tv Witness LINKTV August 10, 2022 1:00pm-1:31pm PDT
claudette zepeda-wilkins: american is a relative term. what is american? personally i think the border is, you know, just a speed bump in between two countries. as a child, i think we took tj for granted not because it was a different country to me. to me, it was just like, "oh, it's just tj. it's where the other half of my family lives." and en if i was in tj my entire life, being this far north, you are sort of removed from the other parts of mexico and the culture. you're mexican, but you don't ally know.
my last restaurant was mexican, and we were all mexican, and we all were cooking things that were new to us because unless you're exposed to it as a child or you live it, it's foreign to you, even though it's mexican. claudette: have you ever butchered a fish before? no? oh. you're gonna learn today. ok, we'll do this one right now, and then we'll butcher another one, so we can run it as a special if we have time.
troy johnson: claudette is really invaluable to san diego because she is a local, she's a native. you know, and there are a lot of people that have left. san diego has such a rich mexican culture. we always have. there is just a constant flow of ideas and creativity and, you know, cultural mores. claudette: i always try to be close to the water. that's when i feel most whole. also, we're spoiled in san diego where you can get fish literally straight off the fishermen's boats. to me, it means a little bit more than going to, you know, a giant purveyor. pescado zarandeado is from nayarit. my dad-- he loves the water; he always loved fish. so nayarit's food's very special, too, and the zarandeado will be, hopefully, like, my nod to santiago ixcuintla. the fish gets filleted a certain way, so it's still connected at the head, at the tail.
you open it. it's gutted. put it between what looks like kind of like a torture device. so it creates a perfect basket for it to grill in fully. [blows] troy: you have to, you know, really watch it because it's usually a thin fish. it's usually red snapper. it goes wrong really, really quick, especially with an open flame, which is not a gas, minutely-controlled device. open flame varies from, you know, second to second. but when you get it right, you know, when you get that char on it--and char is one of mexico's special charms. the fact that she's trying to pull that dish off in el jardin is crazy and may not be an incredibly smart move, but i likthat. that's why claudette made her name.
the food scene in san diego was a wasteland for, i mean, years and years and years. but i think that chefs came here because, you know, they could go to l.a. and be, you know, yet another voice in the chorus, you know, or they could come to a city like san diego that still had a lot of room to grow. the mexican food that we grew up with in san diego was, you know, $3.00 rolled tacos in a bag. it was a very fast, very cheap food. i mean, sure, you could find authentic mexican restaurants, but the majority of san diego only saw the fast food. anybody who's tried to do high-end mexican cuisine in san diego has failed. it's a really tough sell, you know. luckily, it's come of age. claudette: so welcome to el jardin.
i got a call from the wine director at my last restaurant. and he said, "hey, you know, i have a friend that's a restaurateur in san diego, and he wants to open a mexican concept and wants to see if you'll consult." it was a baja med concept he wanted to bring to liberty station here in san diego, and it just wasn't me. i left for "top chef mexico," and it really just opened up what i could do. it was like, oh ... like, this is at my disposal. [camera shutter clicking] so when i came back, i said, "johann, are you still in?" "yeah, absolutely." i said, "cool. i want to change the concept. it's still mexican food." and i said, "but baja med is nothing. it doesn't mean something to me. let's go regional. let's cover this entire country. let's take that box that gets put around mexican food and what you have to be in mexican food. like, let's literally--
as cliche as it sounds--let's, like, tear the wall down. and then i was like, ok, well, i'm going to do regional cuisine. i really need to understand what the hell that means. everyone in the north always gets made fun of when you go further south that even, you know, people from tijuana, they stick out like sore thumbs in cities like mexico city. [conversations in spanish] this is a rainbow--ayocote. [conversation in spanish] claudette: finding the ingredients and being curious and stopping at this person's house and in this restaurant and asking them, what's in it?
[m speaking spanish] troy: it's really a mix of, you know, 15, 20 different cultures, a lot of which didn't receive a warwelcome in the united states. [lanz-hola speaking spanish] [conversations in spanish] claudette, voice-over: mexicans take the food of these other cultures and go, "oh, this is nice, yeah. now we're going to mix it with our stuff." voila!
we have fideo seco, you know. and you take the shawarma, and we turn it into al pastor. there's just no rules. [lanz-hola speaking spanish] maribel hernandez: she's got a new concept coming up, so, you know, there's a lot of product research th now i'm going to have to do, you know, because she's bringing in a lot of new product that a lot of our chefs in san diego aren't familiar with. claudette: you n cook the food, and it won't taste the same if you don't put the same ingredients that they use in mexico.
and that's when you lose it. that's when it's like, "uh, no. it's better in oaxaca." well, of course because of the ingredients. maribel:ecause of the ingredients. that's what she's trying to really, you ow, bring to the plate, bring to the table-- the flavors. she knows what she wants. she knows where it's going to come from. she knows what it's oing to taste like. claudette: this is the garden. the idea is for everyone in the kitchen to touch soil at least once a day. cook's having a bad day, go out and pull weeds, you know, get off the line. we'll cover him. but i think humans need to touch soil, and we need to take our shoes off and walk in the dirt and kind of that holistic approach to it. the reason why mexican food is so special in mexico is really because of the ground that these ingredients grow in. it's virgin land, uncharted territory, you know? and everything i know about mexico, it's people that work with their hands. i got invited
to cook cinco de mayo dinner in puebla, in puebla city. downtown puebla, if you walk around, you can see the colonialism. we dedicated a whole day to go visit this family of a tlachiquero. and a tlachiquero is someone that preserves the art of making pulque. pulque is a fermented agave drink. alberto is from a family of tlachiqueros, and he takes it incredibly serious. i'm trying to figure out how to get alberto's pulque at el jardin. it would be a crime to not have pulque becau then that's not painting the full picture of everything that w have. we go on this hike with alberto to go siphon the aguamiel from the different agaves he has. agaves need to grow years--
eight years--to get a really good piña. if you start picking them when they're this big, you're just killing your land. soe's showing us this process that he goes through of siphoning it. when he approaches the agave that he is going to, li, cut into, he just goes silent, and he touches it at the heart, and he just closes his eyes. you know whatever that connection is happening to him is the most sacred moment of his day. [alberto speaking spanish] claudette: and he is asking for permission to cut into its heart. everything that is living needs to be asked permission before you take from it, and that was, like, the strongest message that you can base your life off of.
[lanz-hola speaking spanish] troy: recipes are our family tree, and they tell a story of your mom, of your grandma, of your great-grandma, you know, and they tell a story of the land, too. they tell a story of, you know, how the region has developed, how, you know, new ingredients have been brought in, what's really worked and thrived there. claudette: alberto's mom is there, and i had one tortilla, and i tasted this mole that she had, and it was just tortillas and this sauce. that was one of the best bites i'd had had. i said, "is this mole poblano?
is this mole rojo?" like, "what is...?" she's like, "it's just mole." you know, to her, it's no big deal. that's the beauty of these women. they're not impressed by themselves or what they make because to them, it's just their food to feed their families. i was like, can i buy what you made? and she started laughing at me, and she's like, "i mean, it's liuid." d i was like, "it's fine!" she gave me a tupperware container, and i vacuum sealed it and brought it home. [lanz-hola speaking spanish]
claudette: mole had to be on the first menu, so i grabbed a base. and because i'm from the north and the influence that chinese and japanese immigrants have given to baja norte, how do you infuse more flavor into things? umami. if you make a stock--a dashi kombu base--it transcends the traditional "ok, this was good." so the thing is, the tamale mole is going to have a dashi kombu base with a masa colada tamale, super soft tender pasture bird, free range chicken that has been braised within the mole sauce and the dashi and the stock and the vegetables, and all that comes together on a plate. just a tamale and mole. if these women don't have girls, the recipes stop with them, the line of history stops with them.
whether they are in textiles, in food, in aguardiente, these traditions literally stop with them. that's like a crime to me. like, you know, it's history, it's mexico. girl: i'll just bite... [claudette laughing] [indistinct conversation] claudette: i grew up in imperial beach, california, which is literally connected to tj by the tijuana river and the sloughs. so border kid, born and raised. i grew up with three boys and myself. our household was very traditional in the sense that we had roles. mexican culture has its roles
of who does what in the household, and i had to cook, clean, you know, help my mom, be in the kitchen. the women in my family are probably the strongest broads i've ever had to encounter, but, again, it always kind of defaulted to the women running the families. my tia lora is another one of those pillars in the person that i've grown up to be and the person that i still strive to be. [conversation in spanish]
claudette: my aunt widowed very young, and then she married again. she said she was eight months' pregnant, and she was kind of like, "ok, i gotta do something." like, "i gotta do something to feed my family to push this along." and my grandma lola was like, "why don't you just start a pozole stand? like, sell pozole." so this started as a tiny, little stand, and then she had a full-fledged restaurant. pozole gave her the opportunity to give the kids a life she didn't have. all this started with pozole, probably one of the most controversial soups in indigenous culture. [lanz-hola speaking spanish]
[indistinct singing on soundtrack] troy: corn and hominy have been, you know, massively important to that culture forever, you know-- pozole aside from just being terribly delicious and slow cooked and lovely, you know, it's a celebratory dish. there's something very comforting, too, just about slow-cooked stews, you know, and that's a lot of what mexican food is. a lot of it wasn't based on glorious cuts of t animal. it was based on, you know, maybe the less sexy cuts that weren't instantaneously amazing toeat. you know, but with time and with
fire and with, you know, a braise, you know, you're going to end up with something glorious. claudette: i had conversations with my aunt. "thank you for giving me this. now i'm going to show you what i kind of twist it to, you know?" again, mixing with that whole-- the dashi kombu base. then you incorporate meyer lemons that have been preserved. pozole is one of those dishes that when it lands on your table, it is unique to you. and the broth is poured table side so you can see how it will melt the preserved meyer lemons and blend in with all the meats. troy: she knows how to do the basics, but she's also willing to take risks. you know, i mean, when you take mething like that-- the specialty dish-- it's really important to her because it has a story rooted in mexico, you know, where... she spent her childhoods, where she has family, you know.
and that's her culture here. you know, she's a bi-border kid. you know, she's seen both sides. and if you can take that story and execute it in a kitchen on this side of the border, that's awesome. claudette: and we're gonna go with the masa moles. it's from the woman on tijuana. claudette: i'm trying to take these recipes that these women have and not duplicate them because i have my own style of where i've been, where i come from, and what i've seen and kind of like smashed it all together. and it's my food, it's my style, but i hope to spark a curiosity in people that come to this restaurant, and they say, "ah! this is what mexican food is. this is what mexico is." this is, "all these flavors you can find in mexico? holy crap!"
i feel like food is the one common thing that everyone has with each other. there always will be a need for someone to cook food. it's the most blue-collar, humbling job you can have. you know, chefs get glamorized, but at the end of the day, i have the same job that the woman that makes food in mexico for a family of six, that cleans their house, and is also their caretaker. she does the same thing that i do. she makes people happy with what she makes. you know, i'm a cook before i'm a chef, i'm a mom before i'm a chef. troy: just the voice that she gives for females in the kitchen, too. i mean, we don't have very many female-led kitchens. it's been a boys' club for far too long. you want females telling their own food story, you want, you know, people of color, you want people of all kinds of ethnicities, you know, telling their original
stories, and that's what claudette's doing. that story is important because it's our story. claudette: i think the best thng that we, as chefs, can do is invoke memories or remind people of things in their life. best compliments i have ever gotten is, "this reminds me of my grandma's food." and they are not mexican. that's like, ding! that's what keeps me doing what i do. as soon as someone says, "oh, ... my grandma used to make this, but it wasn't this," but it reminded them of that, like, that feeling they got when they ate it--the warmth. "and it was ugly as ... but it was ... delicious." ha ha! [lanz-hola speaking spanish]
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