Chef Claudette Zepeda finds her next chapter: opening signature restaurant at new Encinitas hotel
James Beard Award nominee will oversee all food operations at the Alila Marea Beach Resort in 2021
A little over a year after renowned local chef Claudette Zepeda shuttered her dream restaurant El Jardin at Liberty Station, she has unveiled plans for her next culinary venture in Encinitas.
Zepeda has been appointed the executive chef at Alila Marea Beach Resort, a bluff-top, oceanfront hotel opening early next year at 2100 N. Coast Highway 101. The new boutique hotel is part of Hyatt’s Alila luxury chain of 17 hotels in Asia, Africa and the U.S. Alila means “surprise” in Sanskrit.
The new resort will have 130 guest rooms and suites, 28,500 square feet of meeting space and two restaurants that will bear Zepeda’s distinctive stamp: The Pocket, a poolside bar and lounge, and VAGA, a global cuisine restaurant that Zepeda calls her “love letter” to the melting pot of international cuisines she grew up on in San Diego.
Zepeda, 36, will oversee all culinary operations at those two restaurants, as well as the resort’s room service operation and the catering operation for banquets, meetings and special events. It’s the greatest career responsibility the Imperial Beach native has ever had, but she said she’s ready for the challenge after a year of personal growth.
The Chula Vista resident is best known for the authentic Mexican cuisine she cooked on Bravo’s “Top Chef” season 15 and on “Top Chef Mexico,” as well as at El Jardin and the shuttered Bracero Cocina de Raiz in Little Italy.
She honed her cooking skills in her teens cooking in her aunt’s restaurant in Guadalajara, and after one year of culinary school in San Diego, she was mentored by well-known chefs Denise Roa and Gavin Kaysen.
El Jardin, she said, was meant to be “the legacy I was going to leave for my kids.” But owner Johan Engman pulled the plug on the high-end concept one year after its July 2018 debut, due to poor sales.
After she left El Jardin — which Engman then revamped into a more casual Mexican cantina concept — Zepeda said she took a healing trip to the coast of Oaxaca, where she grieved the closure and then decided to “take my life back.”
During her time at El Jardin, Zepeda collected many honors, including being named a semifinalist for the James Beard Award for Best Chef: West in 2019, a spot on Esquire’s 2018 Best New Restaurants list, a rave review in The New York Times and 2018 Chef of the Year honors from The San Diego Union-Tribune.
After the restaurant closed, endorsement and public appearance offers that she had been too busy to accept before suddenly became a way for her to expand her horizons.
“It was a year of learning opportunities and for growth. I always came from a place of ‘yes’ in my life, so whatever came to me I just said ‘yes.’ The paths have always been a lot easier when I don’t fight it,” she said.
Ever since then, she has been traveling around the world to cook, create recipes, write columns, work at festivals and appear on television. After the pandemic hit, she converted her website, chefclaudettezepeda.com, into an e-commerce site where she offers online cooking classes. And last month, she was one of eight new and diverse chefs named to the “From the Test Kitchen” cooking panel for Conde Nast’s Bon Appétit YouTube channel.
The pandemic has brought its own challenges for Zepeda. She said she had to reacquaint herself with her two teenage children, who weren’t accustomed to having their mom home full-time: “As a chef and a single mother of two, it was a really bumpy ride, really uncomfortable. I have to be present and here for them, while also trying to keep my career on the straight path.”
One of the new paths that presented itself was Alila Marea. Zepeda began consulting with the hotel’s developers more than two years ago, while she was still at El Jardin. Initially she had planned to simply create the menu for the hotel’s main restaurant. But after El Jardin closed, she began taking a more active interest in the hotel, and she has been working full time on the project since July.
The resort’s main restaurant, VAGA, is a nickname Zepeda’s grandmother, also a hard-working single mother, gave her as a child. Zepeda said “vaga” is a Spanish term of endearment for someone who is a wanderer or who has creative wanderlust. The VAGA menu will feature Zepeda’s takes on her favorite ethnic dishes she grew up eating in San Diego, including Indian dosa pancakes, soup dumplings on Convoy Street, Filipino pancit noodles and Ethiopian dishes.
“It’s about telling their story and honoring them without putting my ego into the dishes,” Zepeda said. “San Diego is a very broad cultural quilt.”
Zepeda said the hotel’s developers have given her a great deal of creative freedom at Alila Marea. She’s creating a number of bespoke menus for the catering operations, has permission to change the VAGA menu frequently for seasonal ingredients, and she’s now hiring her team, which like the kitchens she has managed in the past, is likely to be half-filled with women cooks, which is high by industry standards.
“In my first conversation with them, I said: ‘I can’t be my best if I get parameters that are restrictive to creativity. You came to me for a reason. If you let me be who I am, you won’t regret it,’ ” she said.
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