveled throughout Mexico, and it was a once in a lifetime opportunity.  The cultures are indigenous and basic.  The people do not have a means of cooking, and they make something very special with nothing.  Dinner is just tamales and bread. They honor loved ones with food.  It’s a different perspective from the U.S.

What is it like to work with the Rise and Shine Restaurant Group?

I partnered with them last year.  I was kind of scouted for this new Mexican project.  I told Johan, the owner, to let me think about it.  I was leaving for Top Chef Mexico, and I would give an answer after.  It’s a small group and it’s really a perfect partnership.  Everything is designed by us.  I cook the food that I enjoy and I find my own Mexican artisans.  Johan lets me be me. As a chef, that is all that I can ask for.  I can’t wait for people to see what we are working on.

What is your favorite dish to prepare and eat? 

My fav to prepare is pozole.  It is a family recipe.  Cooking pozole takes me back to childhood and my aunt’s restaurant in Mexico.  The three different types that people know are red, green, and white.  The flavors are so different and so great.

Biggest piece of advice you have for aspiring chefs? 

 Stop looking around.  Many young cooks get caught up in looking at Facebook and Instagram.  Young cooks and chefs see amazing foods on social media and want to cook it themselves.  They don’t their own voice.  Look at yourself, your roots, and where you come from.  There is nothing more beautiful than elevating your memory and roots.  My memory and my childhood are the biggest gifts I have.  Don’t care ab what everyone else is doing. A restaurant needs to have a vision from the chef.  Be introspective.

Your signature cooking style has been defined as unapologetic, authentic Mexican cuisine. Explain how you’re planning to incorporate your own personal style and flair onto your new restaurant, El Jardin’s menu

By always giving a nod to the past and the people in my life that have molded me. I like to be playful with words and the dishes, and love to take each dish and see where it ends up. In researching for the restaurant, I’ve learned the intricacies that are Mexico.  Many first-generation Mexicans do not know.  Knowing the cultures that have had a hand in Mestiza cuisine is helpful in the menu process. It may be uncomfortable for some since it can seem unorthodox, but it is always delicious. 

El Jardin will be focusing on regional Mexican cuisine using exclusive products imported straight from Mexico. Share with us which ingredients and flavors we can expect to see making their way to the center-of-the-plate.

I’m growing chaya from the Yucatan in the garden, recados made by a Mayan community, smoky pasilla mixe, rich quesillo, aromatic rosita de cacao, earthy chicatanas, buttery escamoles, sweet pink pine nuts, pulque from the base of Popocatépetl the Volcano in between Puebla and Mexico state, hoja santa, aguacate criollo will be growing as well as guavas, I can really go on and on. Some more specials items that I want to keep as a surprise to my guests. The flavors from all of these ingredients evoke one single emotion and that’s love, warmth. I call it grandma chic, food for the soul and plated by Chefs. 

What’s your approach for substituting dried herbs/spices for fresh ones in your dishes?

Dried herbs have their place in the kitchen as do fresh, some applications you need dry herbs. A rub marinade wouldn’t be the same with fresh. The crust on a good piece of meat would be better served with dry spice.

Mexican cuisine is known for combining both sweet and savory ingredients. With your background in pastry, how will you be using both types of ingredients in your dishes?

I don’t do it too much but it’s a balance. Just the same as when I have to make sure the acid and salt are both in unison, the sweet ingredients help the spicy ones transform, fried chilhuacle chiles and garlic would overpower a lot of dishes but add a sweet element and you have a chili jam of sorts.

Which seasonings and spices will you be stocking El Jardin’s pantry with in order to stay true to the flavors and heat of such a rich cuisine?

Oregano, garlic, onion, fennel, cinnamon, salts from various regions, coriander, chipotle, Jamaica, pepper, dried chiles, nuts, the list goes on and on. 

Define Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins' signature flavor and dish.

My signature flavor is warmth, the subtle heat from an aguachile to warm and cool you at the same time on a hot day to a bean stew made with a rich kombu dashi broth and garden vegetables with a perfectly poached egg and cured nopales to hug you in the cold. 

What Tilit products do you use daily?

I love my backpack.  I use it every day.   I have a work shirt.  I pretty much have everything, I want one of the work jackets.  I have several of the aprons.

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