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Our esteemed panel of judges will review dishes in three categories: Appetizers, Entrees, and Desserts.  Our judging panel, composed of professional chefs and international culinary experts, will evaluate our chef contestants’ creations at the Culinary Institute of America, Copia, in Napa, Calif. on August 3rd.


Executive Chef/Owner
H Town Restaurant Group

Hugo Ortega Headshot


The winner of 2017 Best Chef: Southwest James Beard Foundation Awards started with very humble beginnings.  Hugo Ortega was raised in Mexico City and Puebla and learned his love of cooking from his mother and grandmother, a revered mole maker.

At 17, he left Mexico for Houston and began his career in the industry as a dishwasher and busboy at Backstreet Cafe before graduating from culinary school and later becoming its executive chef, and with wife Tracy Vaught, owner. His American Dream continued with openings of Hugo’s, Caracol, Xochi, and URBE.

Hugo has published two cookbooks: Hugo Ortega’s Street Food of Mexico and Backstreet Kitchen: Seasonal Recipes from Our Neighborhood Cafe. Tracy and Hugo are investors in Origen restaurant in Oaxaca, Mexico, and created the menu for Hugo’s Cocina at IAH airport. Hugo is the first Mexican-born chef to win a James Beard Award and June 20, 2017 was declared Hugo Ortega Day in Houston by Mayor Sylvester Turner in honor of the award.  Hugo was bestowed the 2017 Craig Claiborne Lifetime Achievement Award from Southern Foodways Alliance.  In 2019, Vaught established the Chef Hugo Ortega Endowment in honor of Chef Hugo at Houston Community College’s Culinary Arts Program to provide scholarships for the next generations of culinary students.  The lobby of the new HCC Culinary Arts Building is named in Hugo’s honor.


Executive Chef
Leoness Cellars

Ben Diaz Headshot


A native Angeleno, Chef Ben Diaz puts his homegrown passion into every dish he prepares at “Leoness Cellars”. Using local provisions and seasonal farmers’ market finds as inspiration, he elevates classic dishes using a combination of new and old-world techniques that honor ingredients and maximize their flavor.

Formally trained at the California School of Culinary Arts and the L’Académie Culinaire de France, Chef Ben developed Tacos El Chapin, a popular pop-up taqueria, and is the Chief Culinary Officer at CBD Cuisine Consulting Services & Catering Division. He has served as top toque at some of Southern California’s best hotels and restaurants, including Luxe City Center in Downtown Los Angeles, JW Marriott Santa Monica, The World Renown Culver Hotel in Culver City, and Santa Monica’s Areal Restaurant. He has also acted as consulting chef at esteemed hospitality brands at home and abroad, including West Hollywood’s Toca Madera, Zimbali Retreats in Negril, Jamaica, and Farahat Co. in Dubai, UAE, and written a culinary reference book called, From a Cook to a Professional Chef.

An esteemed professional, Chef Ben holds several certifications, including Hospitality Department Trainer and Food and Beverage Executive; is an active board member for the Chefs de Cuisine Association of California, and was inducted into the Les Amis d’Escoffier Society, and the World Master Chefs Society. He is also brand ambassador for Messermeister, Lumina and Alliance Group.

Never one to shy away from a challenge, Chef Ben has appeared on various television shows, including Food Network’s Chef Wanted and Cutthroat Kitchen, as well as The Cooking Channel’s Farmers Market Flip, where he was crowned the winner. Other accolades include the 2020 World Food Championship Winner for Best Mojo Recipe and Best Home-Cooked Meal, Winner of LA County Fair’s 2019 Best Chili Contest, Winner of Chefs de Cuisine Association of California’s Cutting-Edge Award in 2019, and Chef of the Year in 2018, and Best Latin Chef at the Latin Food Fest in 2018.

In his spare time, Chef Ben enjoys volunteering with local charities, such as The Boys and Girls’ Club of San Gabriel and the Chefs de Cuisine of California Educational Foundation.


San Diego Chef &
Culinary Entrepreneur

Claudette Zepeda Headshot


Claudette Zepeda is an award-winning, San Diego-based chef and culinary entrepreneur known for her fearless style and bold approach to regional Mexican cuisine. A celebrated culinary anthropologist, Zepeda draws upon 20+ years of experience working in restaurant kitchens, as well as her extensive travels around the world and throughout Mexico that inform her extensive knowledge of indigenous ingredients and cross-cultural expressions of cuisine.

Zepeda’s multi-faceted expertise is showcased in her role overseeing the creative vision for VAGA restaurant in San Diego’s North County where she authors a love letter to her hometown with a menu that celebrates local flavors and influences. Previously, Zepeda garnered national acclaim for her time as the executive chef & partner behind El Jardín, a regional Mexican restaurant in the area. During her tenure, El Jardín received a glowing review from the New York Times, inclusion on Esquire’s 2018 Best New Restaurants, and recognition from Michelin on their 2019 Bib Gourmand list. Zepeda was named both Eater San Diego and San Diego Union Tribune’s Chef of the Year in 2018, and was a James Beard Best Chef West semifinalist in 2019. Prior to El Jardín, Zepeda was chef de cuisine at Javier Plascencia’s celebrated Bracero. She has competed on Top Chef Season 15 and Top Chef Mexico, as well as Iron Chef: Quest for an Iron Legend, where she successfully won her challenge.

In 2019 Zepeda Founded Viva La Vida, LLC., establishing micro businesses with single mothers throughout Mexico’s seven regions to import their heirloom ingredients previously unavailable in the U.S. Through Viva La Vida, Zepeda helps Mexican women support their families without sacrificing their safety. Named for a famous Frida Kahlo quote, the company celebrates the colorful life and death Mexicans lead, with plans to grow into a 501c3 fund dedicated to helping women break from generational poverty in the United States.

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