6 Questions with Claudette Zepeda

You’ve worked in a variety of restaurants. Did Mexican food always feel most natural to cook?

I started off at a not-so-great pizza joint, you know, like every teenager. But I was bitten with the bug of restaurants, but never saw it as a viable career. I’ve cooked Italian, French, pastries, charcuterie, but when I started cooking Mexican food, it felt like what I was meant to do. I’d worked in a lot of mentally draining places and I remember visiting my aunt in Guadalajara at my wits’ end. And she said, maybe it’s time for you to cook our food—what you know. She said, ‘Mother Earth will always call you to where you belong.’ And when I started cooking Mexican food, it was my homecoming.

How did growing up between San Diego, Tijuana and Guadalajara shape your cultural perspective?

First-generation Mexican Americans don’t really feel a deep connection with Mexico. And I feel that I’m fortunate to always have had that. For me, going to Mexico was going home. Guadalajara was the one place I felt the most ‘me.’ Going home I felt a breath of fresh air every time went there. Most first-generation kids don’t have that. We’re told to forget where you’re from, don’t speak the language, and I’m fortunate to come from a family that was about embracing your Mexicanness. We’re Americans to adapt, but we are not any less Mexican.

You and your brothers learned English watching British television?

I think that’s why I love British sensibilities so much. I developed a weird adoration for dry humor. Between Julia Child and Mr. Bean and Are You Being Served? That’s how my brothers and I learned English! And that’s probably where my weird fascination with dying my hair comes from, too, from watching that show. I’m also surprised that I don’t have just the weirdest accent from watching all those shows on TV!

What was the driving force behind El Jardín?

I saw a need and a void in the market for regional cuisines the way I had seen it on the ground. A lot of chefs, by no fault of their own, take one trip to Mexico City, and come back and do a menu. But you have to spend more time, it’s more than just a vacation/R&D trip. I really took that to heart. Meeting these people in Mexico was kind of this aha moment. I have to cook and speak for the people that can’t speak: the women, the grandmothers whom I had met who had these recipes that no one else in the world had seen because they don’t have a platform. So that became my homework, to travel across the seven regions and shake their hands. I asked them, ‘Who do YOU cook?’ And it opened what I call the Pandora’s Box of Mexico.

Your dishes honor matriarchal traditions. What’s your favorite dish your mom or aunt used to make?

I call it the fingerprint. Everybody leaves a fingerprint whether you meet them or eat their food. When I eat certain people’s food, it’s a very visceral experience. That’s exactly my experience in Mexico. My aunt’s posole hands-down was my favorite thing to eat. She was a single mother and literally put six kids through university on the back of posole. For my mom, even now, I call her and ask her to make me albondigas and rice pudding.

What’s a Mexican dish people might be familiar with you put your own spin on?

I think the posole. That was taking something I knew that gave me so much comfort my entire childhood, plus my sensibility of try to honor all of Mexico. Every dish has its own way of honoring that, but for posole, it’s a dish as old as Mexico’s history. It transformed from colonization, but it’s one of the oldest dishes from the Aztecs. Then I started thinking about how I could give it my spin. In the north of Mexico, it’s largely influenced by Asian and Japanese culture. So we were using kombu, which gives you umami, combined with traditional charred tomato and broth, guajillos, onion, garlic, oregano. You mix those together and you get this hybrid-posole. When my aunt and my mom came and ate it I was holding my breath watching them! As long as they think it’s good, that’s all I needed. And they approved, so it was good!