THE RETURN: Whisknladle
Chef Ryan Johnston is back in the La Jolla kitchen
Pausing is good. It’s wise to strike while the iron will burn the hell out of you. But the potential fallout? Losing sight of the original spark.
Restaurateur Arturo Kassel and chef Ryan Johnston know it.
They made their name with Whisknladle, La Jolla’s farm-to-table spot where an obscene amount of food was made from scratch—salumi, pasta, ice cream, etc. It took DIY food-making to the extreme. More importantly, it tasted great. Local and national media heaped praise.
So, investors in tow, they struck again with Prepkitchen La Jolla—a casual offshoot serving the best of their “shift meals,” daily inspirations cooked by and served to their Whisknladle staff. In an uninspiring lunch scene, Prep was remarkable.
Then came a bigger Prepkitchen in Del Mar. And an even bigger one in Little Italy. Flagship Whisknladle couldn’t help but suffer a bit. Chef Johnston found himself training chefs, organizing kitchens, running a business… pretty much everything except cooking regularly at the spot he made his name.
I tasted the difference. Wow dishes became shoulder shrugs.
The duo was pretty forthcoming about noticing the same. So they paused, rethunk, refocused. Whisknladle needed a comeback, they decided.
So now Johnston is in the kitchen five days a week. At their five-year anniversary dinner last week, the food had that creative spark tempered with the chef’s nose for balancing flavors.
The Brussels sprout salad (squash, Meyer lemon, dill and pecans) was a light-touch wonder. The beef tartare (cornichons, mustard, egg yolk) on toast points showed Johnston’s knack for equilibrium—soft meat with yolk silk, cut with mustard-pucker.
The dish that captured it for me was the bone marrow (with shallots, parsley and lemon zest). These days, Olive Garden’s probably R&D’ing a marrow side dish. But it was WNL’s version that first won me over to the almighty meat-butter. I’d gone back to order it a year ago, though, and—well, it missed Johnston.
But tonight it was excellent, inspired—as was the entire night. Whisknladle felt like the place to put your mouth in San Diego. As it once had been. And, evil forces and fickle food trends notwithstanding, it should become again.
What’s gonna change?
We're changing our menu daily and pushing the boundaries of what we offer—i.e. doing more items for two, swapping chicken for guinea fowl, using more offal, etc. We want to find that balance of making our guests comfortable and pulling one foot out of their comfort zone. The produce in San Diego allows us to offer our summer salad year round—and it’s one of our best sellers. But we don't want to offer something year round. We want people to want to try new things and we want to challenge ourselves to create new dishes that offer a consistent level of enjoyment.
New menu every day? Are you mental? Why?
Because things change. If there's a frost, arugula and spinach die. No matter what we've conceptualized for the menu, we'll have to change it. Or, as soon as English peas are picked from the vine, they turn to starch. If we don’t use them immediately, we lose the chance to serve them at their best. We have to be flexible and we have to be able to think on our feet and be creative when the moment calls for it.
Why is “thinking on your feet” so crucial?
We answer to the farmers. If they tell us something we want isn't good enough to be used, we must be able to come up with something else so our standards (and our diners) don’t suffer. But, it's also about turning a profit. If you can cook with what you have—use your secondary cuts—you become more profitable. We get whole pigs in and it takes us about a week to use all of the different cuts, make the salami, etc. But it minimizes waste, respects the product and helps us get a return on our investment. And this may just be me, but I feel like the energy that goes into a dish when you've just come up with it tastes better.
Current pet peeve about restaurants?
How homogeneous restaurants have become: Edison light bulbs, refurbished wood, typewriter font menus and bone marrow. We're equally guilty of this.
Whisknladle and Prepkitchn—what’s the difference?
We think of Whisknladle as the osteria and Prepkitchen as our trattoria. The technique is more complex at Whisknladle (house-made salami, pickled veg, whole animal butchery), guests take more time at the dinner table and are open to trying more playful items—lesser known cuts of meat or offal. We felt what we were doing at Whisknladle was going against the grain of current trends and fads. We’re loyalists to simple and classic cooking—what we feel is timeless. We pull a lot of inspiration from Escoffier, Richard Olney, Alice Waters and have learned from their examples. Celebrating our five year anniversary, we feel people get what we're about now more than ever before. Prepkitchen offers simpler food in a more casual atmosphere (but still utilizes a lot of the refined techniques in the kitchen as Whisk). If we can make it in house, there isn't a good enough reason not to.
Whisknladle’s won loads of “farm-to-table” awards. How you feeling about that term these days?
It's overused. And it doesn't go into the extent at which people use locally farmed ingredients. But it’s helped distinguish community-based restaurants from larger commercial, corporate brands. And it’s still the best way to communicate what we do to an interested audience. We like to use it because it pays tribute to our farming community. Our food is only as good as the ingredients we use to make it. That’s a universal truth.
Moments of Jules-like mental clarity as a chef/restaurateur?
I have a responsibility to teach real cooking or cooking will die. It's been a real struggle finding cooks that appreciate the basics. Too many want to run before they walk. I take time to teach my cooks the fundamentals because it's important to have a foundation to build upon. We sous vide in our kitchens, but it isn't and will never be used in lieu of knowing how to braise, roast, blanch, etc.
Five years. Proudest moments?
1. Opening Whisknladle and three Prepkitchens and being able to maintain them and a personal life. I met a girl, even.
2. Becoming a partner in a business. That was a goal I set for myself to accomplish by the time I was 32-years-old. Check.
3. I'll never forget a review from (UT editor) Michele Parente that said, "Is there a harder working kitchen than Whisknladle?" before going on to explain all the scratch cooking we do in-house. That was a proud moment.
4. Welcome Thomas Keller into Whisknladle. He ordered everything off the menu and congratulated me in the end.
1. A dishwasher called out because his wife saw a ghost and he needed to be with her.
2. Reopening Prepkitchen Del Mar, Arturo and I had to test out all of the new kitchen equipment. The new flat top [commercial kitchen grill] wasn't working… until it did, backfiring into my face and singing my eyebrows and eye lashes in front of our entire kitchen staff.
3. We received a call one night that Whisknladle was full of smoke. Arturo rushed down into the restaurant and entered the smoky scene to see that someone had left the immersion circulator on overnight in a plastic container. The water had evaporated and the heating coil had begun to melt through the plastic, filling the restaurant with smoke.
Prepkitchen Del Mar burning down. I'll never forget that 5:30AM phone call.
Rituals? War stories? Inside baseball stuff that people don’t know about Whisknladle?
1. Arturo and I disagree almost daily. We aren’t afraid of challenging each other.
2. There's a pep talk before each dining service. We rely on our servers to communicate the passion in the kitchen. It's important that they try the food, hear the chef and be reminded of what sets us apart—every night—before we start the race.
3. We’re big on family meals [for staff during a shift] and it gets a little competitive. We believe our teams should eat great food, not just be expected to make or sell it. It's also a chance for our cooks to show us their style and where their level of technique is at. We've made classics like pot au feu, bouillabaisse and coq au vin. Plus simpler dishes like chicken pot pie and chili with cornbread.
You’ve said you’re going to push your kitchen harder. How so? Whips?
Too many cooks think too much about how pretty a dish is, rather than the flavor of it. We’re teaching our staff to balance flavors through the cooking techniques, like sweetening a dish with caramelized onions or adding acid with pickled veg. Each member of our team, regardless of rank, has a creative responsibility. I listen to ideas from all of my staff and I want to know that they understand and love the food we do here. And our team is expected to take advantage of the in-house tutorials we offer on butchering whole animals, making salami, knife skills, etc.