22 Feb 2024

Claudette Zepeda is an award-winning, San Diego-based celebrity chef and culinary entrepreneur known for her fearless style and bold approach to regional Mexican cuisine. A celebrated culinary anthropologist, Zepeda draws upon more than 20 years of experience working in restaurant kitchens, as well as extensive travels around the world and throughout Mexico. Her multi-faceted expertise is showcased in her role as founder of Chispa Hospitality, overseeing its creative vision and leading projects in Australia and Mexico.  

Claudette is set to make her first appearance at Tasting Australia for Fiesta and Barossa Heroes in our Dining Galleries. Before she gets here, delve into her background and culinary passions.

Your approach to travel and food is often described as fearless. Is that learned or instinctive?

A bit of both I presume. But the learned feels as if I am learning it from within my core, my ancestral skeleton keys, so to speak. I trust my intuition and instincts wholeheartedly, even when old patterns cause a bit of self-sabotage. I’ve walked side by side on my food and my spiritual healing journey. It helps with my self-awareness when I am in new surroundings while sharpening my instincts. 

How do you go about shaping a menu that captures local flavours and immigrant influences?

I make sure not to force it! I also try not to check any specific boxes as I am creating. Seeing the spices in some of Mexico’s classic sauces mirror the spices in many South Asian Curries for instance, and the same matriarchal presence within both cultures to pass down food stories generationally. Enter my Braised Lamb Shanks with a poblano pepper Morry (Mole Curry), a roti paratha and stewed vaquita beans.  

What's unique about regional Mexican fare?

How varied it truly is, with the 7 food regions of Mexico, there are sub-regions with unique ingredients and dishes. Unless a person leaves their town to see what others are eating, you might never know what your neighbors are eating. I truly believe that because of the many micro climates within Mexico, you can literally grow every ingredient from around the world. The diets from the north, historically can vary drastically. My favorite unique trait to regional foods is the pride each area has for it and the passion in which they defend it and reject others. We’re nothing, if not passionate. 

Tell us about Viva La Vida and your other philanthropic efforts.

Viva La Vida started out of a need to put money directly into the hands of the women who were selling me ingredients. I didn’t want to send it to a neighbor/brother/cousin, because it was usually not a clear transaction. If it meant me flying 24 hours to settle orders, so be it. Financial literacy and freedom is a foreign concept to many Mexican women, even to-date within my family. I want to do my part in pushing the needle towards progress. I split my efforts within financial literacy, food insecurities within the immigrant communities, supporting young mothers and farmers and hospitality workers’ rights. I’ve been a single mother for 21 years now and it was only 14 years ago that I was able to free myself from government aid. I want to be for others, who I wish I had in my life when I all I saw was darkness. My dream is to remove the word 'invisibles' from our vocabulary when discussing these marginalized groups. 'Underestimated' is more like it. 

You’ve won a range of challenges on television shows like Iron Chef. What’s the secret to excelling in those high-pressure moments?

Get out of your own way. As I mentioned, I am prone to self-sabotage when old wounds creep up. But in competition, you have to trust that you can let your skills dance for you. There’s a line that makes me laugh, 'If you’re going to be dumb, you have to be tough' and some of the most painful losses have made me tougher and more focused in that space. The key is to never stop evolving and always have fun. I am not who I was yesterday, nor am I, my mistakes. Plus, I am my ancestors’ wildest dreams! I can feel the energy surging through me when competing, it definitely isn’t all mine. I know my grandma and father are getting their kicks from my adventures in food. 

This will be your first appearance at Tasting Australia. What do you hope to discover while you're here?

I fell in love with Australia while on a culinary diplomacy trip in 2019 and after opening up a pop up in Sydney with my mates, the love grew. I want to experience it all, every talk, dish, sound, smell. Continue to knit the cultural quilt I have been knitting around the world. We are all more similar than we are different and it’s always felt like that sentiment is also felt within the people I have met through food. Australia has always felt like 'home' and I am honored to represent my Mexico with everyone.

What’s been your impression of Australian restaurants and the produce on offer here?

The number of culinary varieties is wildly beautiful. So much talent and creative juices flowing within the culinary community. The produce is definitely unique to Australia but I like the challenge of backing into what you do have, rather than get frustrated because of what you don’t have. I remove the Southern California/ Mexican Chef chip and go into the kitchen as a flexible creative. I am what makes my food special, not the ingredients. If I let the native ingredients speak for themselves and not get in the way, new dishes have the ability to come to life. Exploring the native ingredients within Australia is also something I feel like I never get enough of and how the indigenous communities eat them.

What’s your dream dining experience? 

Wood fired food, with tons of acid and salt, spicy salsa, earthy frijoles de la olla and perfectly balanced desserts. I come from a family of voracious eaters and passionate minds. Spending half of my childhood in my aunt’s restaurant in Guadalajara was a great school. Every week, the Zepeda clan would trickle in, family by family, the table got longer and longer. The food and tequila would start early into dinner and the more that joined, the later we stayed. The screams from afar could seem like we hated each other, but it’s simply our normal volume when we’re happy or trying to be right in a debate. Being the little boss that I was, I would go around refilling and seeing what everyone needed before they needed it. I learnt the art of intuitive hospitality there. The later it got, the more chair beds were brought together for the little ones. I dream of that hum. To be in a chair or to be hosting that same group, I am happy. Little Claudette is even happier.