“My restaurant is the embodiment of the matriarchy,” Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins says. When her restaurant El Jardín opens this spring, the longtime San Diego chef will be running a kitchen for the first time. And as executive chef, she’s highlighting seasonality in her Mexican menu and prioritizing women in the fabric of the restaurant.
Zepeda-Wilkins was raised in San Diego and Tijuana, Mexico, and she’s spent her career in San Diego kitchens. She was chef de cuisine at Bracero, a 2016 Eater best new restaurant, and worked in pastry at chef Gavin Kaysen’s former San Diego restaurant El Bizcocho. In 2017, she appeared on Top Chef Mexico and competed on the latest season of Top Chef in Colorado. Now, with “passion project” El Jardin, Zepeda-Wilkins plans to bring her take on regional Mexican food traditions to her city.
At El Jardín, Zepeda-Wilkins will draw on produce from the restaurant’s garden and imported seasonal Mexican ingredients, like escamoles, for a modern Mexican menu that is “homey, soulful, and creative.” Most of the 130 seats, including a large outdoor patio that fits nearly 100 people, will offer a la carte dining. “I can’t do things too weird, or people will come once and never again,” Zepeda-Wilkins says. But, she plans to reserve five seats at a chef’s counter for a more creative tasting menu. “I call that omacasi, with C-A-S-I, the word in Spanish for ‘almost’,” she says.
The chef wants El Jardín to feel like “going to your aunt’s house.” Service will be warm and accommodating, and the food, she explains, “[is] not pretentious, it’s not super-complicated, it’s good.” Zepeda-Wilkins’s actual aunt owned a restaurant, and she sees herself as a part of a line of “really strong women.”
As a Mexican chef opening a Mexican restaurant, Zepeda-Wilkins is especially passionate about creating a space with women at its forefront. “We are such a suppressed group of women. The patriarchy is huge. They even call it the patriarchy of cuisine in Mexico,” she explains. Cooking, she says, is seen as a man’s industry, “but really it’s the women that are the gatekeepers for our traditions.” Zepeda-Wilkins says it was easy to include women in the restaurant’s makeup. “That kind of happened organically,” she says. “I didn’t seek it out.”
Zepeda-Wilkins is choosing El Jardín’s sommelier for her palate first, but notes that she thinks female sommeliers are largely underrated. “They just don’t get as much light, at least that I’ve seen,” she says. A dedication to supporting women also runs through the literal fabric of the restaurant: Merijam Roelofs of Folk Project will make accent pieces upholstered with fabrics sourced from a group of female textile makers in Oaxaca, Mexico.
Although her partner in the restaurant, Rise & Shine Restaurant Group founder Johan Engman, and her sous chef are men, Zepeda-Wilkins says most of the people she’s working with on El Jardín are those gatekeepers of tradition. “Unconsciously, consciously,” she says, “it became a project of a bunch of women.”