With her trademark glasses and signature flowing hair often styled in long green braids, chef Claudette Zepeda is easy to spot in and out of the kitchen. She’s been a central part of many kitchens in the past like El Jardín and Bracero, with appearances on Top Chef and Iron Chef, to name a few. But being the founder of Chispa Hospitality and Viva La Vida, and culinary director of VAGA at Alila Marea Beach Resort in Encinitas are her latest—and arguably greatest—projects to date.
Perched steps from the Pacific, VAGA’s panoramic views are impressive, but the food and drink programs grab all the attention.
Creating an experience at VAGA takes plenty of planning and flexibility. Zepeda says, “I know what a dish needs to have to be successful,” listing characteristics such as the balance between things like salinity, acidity, and sweetness, as well as where it should fall along the Ayurvedic scale of “hot” and “cold” food. There’s a whole process she goes through.
“I literally draw a Venn diagram. In the middle it says what the protein is, or what the star of the dish is,” she explains. She starts connecting her ideas together—what’s the texture? where’s the acid?—and at the end, “I’m looking at the full picture.”
Zepeda also draws inspiration from sustainable or locally sourced and seasonal ingredients. VAGA’s Elements of Nature, a quarterly special event dinner series for 2023, allows her to attune her creative energy alongside moon cycles to orchestrate delectable five-course dinners. Nature of Fire debuted in March, followed by the Nature of Earth in June, Nature of Air in October, and the Nature of Water on December 21 still to happen. Zepeda describes it as a “transcendent” dinner series, one that she hopes will change the way people look at our shared relationship with the Earth.
“Connecting with nature is super important to me,” says Zepeda, pointing to Indigenous traditions of honoring seasons and cycles as a sacred ritual modern-day society has lost.
But Zepeda is more than a chef. She’s also a mother, author of the upcoming book Borderlands (which will celebrate her culinary cross-border influences between Mexico and the US), and a staunch advocate for mental health resources, especially across hospitality, and for the rights of farm and migrant workers. As an ambassador for Southern Smoke, a nonprofit benefitting food and beverage workers with resources like financial aid and no-cost mental health programs, she feels a responsibility to make sure the path of those following in her footsteps have an easier journey.
“You can no longer hold it in and just pretend to be this rockstar chef and not talk about the mental health toll that it takes on you,” she says. An aggressive culture that rewards overwork, punishes burnout, and celebrates brutal behavior is something that’s haunted hospitality for decades, but it pushed many beyond their limit during the pandemic. “People won’t work to be treated like shit anymore. No matter where they work, no matter how great of a restaurant it is, your skeletons are coming out of the closet if that’s how you treat people.”
She recounts kitchens in her own past with toxic cultures and energies, hoping that her work today helps the people of tomorrow. “Just because I suffered doesn’t mean the next generation has to,” she promises.
But her advocacy extends past kitchens, all the way to farms and across borders. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, farm workers are far more susceptible to anxiety, depression, and suicide than the average population. It doesn’t have to be this way, says Zepeda, but we as a society have to stop turning a blind eye in favor of low cost and convenience. These issues are happening both abroad and right here in California.
Zepeda describes driving through California’s agricultural centers and seeing workers—many underpaid or undocumented migrants, often from Mexico—laboring in harsh conditions and bad weather, and receiving little pay for dangerous work. Americans have become accustomed to cheap food without considering the true costs or who pays them.
Xenophobia also plays a role, one that’s harder to parse into a cost and value analysis. “It’s not just teaching humans the cost of our industry. How do you teach that when they don’t see certain people as actual humans?” she wonders. That’s why she works with agricultural unions and activist groups to advocate for safe working conditions, equitable pay, paid time off, and all the benefits human beings should have under a just system. In 2019, she founded Viva La Vida, LLC, with the goal to help Mexican women “support their families without sacrificing their safety,” according to the group’s mission statement. She plans to establish a formal 501(c)(3) this year.
All this work abides in her kitchen as well. VAGA’s pay scale falls well above minimum wage, and she says a nonnegotiable part of her coming on board before opening was ensuring wage gaps between roles were narrowed. “The two most important people in my restaurant are my host and my dishwasher,” she laughs. “Some people say it’s the wrong way to lead, but I treat my staff like family. I call them my kids.” And by imparting the same elements of delegation and self-improvement to her staff as she does her actual children, Zepeda hopes to build a legacy that outlives her, both in and out of her kitchens. So far, it sounds like she’s on her way.
Reservations for VAGA are strongly encouraged. Tickets for the Elements of Nature dinner events on December 21 start at $125 per person, with a curated wine pairing available for an additional $25 including tax and gratuity. Reserve seatings at 5pm or 7pm at vagarestaurant.com/events. Follow chef Zepeda on Instagram at @claudetteazepeda.