He’s quiet until he starts talking, but spend a few moments with cherub-faced Justin West — chef and co-owner of the highly acclaimed Julienne on Canon Perdido and soon-to-open Wildwood Kitchen at The Mill on Haley Street — and you know right away this guy was born to be a chef. Restaurants are in his blood.
After all, he was hanging out in restaurants before he knew what a restaurant was. The son of a chef specializing in barbecue, West spent his early years riding skateboards through their dining rooms and cracking wise with line cooks in the kitchen. His first primal fears include being trapped in the walk-in freezer or sucked into industrial bread mixers. Maurice Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen was his waking dream.
He’d already been picking beans and peeling potatoes in the prep line for years when, at the age of 13, he became the “smoker boy.” The dirtiest job in the restaurant, it meant crawling inside his father’s industrial smoker, which cooked 500 pounds of meat per day, to remove all the grease and rendered fat. Eventually he figured out how to renegotiate his $5-an-hour fee for a better deal with his formidable, workaholic dad.
His father, Mike West, wasn’t easy to get along with. They were very close but very professional. “He was an everything ’coholic,” West recalled of his dad, who worked in the restaurant seven days a week, 52 weeks a year. “Knowing him at all was to be working with him. Work ethic was what got his respect.” His father designed what’s become Julienne’s logo, a circular nexus of cooking tools. When his dad died four years ago at just 51, West tattooed that logo on the inside of his right arm.
A Cook’s Cook
So what happens to a kid that grows up steeped in every aspect of food preparation? He becomes a cook’s cook.
Certainly his fellow chefs think so. “Julienne is all about the ingredients, not the image,” said voluble master chef Charlie Fredericks, formerly of bouchon, now the head of the SBCC School of Culinary Arts. “He’s doing what people say they’re doing.”
West’s dad owned five restaurants in Eugene, Oregon, none under 80 seats. At one time or another, Justin West has been a prep chef, cook, bartender, dishwasher, assistant GM, and beverage director. He met his wife, Emma West, while attending the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco. She is Julienne’s wine buyer, bookkeeper, general manager, HR director, and concept developer. Said West, “Nothing would be possible without her.”
Together, they’ve made the rounds in the Santa Barbara scene: Wine Cask, Hungry Cat, Bacara Resort & Spa, San Ysidro Ranch. West even did a short stint at the famed Gigetto restaurant near Venice, Italy.
Today, with comfy booths and dark wood tables, art-lined Julienne is a paradigm of intelligent design and streamlined charm, the jewel of the Presidio Neighborhood. Like many restaurants in town, the menu is seasonally driven and farmers’ market derived, but without extraneous ingredients, nothing more than the dish demands. Every taste is distinct yet harmonizes with the others.
Recently, I sampled a strangely addictive roasted eggplant and burrata with an unexpected squirt of mint pesto. Also a revelation was the grilled street corn tossed with jalapeño, queso fresco, and Tapatío, altogether earthy and unpredictable. Then there’s the sneakily sophisticated joys of oxtail soup with bok choy, green beans, and whey-based dashi or pork belly served on kimchi coleslaw. Even the burger ground in-house and dressed with horseradish mustard is satisfying yet surprising.
Everything but the Squeal
Despite claims otherwise, few restaurants can legitimately say they ascribe to the “tail-to-snout philosophy” practiced at Julienne, where the crew modifies cuts and cooking techniques to utilize lesser-known parts of an animal.
“If the whole animal has to die, why not use the whole animal?” asks West, who recently fed 60 people off of a whole lamb. “If we were selling only lamb shanks, many, many more lambs would have had to be slaughtered to feed those people. And what happens to the rest of the animal? It’s a more sustainable way to cook.” Everything but the squeal, as some cooks say.
“He’s an American progressive, always looking at what’s new and cutting-edge from a farm-to-table perspective,” said Corazon Cocina’s Ramon Velazquez, another celebrated chef, who plans to open a new restaurant soon in Montecito. “He takes risks. He makes the food that is delicious for the soul.”
Another delight of eating at Julienne is that you can see West and his team at work, especially if you sit at the bar. Chef de Cuisine Mia Dittman and line cooks P.A. Tremblay, Jesse Shaw, Ethan Aoki-Walsh, and Jonathan Haikkala appear in motion, as if choreographed, preparing each meal in the small, open kitchen, poised and ready to cook for anybody who walks in the door. It’s the way his dad did it, and West’s never liked working in those restaurants where he didn’t see a single face of the people eating his food.
“Justin is the most enthusiastic of the young chefs that I sell to,” said fifth-generation farmer Tom Shepherd. “Julienne has that feel; the team has real enthusiasm. He’s competitive in a good way.”
Bring on the Smoke
Justin West is only beginning to make his mark on California’s culinary landscape. This fall inside The Mill, a new food-and-drink hot spot under construction at 412 East Haley Street, West will open Wildwood Kitchen. Offering Southern-style American barbecue with a Santa Barbara ranch influence, Wildwood is not just a bold risk — it’s a homecoming.
Let’s be clear about what kind of barbecue we’re talking about. This is the culinary tradition of cooking meat low and slow over indirect flame that has traveled across the Barbecue Belt from Virginia through Texas. The true definition of barbecue, there’s something about the smell of oak smoke that draws us in, welding us to the dreams of summer and the gospel of comfort food that utterly fits with West’s whole-hog philosophy.
And he’s got a lot of history behind his ’cue. Before opening their West Bros. BBQ in Eugene, West’s dad and uncles spent weeks driving in a ’65 Mustang convertible through Tennessee, Missouri, Louisiana, and Texas, learning about barbecue. “There’s been a melting of all those styles together,” said Justin, “and now it’s mine.”
A recent tasting trip to Texas reaffirmed how authentic and good his flavors were.
“Mine’s a truly West Coast barbecue,” declared West. “Why can’t West Coast barbecue be a contender?”
So he’s merging Julienne’s snout-to-tail impulse with the traditional barbecue discipline, cooking mouthwatering, crunchy, smoky, addictively delicious meats in a massive 250-pound Southern Pride smoker. Seafood and sides will not be an afterthought. With shrimp and grits, chicken fried trout, jambalaya, braised market greens, honey poppy seed slaw, and basil mashed potatoes, everyone will find something to feast on. There’ll be to-go family packages and weekend specials for slap-up dinners at home that you can grill yourself. It’s all something his father would have been amazed to see.
“It’s going to be a lot from the West Bros., a lot from the farmers’ market, and a lot from my dad,” West explained.
And the smoker? Who’s going to clean that?
“I’m sure, in the beginning,” West admitted, “I will be the one cleaning it … for nostalgia.”
Restaurant Julienne (138 E. Canon Perdido St.; 845-6488; restaurantjulienne.com)
Wildwood Kitchen (opening soon; 412 E. Haley St.; themillsb.com)