Unique flavour pairings and tequila-spiked salsa – it’s Fiesta!

Award-winning San Diego based chef Claudette Zepeda is coming to Tasting Australia’s Dining Galleries and she’s promising ‘a clash of the titans’ in the flavour profiles.

Feb 27, 2024, updated Feb 27, 2024

Since launching into the greater consciousness in 2018 as the executive chef behind San Diego’s Michelin-recognised, but now closed El Jardín, Claudette Zepeda has pretty much owned regional Mexican cuisine.

Now at the helm of the buzz-worthy VAGA, her website best sums her up as having a fearless style and bold approach to cooking in a career that stretches back 20-plus years.

Consequently, when she said over the phone that she will merge Mexican flavours with Australian native ingredients for Dining Galleries presented by Mitolo Family Farms – Fiesta, it seemed totally feasible. Delicious, in fact.

“My food will be a clash of the titans in flavour profiles,” she said.

Zepeda will be cooking alongside Africola’s Duncan Welgemoed, Daniella Guevara Munoz of La Popular Taqueria and Jessie Spiby of Good Company Catering.

“I’m going to leave a little bit [of the details] out for suspense, but we’re going to do barbacoa, which is a signature dish in my restaurants,” she said.

“I really fell in love with Australian lamb when I started using it… and Chef Daniella is going to collaborate with me to do all the sides, including a tequila-based salsa, which is very traditional in the barbacoa world.”

The 14 different Dining Galleries events promise an eating and drinking experience that is part restaurant, part art showcase – and that not all meals will follow a conventional restaurant format just adds to the fun.

Alex Bellas. Photo: supplied

Each sees a collaboration between notable Australian, international and local chefs. Works by South Australian artists Dana Kinter, Gabriel Stengle, Billie Justice Thomson and Alex Bellas will feature in these exciting new spaces.

For Bellas, the commission from Tasting Australia was an opportunity to combine her two passions of art and food. Before moving into working full-time as a muralist in 2019, she spent the better part of a decade in hospitality.

Her style ranges from traditional realism painting to edgy street art – “I enjoy not being pinned down… and dabbling in anything that presents an opportunity.”

She agrees that people’s appreciation of art changes with the context in which it is viewed.

“I think the way we experience something is done with all of our senses … whether we’re primarily focusing on a food’s taste or viewing art,” she said.

“It’s definitely a full experience and all these other little details can change the way we appreciate something.”

The theatrical nature of the dining experience is well understood by the best chefs.

Zepeda thrives on the balance between being hands-on in the kitchen and interacting with guests.

“I want to see the happy faces because that is such a big part of what fuels us as chefs.”

Cooking collaboratively with other chefs, she said, can be “really, really beautiful” and a learning opportunity.

“Even though we probably already know a version of each dish, how someone approaches food and their craft is like fingerprints; there’s no two alike.”

Zepeda, a celebrated culinary anthropologist, sees her own style as a collaboration.

“My food is considered Mexican, but really, when you lift the veil, it’s a combination of thousands of cultures and hands and humans that have crossed ingredients and married into this beautiful, what we now consider traditional or classic, Mexican dish.”

She has been back to Australia since first visiting in 2019 on a diplomacy tour for US chefs organised by Meat and Livestock Australia.

Two years ago, she hosted a pop-up in Sydney and also stopped by Melbourne. The bika ambon dessert at Sunda haunts her to this day. “I still haven’t figured out how to make it,” she said.

Experiencing more of the local cuisine is high on her list when she returns for Tasting Australia in May.

“I’m just enamoured by the sensibility of Australian cuisine, it’s very much like that of coastal Mexican,” she said.

“It’s very relaxed and we’re just cooking. It’s no big deal – we’re not saving lives; we’re just making food.

“And I love that.”

Book for Fiesta and other Dining Galleries here.

Tasting Australia presented by RAA Travel is Australia’s premier food and beverage festival. The 2024 program features more than 150 events across the state, with the festival running for 10 days from Friday, 3 May to Sunday, 12 May.

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