Justin Wills: Beckoning Educated Palates

I
f someone were to tell you there’s a James Beard nominated chef plating some of the most imaginative and beautiful dishes in Oregon, any good food-lover in Portland could probably throw out a few names and restaurants. Then, add to that notion that this celebrated chef ’s food is served in what could easily be one of the most beautiful settings in the state, and you’d be beyond curious to make a reservation. Get in line, Portland. Folks from Atlanta, Dallas, New York and Seattle are way ahead of you. They’re flying into PDX, driving past our wonderful Oz-like setting full of dining opportunities to—of all places—Depoe Bay. And there, at the perfectly situated Restaurant Beck, they find the highly acclaimed wizard of flavors using all things indigenous to the Oregon coast, plating and flavoring with whimsical powders and gels that would cause even Dorothy to stop thinking about home.

Chef Justin Wills and his faithful work in a tiny kitchen preparing food that successfully embodies the notion that the Oregon coast is a uniquely delicious sensory delight. Here, overlooking what the mighty Pacific has carved in the stunningly beautiful Whale Cove, Wills creates dishes that up the food ante—going way beyond the expected fare from the sea. Don’t expect the usual chowders and fish & chips. Instead, Wills’ imagination and talent pays homage to some of the most beautiful and fertile land in the world by treating visitors to artful preparations of naturally foraged and procured local ingredients from both the freshest waters and the lushest forests.

I’d been wanting to meet with Wills for quite some time. When my weather forecast app turned me on to some coastal sunshine bathing the coast on a Saturday morning in January, I text messaged Justin, asking if he would be available to meet the next day.“Better make it today. Stormee’s showing signs of labor.”Such is the life of a chef. If that had been me, giving an interview wouldn’t have been something I would have done—calmly—at least, the day before having a child.

Dusk came soon after my drive west, when I was welcomed warmly into Justin and Stormee Wills’ beautiful, Beck dining room. Chilled sparkling water awaited me, and after I sat down and refreshed myself, Justin insisted I meet Stormee, who came in to say hello. She introduced me to Isla, under her sweater, who apparently had a reservation for earth the next day.

While their first child, Becker, was the inspiration for the name of Restaurant Beck, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say Isla might be the name of a future place—perhaps in Portland—where superbly crafted plates featuring the best of Oregon might tantalize natives and visitors, creating memorable Oregon experiences.AFM09-cuisine-justin-wills-pl_opt

The night after our interview I enjoyed just that. It wasn’t the first time I took the Justin Wills tasting menu journey overlooking Whale Cove. Months earlier during a beautiful summertime visit, a group of 10 sat behind us, all of which had ordered the 7-course tasting menu. The chorus of oohs and ahhs and “have you tasted this yet?” was more conspicuous, but no less significant, than the whale spouting off under the setting sun at the entrance to the bay. This all converged at the same time—sensory magic that represents things truly unique—salt- roasted beets and pasilla de Oaxaca gelée accompanying vanilla-cured foie gras. When you meet a humble, James Beard recognized chef orchestrating a magical, artistic food experience, you’ll know you’re in Oregon.

This, to me, is one of the gems in Oregon, and people I talk to generally either don’t know about it, or perhaps they’ve heard about it but they just haven’t made the trip.

We’ve had a lot of people say, “I’ve never heard of you,” even with James Beard awards, Food & Wine articles, and now Starchefs.com. Or this new thing—we get, “How come you’re not more well known?” We’re such a seasonal place. We’re actually really busy tonight, which is rare for January. It’s a pretty tucked-away spot.

What got you out here? How did this happen?

The owners of the Whale Cove Inn, Carl and Vicki Finseth—they called me out of the blue when I was cooking in Denver. There was a little restaurant here before Restaurant Beck was here that just tanked. They heard about me through the grapevine, and after four of five phone calls and a couple of meetings right when the economy was about to go south, they pretty much made us an offer we couldn’t refuse. That’s the short version. So now the long-term goal is to have a second place, one in Portland and one down here.

What was your vision for Restaurant Beck?

The typical coastal fare that you see in the majority of restaurants on the coast—clam chowder, crab cakes, fish & chips—I’m just not that type of restaurant guy. I just don’t get excited about that. So we decided to go with our style of food and see if it works. And it’s worked, you know? I’m surprised.

Please describe your cuisine.

I would say it’s progressive Northwest cuisine. 95% of our ingredients are farmed from local farms here or foraged. We deal with local farms and local ingredients, non-GMO products, and we are 90% gluten free. During our peaks in the spring, summer, and fall, we get a lot of things from the forest and the woods, like mushrooms, herbs, greens, and different types of barks. You name it, we’ve used it.
We still cook our steaks and fish in a pan. We don’t even have a grill here. We have a very small kitchen. But as far as everything else goes, the way we finish a certain dish, we might throw some modern techniques in there. Like our soup tonight—the bisque is made very traditionally, the anchovies are fried very traditionally, but we throw on this little cheese gel. You could grate cheese on top. But why, if there’s another way, another avenue to go down where you can present that visually and still get that flavor?

How did you learn your techniques… powders, gels and barks?

A lot has been self-taught. I haven’t worked in any big name kitchens or under “celebrity chefs” or anything like that. Personally, I’m not a big fan of that term, you know. I think that at the end of the day, we’re all cooks and that’s how we all started. I get bored pretty easy. I’ll come in often and I’ll change it up. It’s really to help keep up the excitement level, help keep these guys that come from around the country working here and keep them into it.AFM09-cuisine-justin-wills-w_opt

Everybody does dishes, everybody cooks, everybody works every station. We don’t have a dishwasher on staff because it’s very, very small. It’s like a closet in there. It keeps you in check in a small space, doing the food that we do.

Is this your first place where you are operating the whole ball of wax?

Yes. I’ve done a lot of executive chef jobs, but this is the first. And so you definitely have to mind your p’s and q’s, watch how you spend your money, and utilize absolutely every single thing you can. And that’s the hardest thing. Second hardest thing, would be trying to find the right people. It’s demanding during certain parts of the year, and you want to keep those people around because they’re excited and talented, but you also have to keep them interested during the wintertime.

What about the lifestyle out here on the coast?

It’s a little slow this time of year. Summertime, I don’t do anything. I work and go home. Or I go to the farm and come home. Or I go down to the docks and come home. The one thing I do miss is being able to go out and grab a bite to eat after work. Depoe Bay turns into a ghost town. About 9 o’clock, doors close. That’s it. And I don’t want to drive to Lincoln City to go to McDonald’s. I’d really like to sit down and have a cocktail, and maybe some good appetizers or something. That’s the major thing I miss about being down here.

Where do you and Stormee like to eat in the area?

You need to try the Noodle Cafe. It’s on the bayfront. From the outside it’s this weird old building, but they do homemade noodles and fun homemade dumplings, and it rivals anything in Portland as far as that type of cuisine goes. For breakfast, Beach Dog Cafe is really, really good. If I had to pick fish & chips, J’s Fish & Chips in Lincoln City is good. If you’re looking for middle of the road, Blackfish Cafe.

Which other places do you think are kicking it in Oregon?

The best man at my wedding flew out with his wife and we stayed up in Portland for a few days and had a really awesome dinner at Le Pigeon. It was a hell of a good meal.

Did you meet Gabriel [Rucker]?

Yeah. He came down here once, and we reciprocated, so to speak.

You’ve got kid number two on the way. For a guy who’s having a kid TOMORROW—you’re relaxed. Very relaxed.

People say I’m relaxed. I’ve had my moments, like anybody. Yeah, so we won’t be going out much in the next six months. I think the next time we’re going out will be in New York City. We’re doing a thing for Travel Oregon in June.

What do you like least about being in Depoe Bay?

The business level, I think, is the major thing from a business perspective. It’s definitely hard. You definitely have to get a good manager, money, and people—basically a good operator, to stay alive, or even stay afloat here.

Does having children change your approach to food? Your feeling about this career? Your passion for it?

Yeah. Passion, no. Approach, yes. You definitely think, “OK. Should you go corporate? Should you go and work in a huge hotel or at a hotel chain or a food and hospitality type corporation?” That’s crossed my mind. We want to get up to Portland for a reason. Business down here isn’t always as busy as we’d like it to be. We make a great living, don’t get me wrong, but I want to do it every single night. Not just during the summer and a couple nights here and there. You think differently when you have a family. But the only thing I really know how to do is I know how to cook, and hopefully I do it well.

When did you first realize that you liked to cook?

When I was 12. I grew up in a pretty large Italian family on the south side of Des Moines. Lots of family dinners. My grandmother would be in the kitchen making polenta or making these great cookies called guantas. It’s basically a deep-fried bread. I spent a lot of time there because my father worked a lot to support the family. My grandmother was always cooking or doing something
in the kitchen. And then at one point I remember being home sick from school, and I discovered
the Discovery Channel’s Great Chefs series. Do you remember those shows?

I didn’t even know the Discovery Channel was around then.

Yeah. Basically it was a camera guy shooting some chefs cook some stuff, and they would have great chefs in Chicago, great chefs in New Orleans, great chefs in Paris, and… whatever. And I found myself watching Great Chefs marathons all day, just watching it. And I knew from that moment that was what I wanted to do.

Did you immediately go into the kitchen?

Oh, yeah! I was always a part of it, but I never thought of it as a career. Back in the late 80s and early 90s the Food Network wasn’t around. Hell, there were no food stations around. I mean, there was nothing, and cable was still attached to a cable. There were no food magazines in our house. Everything was very simple fare, but always homemade. We went out to eat whenever we could, and I think at that point, my mom realized, “OK, he might enjoy food.” And so we went out to the higher-end places in Des Moines occasionally, and I really appreciated it. There’s this place called the Des Moines Embassy Club. They would come out and explain each cheese
to you and say, “What would you like?” in very old classic French style. Everything was, to me, really cool because when you grow up in the Midwest in the 80s, it’s not necessarily a culinary mecca.

When I think of Italian heritage, Des Moines isn’t the first place that comes to mind…

You’d be surprised. There were a lot of us there. There still are. As a kid, I was like, “Oh, we’re going to Graziano’s.” That place had been there since the 1900s. It smelled like Italy when you walked in, and they would have all these things you couldn’t find in a normal grocery store. Back then, polenta came in a tube on the grocery store shelves, you know— “Slice and grill it!” But at Graziano’s, they had cornmeal. They had fennel pollen. They had prosciutto di Parma. All of the things you didn’t see in regular grocery stores. I grew up with that, and a lot of kids didn’t. So I think that maybe inspired me to a point. And then, when I was 17, I went to CIA—probably a bit younger than maybe I should have, but it was good nonetheless.

Where do your customers come from?

We have some locals. Lots of people from Atlanta and Dallas, New York, San Francisco, Seattle… Portland, you know… it’s funny. We get some Portlanders in here. But they definitely let you know when they’re from Portland.

So what’s your plan for Portland?

We’re just getting together a business plan. It’s almost done, but my focus is definitely towards my wife and my family right now for obvious reasons. And then we want to hunt down an investor. It’s the next step, because we really see it as an opportunity to have a really great place here and a really great place there. It would allow for us to come to the coast in the summer, essentially, and then hop back and forth during the rest of the year. Our challenge will be to keep our identity there and keep businesses growing in both places. Portland restaurants definitely follow a certain mold to a point—great food, great environments, and great operators. We are a white tablecloth restaurant, which is pretty hard to find in Portland. We’ll do our own thing well, without following Portland trends.

 

About The Author: Chris Angelus