Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins is the executive chef/partner at El Jardín, a regional Mexican restaurant in San Diego, California. Inspired by the diversity of cuisine in Mexico, where her passion for food was first cultivated, El Jardín is an expression of Zepeda’s culinary journey as a chef. Born in the U.S. and raised between Tijuana and San Diego, Zepeda credits the confluence of flavors and ingredients she was exposed to while spending time with family in Tijuana and Guadalajara, including her aunt Lorenza who owned her own restaurant, as paving the way for her eventual career.
Prior to El Jardín, Zepeda was chef de cuisine at Javier Plascencia’s celebrated Bracero in San Diego’s Little Italy. During her tenure, Bracero was recognized as a 2016 James Beard Best New Restaurant semifinalist and included on Eater’s 2016 Best New Restaurants in America list. Zepeda’s culinary resume also includes time spent alongside chef Gavin Kaysen at his former San Diego restaurant, El Bizcocho.
In January 2017, Zepeda joined the San Diego-based Rise & Shine Restaurant Group, lending her expertise to the development of the group’s new concepts in her role as consulting chef, while paving the way for El Jardín.
A contestant on Top Chef Mexico Season 2 and a recent competitor on Top Chef Season 15, Zepeda continues to find inspiration from her frequent visits to Mexico, as well as her husband and teenage son and daughter whom she resides with in San Diego’s Bonita neighborhood.
Born and raised in northern Sweden until he was 16 years old, Johan Engman first came to the United States with his mother, planning only to stay for one year. A year in San Diego turned into three and then Southern California became their permanent home.
Engman entered the restaurant industry after high school as a dish washer in a small Italian restaurant. He moved on to bussing tables at a local hotel before working as a server at a number of local restaurants. Harboring an affinity for the industry, Engman made it his goal to open a restaurant of his own. Nurturing his desire to offer a homestyle, friendly breakfast option for local dinners, Engman conceptualized the original Fig Tree Café in Pacific Beach as a prime morning-time destination. He made his dream into a reality in October 2008.
Eight years later, Engman now oversees operations and owns three successful branches of Fig Tree Café in Pacific Beach, Hillcrest and Liberty Station along with Breakfast Republic in North Park, Liberty Station, Encinitas, East Village, Ocean Beach, Carmel Valley, and Pacific Beach.
El Jardin will be Johan’s largest restaurant at 3100 square feet with a 5500 square foot patio. The concept is modern Mexican inspired by Executive Chef Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins’ (Top Chef) heritage and the regional cuisine in Guadalajara, Jalisco where her passion for food was first cultivated, El Jardín is an expression of Zepeda’s culinary journey as a chef. The restaurant will feature a large selection of Tequila and Mescal.
Being an experienced traveler having visited 64 countries to date, in his free time Johan enjoys exploring new countries, cultures and cuisines along with scuba diving and motorcycle riding.
When asked about his secret to success, according to Engman it’s all about believing in yourself and “Knowing that you’ll get knocked down but always getting back up no matter what the naysayers say”, along with employee high emphasis on morale. He says, “If you have your staff behind you 100%, then you’re leaps and bounds ahead of any competition.”
Paola Itzel Gonzalez
Paola Itzel Gonzalez was born and raised in San Diego, she grew up in the South Bay and showed an interest in cooking from a young age as she baked cakes, cookies and many other baked goods alongside her mother. Baking became a big part of her life. This passion grew and she got her foot in the door into the restaurant industry as a hostess in Coronado, elbowing her way into the kitchen.
Looking to be formally trained, she studied in the baking and pastry program at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone, Napa Valley. During her time there, she took part in catering private dinners, and culinary events, as well as completed an externship at the Ritz Carlton in Lake Tahoe in the resort pastry kitchen where she worked the pastry station at Manzanita Restaurant.
She graduated from the CIA with an Associate’s Degree in Baking and Pastry and returned home to continue furthering her education in hospitality. Before becoming a part of El Jardín, she was a pastry cook at Bracero Cocina de Raíz working alongside Chef Javier Plascencia and Chef Claudette. When she was not in the restaurant, she was a private dessert caterer for San Diego parties and companies, while working on obtaining her bachelor’s degree in hospitality.
While Chef Leo left Tijuana for America’s Greatest City at the age of 13, his love for his grandma and her home cooking frequently led him back to his hometown. In fact, his passion for cooking was largely inspired by the countless hours spent in the kitchen with his grandmother, preparing traditional Mexican dishes with love and care.
Leo caries that same tradition with his own two kids, taking them along to explore the world and flavors.
His culinary studies in San Diego have included stints as sous chef with notable local culinary artists such as Joe Magnanelli, Michael Ground, Javier Plascencia and El Jardin’s very own chef Claudette Zepeda Wilkins.
Originally from New Orleans, Thomas Tompkins moved east and grew up in small town Pensacola Beach Florida. After spending years in the Dallas bar scene, Thomas met a special lady and made his way out west to San Diego in order to help his relationship grow alongside his career.
With a resume that includes working for many of Southern California’s industry leaders, Thomas soon began to develop a love for what our neighbors south of the US border had to offer us. He worked alongside some of San Diego and Tijuana’s best talent while being behind the bar at Bracero.
This is also where he first crossed paths with Chef Claudette Zepeda Wilkins, and immediately built an admiration for everything she represented in and out of the kitchen.
Once the announcement for El Jardín was made, the wheels were put into motion, and it became a no brainer to join the family and continue where they left off. Let’s just say, there was a sense of unfinished business and now is the time to correct that.
Assistant General Manager
Is a San Diego native, who was raised in Imperial Beach, a small beach town joined to Tijuana by the Tijuana River in southern San Diego.
Growing up so close to the border Felicia has always had a love and appreciation for Mexican food and culture. Starting in the industry at the age of 18, Felicia has worked her way from starting as a barista to now AGM of El Jardín.
Throughout the last few years Felicia has been able to work James beard nominated chef Javier Placencia, two Michelin star chef Jason McLeod and now Top Chef Claudette Zepeda Wilkins.