'Top Chef's' Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins on Getting Eliminated and That Cold-Smoked Trout
Episode two of Top Chef had us say goodbye to fierce competitor and strong personality Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins. Zepeda-Wilkins may have only spent a short time on Top Chefbut she made a lasting impression with her bold Mexican flavors and a dash of drama with her fellow competitors. Prior to the show, Zepeda-Wilkins honed her flavors while working in restaurants in Tijuana and Guadalajara. Before opening her own San Diego restaurant El Jardin (coming in 2018), she worked as the chef de cuisine at Javier Plascencia’s Bracero in San Diego’s Little Italy and studied pastry at Gavin Kaysen’s El Bizcocho. Zepeda-Wilkins was the closest thing this season had to a Top Chef veteran—she competed on and placed sixth in Mexico’s version of Top Chef. We asked her what it was like competing on this version of the show and whether she'll try for a shot at redemption.
Food & Wine: What inspired you to compete on Top Chef?
Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins: It was my second Top Chef, and after achieving top six in Mexico I felt like I still had more to show. I had reservations about doing them back to back considering how hard TCMX was but I knew I wouldn’t be able to do it timing-wise if I didn’t do it now.
FW: How did you adjust your cooking style to compete in the Top Chef Kitchen?
CZW: You have to make sure you simplify everything—less is more—and not take yourself so seriously that you don’t learn from the judges' critiques. The worst thing that can happen is you get called out week after week for the same mistake.
FW: You looked pretty upset with your elimination. Do you feel like your elimination it was fair? If not, who do you think should have gone home?
CZW: I didn’t join the season to lose, no one does. I’m a competitive person who doesn’t like to lose. I’m certain none of us do. The judges have their opinions and it’s all that matters. Fair or not, not my call. Keeping my eye on the prize in Last Chance Kitchen.
FW: Why do you think the cold-smoked trout wasn’t as successful as you’d hoped? Was it a technique you were confident executing?
CZW: Conflict in food styles. My food is more punchy in the flavor department. In trying to work as a team I gave in to [Adrienne's] style and I should have debated with her more. I’m confident in cold-smoking fish and also using fish and cheese together. I think it’s closed minded to say that it’s blasphemy to pair them, that’s not a thing in Mexico. Cheese and seafood are beautiful together done right. Live and learn.
FW: What do you wish you had done differently in the elimination challenge? What about during your time in the competition?
CZW: Asserted my opinion and fought a bit more to at least show them what the dish could have been if we did it the way I thought. That’s the problem with group challenges, the other team fought through their creative process and won. We shouldn’t have been scared to push each other. But we are still getting to know each other.
FW: Who do you think is going to be Top Chef? And who are you rooting for?
CZW: During the Potluck challenge I was most impressed with Joe Flamm #wambamthankyouflamm and Joe “mustachio” Sasto. They both had gutsy, flavorful dishes.
FW: What’s a dish or technique you wish you had the opportunity to show the judges?
CZW: Dishes, the flavors of Mexico, there are so many flavors that never reach the North. That’s what I plan on focusing on in LCK.
FW: What was your favorite dish you prepared on the show?
CZW: My mole in 45 minutes.
FW: What is your strategy going into Last Chance Kitchen?
CZW: Cook my food and not holding any punches. If it’s meant to be spicy, Tom is going to need a glass of milk. I rather go out doing my food than for something I didn’t have full control of.
FW: Would you ever consider coming back on a future season?
CZW: Absolutely, I’m a glutton for punishment. Who knows, maybe third time's the charm?