A little over a year after renowned local chef Claudette Zepeda shuttered her dream restaurant El Jardin at Liberty Station, she has unveiled plans for her next culinary venture in Encinitas.
Zepeda has been appointed the executive chef at Alila Marea Beach Resort, a bluff-top, oceanfront hotel opening early next year at 2100 N. Coast Highway 101. The new boutique hotel is part of Hyatt’s Alila luxury chain of 17 hotels in Asia, Africa and the U.S. Alila means “surprise” in Sanskrit.
The new resort will have 130 guest rooms and suites, 28,500 square feet of meeting space and two restaurants that will bear Zepeda’s distinctive stamp: The Pocket, a poolside bar and lounge, and VAGA, a global cuisine restaurant that Zepeda calls her “love letter” to the melting pot of international cuisines shew grew up on in San Diego.
Zepeda, 36, will oversee all culinary operations at those two restaurants, as well as the resort’s room service operation and the catering operation for banquets, meetings and special events. It’s the greatest career responsibility the Imperial Beach native has ever had, but she said she’s ready for the challenge after a year of personal growth.
The Chula Vista resident is best known for the authentic Mexican cuisine she cooked on Bravo’s “Top Chef” season 15 and on “Top Chef Mexico,” as well at El Jardin and the shuttered Bracero Cocina de Raiz in Little Italy.
She honed her cooking skills in her teens cooking in her aunt’s restaurant in Guadalajara, and after one year of culinary school in San Diego, she was mentored by well-known chefs Denise Roa and Gavin Kaysen.
El Jardin, she said, was meant to be “the legacy I was going to leave for my kids.” But owner Johan Engman pulled the plug on the high-end concept one year after its July 2018 debut, due to poor sales.
After she left El Jardin — which Engman then revamped into a more casual Mexican cantina concept — Zepeda said she took a healing trip to the coast of Oaxaca, where she grieved the closure and then decided to “take my life back.”
During her time at El Jardin, Zepeda collected many honors, including being named a semifinalist for the James Beard Award for Best Chef: West in 2019, a spot on Esquire’s 2018 Best New Restaurants list, a rave review in The New York Times and 2018 Chef of the Year honors from The San Diego Union-Tribune.
After the restaurant closed, endorsement and public appearance offers that she had been too busy to accept before suddenly became a way for her to expand her horizons.
“It was a year of learning opportunities and for growth. I always came from a place of ‘yes’ in my life, so