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First Look: El Jardin

Native chef Claudette Wilkins goes from Bracero to Top Chef and, finally, to her own dream


No chef is made overnight. Before their big grand opening, there’s always a stint here, a stint there, a long break where they decided to travel and soul-search and wonder why the hell they’ve chosen this life. But chefs like Claudette Wilkins always come back. Something about cheffing for real, in a big, manic kitchen, night after night after night after. Maybe it's the cooking, the sweat, the heat, the toil, the hours, the chaos, the twisted pride that only a certain few are crazy enough to stick with it. Takes a certain kind. And now, with the opening of El Jardin (a partnership with Rise & Shine restaurant group, who brought us Breakfast Republic), San Diego gets to see what Wilkins’ certain kind is.

Growing up in San Diego and Tijuana, she’d be sent to live in Guadalajara for months at a time, where for 40 years her aunt owned a pozole restaurant. “She put six kids through school on the back of pozole as a single mom,” Wilkins says. Wilkins started cutting onions as soon as she was tall enough to reach the counter. She was a strong girl, liked to argue. So she thought she’d become a lawyer. But instead, years later she found herself as the pastry chef at Jack’s, the high-profile La Jolla restaurant that blazed out in a glory of embezzlement. So she bounced to El Bizcocho, doing pastry for the young version of now internationally famous chef Gavin Kaysen. Then to JSix, where she learned the art of whole animal butchery under Christian Graves. Finally, she became chef de cuisine of Bracero under chef Javier Plascencia. Javier was the name and the guiding light, Claudette ran the show. Bracero was nominated for a James Beard Award for “Best New Restaurant” in America. Then it closed, for many reasons, none of which were the food (the layout of the restaurant was wrong, the location was one block off the main drag, the damned stairs between the levels were grueling, etc.)

Wilkins was beaten. Out of work, she did pop-ups, cooked in Boston, spent a summer working with two-star Michelin chef Drew Deckman in Valle de Guadalupe. Then Top Chef Mexico called. Seeing her personality, Top Chef in the U.S. asked her to be a contestant on the most recent season. It wasn’t easy. The editors cast her as an argumentative chef. Hard to work with. And yet, for her opening staff at El Jardin, she’ll have three people who’ve worked with her in the past. Sometimes the show and the reality don’t match up. Sometimes strong is wrongly perceived as mean, especially when it comes to women.

For El Jardin, Wilkins says she's focusing on taking care of her cooks and her staff. Do that, and the rest will take care of itself. “It’s not about the food,” she says. “The food will be good. It’s the Danny Meyer spiel: ‘Treat your employees better than your customers and they’ll treat your customers like they’re family.’”

To that end, she's set up a “code red” policy, meaning if a customer is especially tough and a server can’t deal with them, they can go code-red and remove themselves from the table, without recourse or judgment. “I’m making sure our work environment is as healthy and forward-moving as possible,” she says. "I'll serve the table myself if my staff isn't comfortable." 

While traveling through Mexico during Top Chef, she met handfuls of cocineras tradicionales—often women, in small towns, who were the preservers of the area’s authentic recipes. They guarded them like heirlooms. Yet these recipes are still being lost, often because poverty is driving kids—who would become cooks, and learn the recipes—to move away, to survive, to do anything else.

It inspired Wilkins to help preserve those traditions at El Jardin. Much as she and her staff can. Wilkins has 50 Mexican cookbooks and that’s just scratching the surface. The starter sauce for El Jardin’s mole will come from a woman in Puebla, Mexico (the most famous place in the world for mole). Her carne en su jugo (“meat cooked in its own juice”) recipe is from a woman in the birthplace of the dish, Jalisco, preserved and tweaked with Wilkins’ ideas. Many dishes will borrow from Japan and China, which have always been a staple of Mexican food. “Mexican food is a mish mash of immigrant cultures that landed in Mexico, especially Japanese and Chinese,” she explains. “We should take our hat off and not be so arrogant to say we created all these things on our own.” Forty of her ingredients will be sourced from Mexico, and she’ll be planting and growing rare produce in El Jardin’s garden with the help of edible landscapers Urban Plantations.

They are kind of my chefs and teachers. They told me, ‘Stop shopping for seeds because you’re psycho,’” she laughs. “I bring them so many seeds. I have two dishes on the menu that are solely from the garden, and everything will have a little touch. I have all the Row 7 seeds from Dan Barber.”

Officially, El Jardin has been billed as a dedication to the matrons of Mexican cuisine. Some have mistaken that for some kind of exclusionary feminism. She’s even received emails mocking her for “putting women back in the kitchen.” Not the point, says Wilkins. The point is to honor the guardians of Mexican culinary heritage—who are often women—by preserving their recipes, including them in the process, hiring them as consultants, however Wilkins can. The theme spills over into the design of El Jardin, which will seat 130 people, with a large outdoor patio and adjacent lounge, plus private seating among the edible garden. The bar will be heavy in mezcal and tequila, with recipes from one of the city’s best (and former Bracero bartender), Christian Siglin.

El Jardin is aiming for a late-June opening. There have been delays. There may be more. But it’s nearly ready. Take a look at the first known photos below.

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