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Star chef Claudette Zepeda out as year-old El Jardín restaurant abruptly closes for revamp into casual eatery

The year-old El Jardín restaurant at Liberty Station has closed for a monthlong revamp that will convert it from fine dining to a casual Mexican concept.
The year-old El Jardín restaurant at Liberty Station has closed for a monthlong revamp that will convert it from fine dining to a casual Mexican concept.
(Eduardo Contreras/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

James Beard-nominated chef leaves as critically acclaimed high-end Mexican restaurant at Liberty Station transforms into a lower-priced casual concept

Thirteen months after the Michelin-honored restaurant El Jardín opened at Liberty Station under the culinary leadership of James Beard Award semifinalist Claudette Zepeda, the upscale regional Mexican eatery has closed.

The 8,000-square-foot, 140-seat restaurant will reopen Aug. 28 with a new name, El Jardín Cantina, a new casual menu, a more “unpretentious” look and a new trio of chefs.

Restaurant owner Johan Engman declined an interview request about the changes on Wednesday but issued a statement through his company, Rise & Shine Hospitality Group.

“As the case has been with other fine dining Mexican concepts, they have not been able to sustain in San Diego,” Engman said. “Our new casual concept will continue with our mission to provide quality ingredients. It, however, will encompass a more fun, approachable and casual environment and menu.”

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Zepeda declined to comment for this story. But in an Instagram post late Tuesday, she wrote: “Thank you. Grateful for the thousands of people who we were able to reach with our food and message.”

El Jardín is the latest upscale Mexican restaurant to have failed with diners in San Diego. The most high-profile example was Javier Plascencia’s much-celebrated Bracero Cocina de la Raiz, which closed in 2017 after less than two years in Little Italy. It was replaced by Romesco Mexiterranean Cocina, which lasted less than a year. Another casualty was Candelas on the Bay in Coronado, which closed last year.

Engman said last year that he knew opening El Jardín was a risk. It was the most expensive restaurant project he’d ever done and — based on Bracero’s demise — it was hard to know if San Diegans would be willing to pay fine-dining prices for Mexican food. He hoped that educating diners about the expense of importing authentic ingredients was well worth the price.

Zepeda’s mentor, James Beard Award-winning chef Gavin Kaysen, said Mexican, Korean, Filipino and other ethnic cuisines are increasingly popular, but many restaurant diners still classify these cuisines as street food, not restaurant food.

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“Perception is one of the hardest parts of the business. People will spend tons of money on French cuisine, but open a Mexican restaurant, and if the tacos are over $3, it’s a rip-off,” said Kaysen, who now runs three acclaimed restaurants in Minnesota.

Engman initially wanted El Jardín to have a Baja-inspired menu, but Zepeda encouraged him to embrace Mexican regional cuisine using imported indigenous ingredients. The menu featured scallops from Sonora, shrimp from Riviera Nayarit, molé from Oaxaca, sausage from Yucatan, and an extensive list of Mexican tequilas, mezcals, beers and wine.

“It took some getting used to,” Engman said. “I thought if we could execute this properly, it’s a good idea. If we can’t, it’s going to be a big flop. We had to go all in.”

From the beginning, El Jardín struggled with diner complaints about its prices and slow service. But critics heaped praise on Zepeda and her menu, which was inspired by her binational upbringing in both Imperial Beach and Guadalajara.

Last July, she was the subject of an episode of the PBS culinary series “The Migrant Kitchen,” and in February of this year, she was named as San Diego County’s only semifinalist for the 2019 James Beard Award for Best Chef: West (the winner was Michael Cimarusti of Providence in L.A.).

In March, Zepeda and the restaurant earned a rave review in The New York Times. And in May, El Jardín was one of eight San Diego County restaurants to receive a Bib Gourmand award from the Michelin fine-dining ratings organization. This is the first year Michelin has considered San Diego for its coveted star rankings. The Bib Gourmand honors high-quality mid-priced restaurants.

As a result, the abrupt closure of El Jardín caught diners by surprise.

Around midnight Tuesday, Zepeda posted an Instagram photo of her daughter inside the El Jardín kitchen with the caption: “What I know to be true, the universe and my heart live in the eyes of this little girl. I swear with every ounce I have I will continue to make my kids proud.” She also updated her Instagram bio to read: “Wanderlust chef/Great Dishwasher.”

Chef Claudette Zepeda photographed last year at El Jardin restaurant at Liberty Station in San Diego.
Chef Claudette Zepeda photographed in June 2018 in the vegetable garden at El Jardin restaurant at Liberty Station in San Diego.
(Eduardo Contreras/The San Diego Union-Tribune)
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Zepeda made her mark locally in 2015 when she was hired by Plascencia to work at Bracero. She quickly rose from butcher to chef de cuisine before Plascencia left. Then she was fired by the owner just before the restaurant closed. She’s better known on the national level for her twin appearances on the culinary competition TV series “Top Chef,” where she was a contestant on both the Mexico and Colorado seasons.

Engman hired Zepeda in 2017 to serve as his corporate R&D chef at Rise & Shine — which operates 15 restaurants, including nine Breakfast Republic outlets — while El Jardín was under construction.

The new El Jardín Cantina will have a “margarita-forward” cocktail menu with a happy hour and a “Mex-ilicious” dinner menu “brimming with fresh, authentic flavors.” The kitchen will be overseen by Rise & Shine’s corporate chef Cesar Garcia and corporate sous chefs Maryella “May” Ortiz and Daniel Villegas.

The restaurant’s interior is also being refreshed. Zepeda had decorated the interior with handmade furniture, art and fixtures she found in Mexico. The new interior will be “lively and fresh, with welcoming furnishings and décor evoking an unpretentious, festive vibe,” according to Engman’s statement.


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