Column: “Top Chef” got a flavor boost from fiery San Diego chef


Spoiler alert! The following column discusses the outcomes of the Jan. 25 episode of “Top Chef” and Episode 9 of “Last Chance Kitchen.”

When we return to the heat of Bravo TV’s “Top Chef” kitchen on Thursday night, we will be without the combustible presence of San Diego chef Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins.

Don’t everybody weep into their mole all at once.

Zepeda-Wilkins — who was eliminated in last week’s “Restaurant Wars” episode — was passive-aggressive, surly and always ready to throw a fellow contestant under the responsibility bus.

She was the closest thing this mostly genial season had to a villain, and now that I know the brassy, boastful chef is almost certainly not coming back, I have to say that “Top Chef” will be very bland without her.

First, a Chef Claudette recap.

Born in San Diego and raised here and in Tijuana, Zepeda-Wilkins ran her own candy company, served as executive chef at Jsix and El Bizcocho and was the opening chef at Javier Plascencia’s Bracero Cocina de Raiz in Little Italy.

Zepeda-Wilkins got a taste of the reality-TV game as a contestant on “Top Chef Mexico,” but when she went to Colorado for the current season of “Top Chef,” the experience didn’t pay off as well as she might have hoped.

After being eliminated in the second episode for an underwhelming smoked-fish dish, Zepeda-Wilkins got back in the “Top Chef” game by winning the show’s “Last Chance Kitchen” online competition, only to be eliminated again last week.

She then returned to “Last Chance Kitchen,” and despite impressing judge Tom Colicchio by turning wilted produce into a gourmet plate of plantain molotes (pastries), Chef Claudette lost her final last chance to the beautifully named Brother Luck.

“I had a good run,” Zepeda-Wilkins said in her exit interview. “I’m leaving with my head held high.”

Meanwhile, “Top Chef” viewers are left with a bunch of talented contestants who seem to get along pretty well, which is great for them but not so great for us.

Like any winning dish, this cooking competition needs a little acid to keep things balanced. And to her credit and ultimate detriment, Zepeda-Wilkins was the acid in the “Top Chef” mix.

When she faced elimination the first time, Zepeda-Wilkins tried to shift the blame for an under-smoked and under-seasoned fish appetizer to her co-chef, Adrienne Cheatham, who was responsible for the aspects of the dish the judges actually liked.

It didn’t work, and Zepeda-Wilkins got the ax. She battled her way back, which was impressive. But when she found herself facing elimination in the Jan. 18 episode, she said it was teammate Tanya Holland’s fault for not helping her more.

In that case, the likable Oakland chef was eliminated, and the not-at-all-likable San Diego chef lived to abdicate responsibility for another day.

Which turned out to be just one more week. When team leader Chris Scott chose Zepeda-Wilkins to be executive chef instead of taking the hot-seat job himself, her pink slip was already writing itself.

Their team did not win, and despite being executive chef, Zepeda-Wilkins did not think it was her fault. Colicchio was not buying it.

“You’re an executive chef in your restaurant. You know that’s not an expediting role. You know what that role means.”

And you know what a Colicchio smackdown means. It means goodbye.

So after all this bad behavior, why am I sorry to see Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins leave the television kitchen?

As a reality-show viewer, I am always sorry when a bad seed is put out to pasture. Who will I yell at now? And isn’t yelling part of the fun?

And as a San Diegan, I am sorry the rest of the TV and food world didn’t get to see what this homegrown chef and hardscrabble former single mom could really do.

Women — especially women of color — are not well represented in the “Top Chef” winners’ circle. So more than anything, I am sorry that Zepeda-Wilkins won’t have the chance to remedy that.

On “Last Chance Kitchen,” where the focus is on cooking and not on personality, Zepeda-Wilkins was a formidable force. The three challenges she won involved cooking with dried tarantulas, weird flavor pairings (she got fish flakes and chocolate), and animal innards.

Her food was complex, daring and — judging by Colicchio’s rapturous comments — really, really yummy.

The good news is, Zepeda-Wilkins is the executive chef behind El Jardin, which will bring regional Mexican cuisine to Liberty Station when it opens later this year. I doubt that dried tarantulas and snark will be on the menu, but Chef Claudette will be in the kitchen, and you will want a front-row seat when she lets her food do the talking.

Twitter: @karla_peterson