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On the Border: Chef Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins Elevates Regional Mexican Cuisine and the Women Who Make It

This article has been produced through an editorial partnership with Civil Eats, a daily news source for critical thought about the American food system.

 

Learn more about Claudette and her love for Mexican flavors on "The Migrant Kitchen" S3 E3: El Jardin

Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins grew up as a border kid, splitting her time between San Diego, California and Tijuana, Mexico. Her parents worked in Mexico and raised their family in Imperial Beach, a California town located just a few miles from the border. She spent her childhood summers in Guadalajara and learned to cook in her aunt’s pozole restaurant.

From a young age, Zepeda-Wilkins’s female relatives taught her the flavors and dishes that still infuse her cooking. Now a mother of two teenagers, she has opened a restaurant to honor the women who raised her and the women she’s met in her travels throughout Mexico.

“I’m pretty sure it’s a mom-talent in general, but the ability to make — with no money — a nutritious, full meal for your family is something that I’ve seen more and more throughout my travels in Mexico,” Zepeda-Wilkins says. “The adaptability of these women is really something that I admire.”

Zepeda-Wilkins has had a busy few years: In addition to opening a new restaurant, El Jardín, last June in San Diego, she is featured in this season of KCET’s “The Migrant Kitchen.” She has also competed in “Top Chef” and “Top Chef Mexico,” worked in pastry at San Diego’s El Bizcocho and served as as chef de cuisine at Bracero Cocina, Mexican chef Javier Plascencia’s well-loved San Diego outpost.

The idea for El Jardín — a restaurant focused on serving regional cuisines from across Mexico — took root two years ago, when Zepeda-Wilkins traveled around the country, meeting the women who keep Mexico’s culinary traditions alive.

Chef Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins preparing a dish | Jim Sullivan TMKs3
Chef Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins preparing a dish | Jim Sullivan

At El Jardín, Zepeda-Wilkins pays homage to her Mexican heritage by making use of ingredients and recipes sourced from home cooks across Mexico, including her family members. But she not only makes food, she tells stories, too — stories of her mother and aunts and grandmothers, of her travels and of the women who carry on Mexico’s complex, nourishing, diverse cuisine. It’s a project she’s been working on for the past two years, since she returned from a learning pilgrimage through her motherland.

On El Jardín’s menu, dishes like “Jalisco Style Pozole Rojo” (from the state of Jalisco) and “Seared Fish a la Veracruzana” (from Veracruz) pay tribute to her family’s history and highlight the distinct regionality of Mexican cooking. Yet even these regional dishes — like Mexican cuisine as a whole — are infused with borrowed flavors and techniques.

“Through the seven regions [of Mexican cuisine], you can see where different cultures landed and meshed with our indigenous ingredients,” Zepeda-Wilkins says, “and all the beautiful dishes [that] came about.”

Many of those beautiful dishes rely on ingredients that were developed and brought to Mexico by other cultures.

“Really, all our cuisine is a mestiza cuisine,” she says, using the Spanish word for someone of mixed ethnic ancestry. “If you were to make [strictly] Mexican cuisine, you’d have to cut onion and garlic out, and you’d be left with just tomatoes and chilis — still delicious, but you’d miss the roundness of the flavors that are notorious for us, our holy trinity: tomatoes, onions and chilis.”

And even today that evolution continues. Zepeda-Wilkins points to the roughly 3,000 Haitians who got stranded in Tijuana in 2016 amid an immigration crackdown in the U.S. Today, she says, “you see all these beautiful Haitian chicken spots popping up in Tijuana, which is really cool.”

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She hopes El Jardín will continue to reflect that globally influenced cuisine, but she also struggles to transform people’s preconceptions of what Mexican food should taste like — and what it should cost.

“No one values Mexican food this close to the border. It makes business sense to just do tacos and burritos and nachos, but we’re so much more than that as a culture,” she says. “You go to Mexico City, and you have some of the most beautiful food made by chefs who have traveled the world and come home. Why can’t we be that?”

Pozole from El Jardin | Jim Sullivan TMKs3
Pozole from El Jardin | Jim Sullivan

Several months into El Jardín’s opening, Zepeda-Wilkins is now itching to return to Mexico to sample new and familiar dishes again. “I need to get another insurgence of creative juice,” she says. “My feet need to touch that ground. I need to meet these people and eat at their homes again. Even if it’s the same meal, I come back a different person after every conversation, after every story they tell.”

These travels, and the food she eats in Mexican homes, are the lifeblood of El Jardín. Despite the restaurant’s reputation for sophisticated, elevated Mexican food, Zepeda-Wilkins just wants to make the dishes her grandma made — like albondigas, Mexican-style meatballs. And while she’s at it, she wants to top them with greens grown in the restaurant’s namesake on-site garden, plate them on ceramics sourced from Mexican artisans, and serve them with a story.

Those stories, she stresses, are a way to keep the diversity of Mexican culture alive alongside the country’s diverse cuisines.

Seared fish ala Veracruzana from El Jardin | Jim Sullivan TMKs3
Seared fish ala Veracruzana from El Jardin | Jim Sullivan

“What happens to a lot of these women [I meet] is that their stories go untold if they don’t have daughters,” Zepeda-Wilkins says. “A lot of women die alone in tiny villages because the husbands emigrated to make money and send [it] back to their family. Half the time [the money] stops abruptly, and they never hear from them again. If there’s not a female to carry on the recipes of their family history, everything dies with them.”

Those stories are a powerful force for Zepeda-Wilkins, and the foundation for El Jardín. Her employees are eager to share the history behind each dish, which region it comes from, and the people who inspired it. “Food is the one language we all speak,” Zepeda-Wilkins says — and it’s a language she speaks fluently.

Top Image: Seared fish ala Veracruzana from El Jardin | Jim Sullivan 

 

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