Claudette Zepeda

Taste Bud Profile

Claudette Zepeda

Occupation: Chef
Location: San Diego, CA
Restaurants: VAGA
Comfort Food: Enfrijoladas, albóndigas al chipotle & arroz con leche
Favorite Ingredient: Herbs
Favorite Way to Give Back: Mentoring the next generation, giving time to local and national organizations working to end childhood hunger

Chef Claudette’s food memories are simple but evocative—the smell of milling corn, fat sizzling in a fire, the brightness of lime and salt. She recalls the joy of a morning routine in Mexico, while also encouraging everyone to stay curious, and open to new, joyful experiences. As a child, she sometimes felt like an outsider, but believes that Kalamata could have helped her celebrate her own story and also bridge the perceived gaps between herself and the kids around her. 

Claudette Zepeda
Claudette Zepeda
Claudette Zepeda

Claudette Zepeda: My earliest food memories are from when we lived in Tijuana. Every time we had a break from school, we all piled in the car and drove to Guadalajara to visit my dad’s family. I think these memories have stuck, in all honesty, because they revolve around fat, acid, salt, and the smoke from a fire. My dad’s love of food was very driven by the ocean, so I remember stopping at every beach town on our road trips from Tijuana to Guadalajara, and the smell of zarandeado being grilled and flipped, the fat dripping off the freshly caught fish onto the mangrove wood and the bright red embers, and the smell that is emitted from all of that. That plus habaneros, salt, and lime—that’s my childhood. Those smells and flavors instantly transport me back. 

There’s also a very specific smell, the smell that comes out of a molino. It’s not just the corn, it’s the whole smell of making the tortillas—the steam from the corn and the sweetness of the air. I have these memories of walking with my dad to the corn mill in the morning to buy tortillas for the day—you don’t just buy them in a grocery store in Mexico, you buy them every morning. You buy a kilo at a time, and they wrap them in this grey paper that is maybe just a hair thicker than tissue paper. You buy tortillas, and you buy totopos, which are the crispy, dry tortilla pieces from the day before, which you use for chilaquiles. On the way back from morning errands, we might stop at the corner shop where they make my favorite tacos al vapor, which we’d have as a little reward for finishing our tasks that morning. Then we’d go home and make breakfast. It’s really such a slow and beautiful life to me. These rituals, this pace of life— I’m sure I’m romanticizing it, but these are the things I really miss about my childhood and about Mexico. It feels like nobody lives like this anymore, because our generation is all about ‘go go go—let’s go to Starbucks instead of lingering over our coffees’ and I really want to go back to the old ways or at least have the option to opt-in. 

Once I left my home, I always cooked the food that my mom made. It was nothing fancy. I just made the food I wanted to eat—carne asada, beans, rice. And I was always burning the rice, so one night I went over to my mom’s apartment and stole her rice pot because I was convinced it was the tools and not me! But of course I still burned the rice, and I realized it wasn’t the pot, it was my impatience and the heat level. I was about 17, and that’s when I think I really started to understand cooking. It started to resonate with me that it wasn’t necessarily about the food itself, it was about the feeling you had when making and eating it. I really get my fulfillment when I cook not from eating the food myself but from watching other people eat it. 

My advice for kids is also for their parents—stay curious. It’s something that drives me in life. I try to stay a little bit wild, because I’m very conscious that life is fleeting, and that time is precious. It goes so fast. Stay curious about everything.

Make a pact to try something new once a month, once a week, once a day, whatever it is—just keep trying something new. In my life, this is about feeding the little girl inside me.

I think that I, like lots of kids, grew up too fast in many ways. So occasionally I’ll push myself and the people around me outside of our comfort zones because I think it’s important to be free from obligations every now and then. So just stay a little wild. Maybe sometimes you should just run into the ocean and get completely soaked. Don’t worry—your pants will dry off, and you will have created a truly joyful core memory. 

It would have been so huge for me to see Kalamata when I was a child, primarily just because she is a little brown girl. Even just seeing her exist on paper would have been a game-changer for me and for the kids in my border town. We never saw girls as heroes, only princesses! When we moved to the United States, we were still very close to the border in San Diego—I lived within the speed bumps of the crossing. In my school, the bilingual kids were in separate classes from those who only spoke only English, and it really just emphasized already existing divisions. For example, there were two playgrounds, an old rusty metal one and a brand new plastic one. We weren’t allowed on the new playground—we were bullied onto the old one with hateful words.

I think seeing a character like Kalamata might have made some of these kids, and myself, feel less alone, less like an outsider, less like we didn’t belong. We could have learned so much about each other instead of being pushed apart! The exposure to food that we didn’t grow up eating at home would have encouraged our curiosity, and given us something to connect over, and maybe even introduce our parents to.

We grew up eating rice, beans, tortilla, and meat whenever we had money to buy it at home. I had a teacher who was first generation Chinese-Mexican, and she introduced me to so many different textures, vegetables and her Chinese traditions. I remember being enamored by all the colors of the food. That exposure definitely got my brain working, making connections when I’d see things in the grocery store or market that I had never tried before. If kids don’t see it, why would they want it? Everything is kid friendly if you just give kids a chance to try it.

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Sarah Thomas

Sarah Thomas is the co-founder and Chief Imaginator at Kalamata’s Kitchen. As a former sommelier, she’s also very proud of her unofficial title as “Professional-Try-Things-Twicer”, and is on a mission to keep minds open and forks ready everywhere

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