“Every time I’d drive through from San Diego to my parents’ house [in San Luis Obispo], I’d say, ‘[Santa Barbara]’s the next place I’m going to work,” said Spencer Johnston, who recently made that promise a reality. Since September, he’s been the executive chef at the Wine Cask, despite not really even knowing the history of the storied restaurant. When he saw the job opening online, Johnston thought, “Shit, why not apply? I hadn’t known anything about the Wine Cask, but [co-owner] Mitchell [Sjerven] gave me the lowdown, and I thought, ‘Wow, this is epic.’ Talking to him, I knew I wanted to work for him—he had this aura. He wanted to make food the exact same way I did, the local, sustainable model. American Riviera Cuisine, he calls it.”
The style of cooking fits Johnston perfectly, as one finds out simply by tasting one of his amuse-bouches. Who could argue with a perfect puff pastry, gilded with just enough triple-cream Saint André cheese, its richness a perfect complement to an earthy couple of crisp, panfried chanterelle slices? That was just a way to kick an evening off, and, of course, wine director Aaron Watty matched that fullness with a palate-cleansingly bright champagne. It was like dying and going to food heaven—before the first course.
“I knew the farms up here were amazing, and the area had so much potential,” explained Johnston, whose culinary muse is driven by locally grown food. For instance, at his last spot, the restaurant at San Diego’s swanky Pearl Hotel, Johnston claimed, “We’d only touch a 50-mile, 60-mile radius. Every day we had to do a new menu. But you could get platters of bone marrow. … You could get a whole lobe of foie gras seared off if you asked the chef.” At the Wine Cask, he ponders a seasonal menu at an odd meteorological time. “We’ve had such a weird season this year,” he said. “The late heat has been great for tomatoes, but it’s messing with the squash, so who knows?”
What he definitely knows is, “We want to make comfortable food and make it really good.” That must explain the spot-on, delicious, and wonderfully unfussy dishes that range from “confit” of artichoke heart, roasted garlic puree, Meyer lemon aioli, and fine herbs to seared sea scallops with fava beans, pancetta, mint, and shaved fennel salad—a surf and turf of keen, fine distinctions.
Yet when it comes to making distinctions, Johnston does see a difference between the San Diego and Santa Barbara food scenes. “I think Santa Barbara is still really into the older-school style of food, which isn’t wrong,” he diplomatically explained. “San Diego has many styles, and so many different people right on top of each other. You can take a 20-minute drive and get all kinds of crazy things and bring them back to your restaurant to cook with. But I think all of that is coming up, and San Francisco is coming down, and the American Riviera Cuisine is going to be something of its very own.”
Johnston also is pleased he has two menus to play with: the slightly more upscale Wine Cask selections and then the bar food in Intermezzo (yep, it’s Intermezzo again, as Bar/Café just never quite caught on). “This little spot Intermezzo is cool,” Johnston said. “You can go tapas-y, you can bring in four pounds of something and know you can sell it in a week. You might not even push the envelope, but you can do some cool things. For instance, with the flatbreads, we can do so many cool things with those alone.”
The future will bring even more house-made products, from pickles to cured cabbage, fish, and meats. “Now that I’ve got my kitchen in line, we can start bringing those things out more,” he explained. “Cooking is more than just a pan. But I’m not one of those Ferran Adrià [the Spanish chef famed for his foams and molecular gastronomy] guys; I’m old-school—good food is always going to be good food.
And he’ll be looking to the sea for inspiration. “What I’m really stoked about are our local fishermen—it’s always so fresh. I think I’m going to do a fish special each day highlighting our season with that. And soon, when it gets colder, I’m looking forward to some wonderful braised items and heartier soups. The other day we did an oyster chowder when it was all rainy. … It sold like hot cakes; it was great.”
Discover Spencer Johnston’s gifts at the Wine Cask, 813 Anacapa Street. Call 966-9463 or see winecask.com.