With stints at San Diego’s Sea180 (Imperial Beach) and Jsix (East Village) under her culinary belt, Chef Claudette Wilkins was tapped to help open and lead the much-anticipated Javier Plascencia project, Bracero Cocina, in 2015. This year Chef Wilkins is channeling her Baja-Med influenced cuisine into a series of summer pop-up events around the US and beyond; her most recent dinners taking place at Liv Restaurant and The Black Lodge in Ontario, Canada.
What first inspired you to become a chef and pursue a professional culinary career?
Since getting in everyones way at my aunt’s restaurant growing up I wanted to work in the industry. The catalyst happened after becoming a very young mom as I wanted to pursue my dreams and set an example to my kid.
Who is a chef you really admire and why?
Gavin Kaysen. We’ve known each other about ten years now and what he has accomplished in his career while maintaining impeccable standards and humble is nothing short of amazing. I ask him for advice when I need it and being that we work in a pretty visceral industry, I trust his intuition and try to be the same kind of chef to my cooks.
Toughest lesson learned working your way up in the kitchen?
Your feelings towards the situations at hand aren’t always important, what is important is that the quality of food and the customer experience is your main priority.
Best piece of advice would you give an young up-and-coming young chef?
My number one piece of advice is quit looking at what others are doing or not doing. You are wasting precious time and creative energy that you could be using to create and bring ideas to your chef, instead of complaining about issues you can’t control. The only thing we can control is our attitude and how we react to situations. It is a great thing when a chef has a solid cook that can be counted on to put their head down and grind.
Congratulations on winning the Judge’s Choice Award at Chef’s Plate 9. Can you talk us through your ideas for each dish and bringing them to fruition?
Thank you!! I got the call and stirred about the dishes for a couple of days, I knew I wanted to make a raw dish, a mole dish and utilize the first cherries of the season.
First Course: Carne Apache (Beef Tartar) – Dried Ancho Chili / Cracked Hominy / Spicy Pickled Daikon / Cilantro / Coriander Blossoms / Avocado / Masa / Micro Greens
First I picked the cut for tartar, chuck is a great option as long as it is cleaned properly. I love showcasing the versatility of corn so I added cracked hominy that I pickled in a bit of Vinagre de Jerez (a Spanish Sherry). The tartar was made in the style of a fish ceviche, which is unconventional to most. I topped it off with the ancho aioli and guacamole mousse and served with a masa cracker.
Second course: Res con Mole Negro (Beef with Black Mole) – Crispy Santa Maria Brisket / Seared Ribeye / Black Mole With Smokey Beef Dash / Grilled Summer Squash / Aged Cotija / Radish / Vegetables in Escabeche / Purslane / Hoja Santa Chochoyotes
One of my favorite cuts of beef is brisket. I paired it with a ribeye which allowed me to use different cooking methods and to showcase the sponsor’s equipment with Phil Roxworthy’s Santa Maria Grill and the EVO grill. I braised the brisket for 12 hours in a chili and garlic mixture, once cool I smoked in the Santa Maria grill, cut and finished by searing the outside until crispy on the EVO. The mole was a black mole base made like traditional Oaxaca mole then prepared a Japanese dashi with Kombu, bonito flakes, shiitake stems. The stocks rich umami notes enhance the already rich and complex mole. To showcase the vegetables in season I grilled summer squash and made vegetables in escabeche (pickled vegetables).
Third course: Chocolate con Almendra (Chocolate with Almonds) – Callebaut Chocolate Fudge Cake Almond & Baja Olive Oil Semifreddo / Cherry Salad / Almond Praline + Red Mole Bon Bon Mignardise
For dessert the challenge couldn’t have come at a better time seasonally, as pitted fruit is one of my favorites. After spending half of my career as a pastry chef it was definitely a plus in the planning, as I knew the textures I wanted to achieve. Knowing we had Callebaut as a sponsor it was easy to choose cherry as the fruit. To keep in line with my style and highlight ingredients from Mexico, I made a Baja Precious olive oil semifreddo with chocolate fudge cake in alternating layers, frozen to set. I made an almond praline on the Santa Maria Grill and wanted to see if I could make a caramel over the wood, which worked! I tossed it with fresh cherry halves, Callebaut crisp pearls and Baja precious olive oil “snow”.
One meal that changed the way you thought about food?
One of my first professional kitchen jobs was working at Jack’s in La Jolla, a behemoth restaurant where I was a pastry cook. I was able to eat a handful of times in the fine dining restaurant where chef Tony Disalvo did an amazing job with the menu. It showed me how food could make you feel and that you don’t have to over complicate menus. Create the food you want with amazing sustainable ingredients and you’ll end up with amazing results.
What do you think is on trend in food right now and what are some of the most exciting things currently happening San Diego’s culinary scene?
Besides the ever-present Nordic cuisine I think a trend is chefs going back to their roots. You see amazing Hispanic chefs cooking the food they grew up with and influenced by the jobs they’ve had. American chefs making classic Americana dishes sold in the hottest restaurants (a la Dorothy’s Pot Roast by Gavin Kaysen in the NYT Food section). I love walking into a restaurant and seeing guests dressed to the nines to eat pot-roast. I think that San Diego continues to push the food scene and not only be driven by tourism; it won’t happen overnight but little by little I think we will get there as a culinary destination.
Wild Card: on a rare night off, what are your go-to restaurants, places or things to do?
I have a full powerlifting set up at home so I will run drills with a weighted sled down my street or run hill sprints. As for food, I love small family owned restaurants, my favorite Indian spot is Punjabi off Miramar or Ethiopian on El Cajon Blvd. There’s a little Japanese grocery store near my house that I spend way too much time in looking at ingredients then coming home and creating dishes. I grew up near the ocean so my kids and I enjoy hanging out on the sand in Imperial Beach (my hometown) and eating ice cream.