Justin West, one of the true superstar chefs in Santa Barbara, opened Soul Cal Smokehouse last January at the S.B. Public Market with co-chef Jason Carter. West rose to fame in foodie circles more than 10 years ago by opening Julienne on East Canon Perdido Street with his now ex-wife Emma West. Then came the barbecue-focused Wildwood Kitchen in The Mill on East Haley Street in 2015, but Julienne closed the next year. When Wildwood’s last meal was served in November 2018, West began working to make Soul Cal a reality.
I’ve been an avid fan of West’s cooking since 2008 when Julienne opened. His adventurous yet honest food has always impressed me. It’s obvious that Justin loves to cook and to please — you can taste and feel that in his food. Even in the barbecue emporium of Soul Cal Smokehouse, my strict vegetarian diet finds a variety of choices that have been dotingly curated.
In person, Justin is passionate, real, and also very candid. We meet for breakfast at Joe’s Cafe after he’s dropped his kids at school. “My kids are important,” he volunteers. “Fifty percent of my time is spent with them.”
When I ask how he is, he’s reflective. “I’m full of the self-doubt that exists in every business owner,” says Justin, openly speaking about the speedbumps of getting Soul Cal Smokehouse off the ground, the high costs of operating a business, and what it’s like to rely on employees who can’t afford to live in this town with just one job.
“Do I consider Julienne and Wildwood as failures or successes or did they lead to where I’m at today?” he asks aloud. “I got divorced, closed Julienne. It’s been tough for the past three years, yet Soul Cal Smokehouse has a beautiful future ahead of it. I’ve definitely done the right thing.”
He loves the “familial aspect of cooking at Soul Cal. “There’s a certain wholeness to barbecue,” he says. “You have to cook the whole thing.”
Family is a recurrent theme for Justin. His father, Mike, and uncles Jim and Phil owned West Brothers Barbecue in Eugene, Oregon from 1992 to 2005. At 13 years old, Justin began cleaning their smoker, a “brutal” job involving corrosive chemicals. “I was good at it,” says Justin, whose dad was trying to instill work ethic in him. “I was known then as Smoker Boy. I will always be Smoker Boy.”
He continued working for his dad, who owned several restaurants, and graduated from South Eugene High School in 2000. By then, Justin was running is dad’s Three Square Bar and Café, which served breakfast, lunch, and dinner. He bought a house and was almost going to buy the cafe from his dad. But then Justin met a girl who said he was bigger than Eugene, so he opted to attend the California Culinary Academy in 2005. This created a rift between father and son. “Getting away from under his wings was a difficult move,” Justin shares.
He met Emma during culinary school. For the last 12 weeks of the program, Justin interned at The Black Smith in Bend, Oregon, while Emma, whose parents lived in Santa Barbara, chose to do hers at the Bacara. Justin followed her down in February 2007, and got a job at the Wine Cask and then San Ysidro Ranch. As they searched for their own restaurant, he and Emma got engaged.
In 2008, three weeks after Justin gave notice to San Ysidro Ranch, they found the location for Julienne. Then financial backing came through from his grandparents, who were celebrating their 50th anniversary in Italy. Three months later, Julienne opened.
“Emma and I did everything,” he recalls. “We were just a couple of kids. We were young, super young. Julienne gave us so much. It allowed me to cook from the heart for eight years. A lot of what happened at Julienne cannot be recreated. Things we did there were so unique.” He acknowledges that Santa Barbara had everything to do with that, allowing him to take risks.
But their divorce put pressure on the future of Julienne, which they’d quietly tried to sell for a couple years. “I’d just opened Wildwood six months earlier,” he said. “I couldn’t continue cooking at the Julienne level. I wanted to be with the kids. I didn’t feel as good being with the food.”
In November 2016, Julienne closed. “A bar had been raised really high,” he says of the experience. “But I lost a wife and a great business partner.”
When I stop by Soul Cal Smokehouse later that day, there’s a long lunchtime line. Enveloped by the comforting, smoky smell of barbecue, I spot Justin bustling behind the counter, filling up orders. He is in a zone, but sees me and comes to say hello. “I’m in the best place that I’ve been in years,” he tells me. It sure looks that way.
Justin West answers the Proust Questionnaire.
What is the quality you most like in people?
Honesty. Life is too short for B.S. moments, so if you aren’t real, then I can’t deal. Ya feel?
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
To me perfect happiness is when I have a proper work/life balance. When creativity and problem-solving flow with ease. It is usually during these flows that I am proactive instead of reactive, which results in more “me” time because I am getting shit done before it needs to be done, which allows me to make time for my kids, my relationship, and myself. And those are the things I am working for.
What do you like most about your job?
I like sharing knowledge about cooking and I enjoy the fact that I get to be myself at work.
What is your greatest fear?
Who do you most admire?
I really admire LeBron James. In this day and age, I think LeBron is one of a kind. He came up from nothing. Has been at the top for over a decade. He married his high school sweetheart and has been a dedicated family man since day one. He takes insane care of himself and is a great business man in addition to being the GOAT on the court. LeBron is the King.
What is your greatest extravagance?
I am not a very extravagant person. I have a hot tub and that feels pretty extravagant sometimes. It’s broken right now though: electrical compilations due to excessive rain. That’s not extravagant.
What is your current state of mind?
Entertained. This is a hell of a questionnaire. I am having to really think about some of these answers.
What is the quality you most dislike in people?
You know, I try to accept people for who they are for the most part, but I really can’t stand when someone can’t take responsibility for their own life and decisions. When they make excuses for why things are the way they are instead of just realizing that it starts and ends with the person in the mirror, one way or another.
What do you most value in friends?
Effort. It isn’t easy to have friends or be a friend. Life comes at you fast but the true friends are the ones who make time for one another and that takes effort by all parties.
What is your most marked characteristic?
I would say that I am an extrovert to the 10th degree.
Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
Dude, Man, Bro. I am sure there’s a couple more. I don’t want to grow up. That’s the real problem here. And I employ a bunch of twentysomethings.
Which talent would you most like to have?
I wish I was a musical virtuoso in piano or guitar. I love both of those instruments so much and I just wish I was better at playing them.
If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
Well, I am always working to be a better person. Currently I am working on my listening skills. I am really good at running my mouth and historically bad at listening so I am trying to change that.
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
I feel like I am still working towards that answer. Becoming a parent has been life-changing but I am not sure I can claim it as an achievement yet. It’s a work in progress. Emma and I were able to achieve some pretty cool things at Julienne. But I can’t say yet if they will be my greatest achievements.
Where would you most like to live?
Baja. Dollar tacos and uncrowded surf.
What is your most treasured possession?
Probably my acoustic guitar. Like I said, I don’t play it that well but I have had it for 20 years and it’s been on so many trips and sat around so many campfires.
Who makes you laugh the most?
My kids for sure. The apples never fall far from the tree.
What is your motto?
We’ll sleep plenty when we’re dead.
Which historical figure do you most identify with?
I didn’t pay enough attention in history class to answer this question. I did however develop a technique for falling asleep in the front row.
On what occasion do you lie?