Growing up in a restaurant family, Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins was in the kitchen before she could walk. But she’s not pressuring her two kids—James, 15, and Hailey, 12—to cook. “I don’t push it because I don’t want them to think cooking is a chore,” says the two-time Top Chef contestant and executive chef at the newly opened El Jardín in San Diego. “I’ll tell them what we’re going to eat and ask if they want to help.”
Depending on the day and their moods (because: teen and tween), one or both will lend a hand. Calm, analytical James is big on accuracy, while Hailey is all about speed. “She’s my tough girl,” says Claudette. “She just rolls up her sleeves and gets at it.”
Since Claudette prefers almost everything with a bit of char, the trio does a lot of cooking outside. (Jeremy, Claudette’s husband, is happy to leave the grilling to the professional–and her sous chefs.) “The kids are really good with the grill,” Claudette says. “I got them longer tongs so they don’t have to put their arms too close to the fire.”
Dinner is often classic Mexican food similar to what Claudette grew up with, like carne asada. “It’s like the best comfort food,” she says. “The kids love it, too. We skip the utensils and go straight for the tortillas.”
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Garlicky Carne Asada
Serving the Garlicky Carne Asada and fixings family-style lets everyone build their tacos exactly how they like ’em.
Charred Tomatillo & Orange Salsa
James pitches in by grinding up the Charred Tomatillo & Orange Salsa ingredients in a molcajete, the Mexican version of a mortar and pestle. Making the salsa by hand helps you control the texture.
Grilled Pineapple Hibiscus Mockarita
Recipe: Try Claudette's Grilled Pineapple-Hibiscus Mocktail
"I want my kids to learn how to cook for their family and to be self-sufficient—to be able to survive on an off-ramen diet," says Claudette. "They like to grill because they feel like 'Ok, she's letting me do the big-kid things.'"
As any mom of teens will tell you, sometimes you have to use a little muscle to get your group hug.
For Claudette, grilling is a team effort. Her kids, James and Hailey, pitch in to char the veggies for the salsa.