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Claudette Zepeda

The homes in Guadalajara have an open kitchen and I remember going to the market in Tlaquepaque to bring back food to cook in this outdoor area. Since I was born in August, the torrential rain in that season was so impressive. We would cook and listen to the thunderstorms. When the rain stopped, we would eat and I would have tortillas and panela cheese. I also drank a ton of papaya because my grandmother believed that we would grow up to have strong stomachs if we ate a papaya shake daily.

We had a woman who helped around the kitchen who worked for my aunt Lorenza in her restaurant. Her name was Yuya. She helped raise us and I have many fond memories of being with her. Yuya made me my favorite noodle soup. I make this soup for my daughter and it reminds me of Yuya and its my daughter's favorite. I used to get involved in all the family affairs, just following everybody around and helping where I could. I wanted to be around them and involved in everything. I remember vividly that I would cut the radishes for the weekend pozole.

When I was eighteen, I was a rebel and my parents were threatening to send me back to Guadalajara to a private school. At this time, I was living in Imperial Beach which is the most southern town at the Mexican border. I had a lot of problems with my parents and I left home at the age of seventeen. I graduated from high school and I got pregnant with my first child, a boy, his name is James but we call him, Jaime José. My father is a lawyer and since I was very young, it was expected that I would follow in his footsteps. At a young age, I would write contracts that were tied back to my behavior. It was like they were training me to be a litigator but that didn't happen after I left home and had my baby. The world ended for my family.

I got an apartment in Imperial Beach and I began to work to support my baby and me. I worked in telemarketing, as a receptionist, whatever I could find. Meanwhile, at home, I started watching the food network which was really popular at the time. I was completely estranged from my father and my boy's father but one thing led to another and at twenty-one, I was pregnant with my baby girl. I still wasn't getting any additional financial support so now, I had to work to support three people in my apartment. It wasn't a very healthy environment.

A few years later, I wanted to finalize my education, so I considered going to learn the culinary arts but quickly I recognized that a degree wasn't going to help me get a great job in San Diego. What was more important was finding a mentor that believed in me so I set out to find a mentor with a solid reputation. Marcela Valladolid was a great inspiration on TV and I liked the energy of restaurants. I became a hostess, a waitress, a dishwasher, a pastry chef, a butcher ... I did it all. I liked the highs and lows. I wanted to get to Marcela's level but I didn't want the glamorous life, I just wanted to become a respected chef.

I found my first mentor, Jack Fisher, at Jack's in La Jolla, and I became the lead pastry cook within three months. I watched and I learned and in-time, I received my first referral to join the kitchen at El Bizcocho. It was a forty five minute commute from Imperial Beach to a haute French kitchen in Rancho Bernardo but I did it. I was so eager to learn and I wanted to keep getting better at my job. When they tried to promote me, I told them that I wasn't ready but the chef convinced me that I was. He was super accomplished and I followed him around everywhere until he went to New York to work for Daniel Boulud. After the chef left, I couldn't find the same inspiration at El Bizcocho.

I lost the passion and I left the kitchen for two years. I went to Africa and worked with nonprofits. I did administrative work. I did whatever I could and when I reached my limit, Jack Fisher called me to refer me to Jsix in downtown San Diego. The chef was very unique and he wanted to do everything in-house and I learned first how to make artisanal bread and then I learned to butcher a pig. I learned the art of nose to tail. I worked at Jsix for three years and was very happy because I transitioned from cooking sweet to cooking savory.

Around May 2015, I kept seeing my homeboy Chad White with this Mexican dude named Javier Plascencia. One night, they hosted a dinner with Doña Esthela in Valle de Guadalupe so I tagged along and Amiko Gubbins introduced me to Javier and she told Javier to hire me. Javier told me to call him. I persisted with Javier for quite some time and eventually, he did hire me. There was a lot of pressure to open Javier's first American restaurant but we did it successfully and I had the role of Chef de Cuisine and kitchen manager of thirty five workers in the kitchen at Bracero Cocina de Raiz in Little Italy, San Diego.

Three years ago, I married an American marine via eHarmony. It was a great fit but it was a complicated relationship. He was deployed twice during our relationship to Afghanistan and Jordan. But, I too was deployed through my work to open a kitchen in Chicago. I had an on-call relationship with Javier and if Javier called me at midnight to do work, I drop my plans and go to work. It's hard for people to understand that level of dedication but a marine is capable of understanding because they live the same life in that type of dedication to service. My husband and I are very patient and understanding of each other.

I spend most of my time now trying out new ideas for my own brand, Ixcuintla, but I am also a mother and being a mother is very hard. It is also very fruitful. Being a mother is very similar to being in a busy kitchen. Its a demanding effort that requires a lot of emotion but it is well worth it.