Local chef Claudette Zepeda has been named executive chef of a long-awaited, new North County luxury hotel, the Alila Marea Beach Resort Encinitas, a 28,500-square-foot, 130-room waterfront property that’s part of Hyatt Hotels’ boutique Alila brand. Scheduled to debut in early 2021, the beachside, eco-friendly retreat will be anchored by VAGA Restaurant & Bar; the indoor/outdoor space will have ocean views and an open kitchen, where once again, Zepeda will step into the spotlight.
By all measures, the last few years have been banner ones for the longtime chef. After breaking out with Bracero in Little Italy and appearing on season 15 of Bravo’s “Top Chef” as well as “Top Chef Mexico”, she opened El Jardin in Liberty Station, amassing accolades that ranged from “Chef of the Year” from Eater and the San Diego Union Tribune in 2018 to a James Beard Awards semifinalist nod for Best Chef West in 2019. Since splitting with El Jardin last summer, Zepeda had been consulting and spending time with her two children, and launched an online cooking class during the pandemic that donated part of the proceeds to charity.
Following the shakeup of its video team, the chef was recently added to Bon Appétit’s YouTube channel where she’ll be exploring the culinary anthropology behind Mexican dishes; Zepeda says her first episode will showcase Oaxacan chicken with salsa macha.
Although her take on regional Mexican food propelled her rising profile, Zepeda says she’s ready to show the world what else she can do. The Imperial Beach native, who now lives in Chula Vista, says VAGA’s ever-changing menu will be a love letter to San Diego — celebrating its oceans and farms and the diversity of cuisines found in the area, from Convoy Street’s Asian eateries to the El Cajon’s Middle Eastern markets, Filipino bakeries in National City, and also Mexican food.
The project is deeply personal for Zepeda, who bestowed her childhood nickname upon the restaurant. The self-described “vagabond” told Eater that VAGA will reflect the way she cooks at home and her sense of wanderlust and adventure as it applies to food. The pandemic has given her new perspective on success and what’s important, explained the chef, who says she’s now focused on cooking to make people happy instead of chasing Michelin stars.
Zepeda’s other culinary responsibilities at Alila Marea include The Pocket Pool & Bar, a poolside eatery serving cocktails and light, seafood-focused menu of dishes that are inspired by surf culture of the Southern California coast and the Baja Peninsula, as well as the Coffee Box, a cafe featuring North County roaster Lofty Coffee. Also an accomplished pastry chef, Zepeda will be making all baked goods in-house using freshly-milled heirloom grains.