Rustic Canyon Winebar and Seasonal Kitchen restaurateur Josh Loeb has gone on to open several other Santa Monica concepts with pastry chef/wife Zoe Nathan and the Rustic Canyon Family of Restaurants, including Huckleberry Bakery & Café, Milo & Olive, Sweet Rose Creamery, Cassia, and Esters Wine Shop & Bar, but Rustic Canyon remains the group’s seasonal touchstone. To start 2013, they welcomed chef Jeremy Fox, previously with revered Bay Area restaurants like Manresa and Ubuntu. To celebrate, talented chef friends join them in the kitchen for three anniversary dinners – October 3 (Out of Town Friends), November 7 (Local Friends) and December 8 (History of Rustic Canyon) – with the final dinner falling on their actual 10th anniversary. I recently met Loeb and Fox at Rustic Canyon’s bar, where they reflected on the restaurant’s progression, growth, identity, and future.
Josh Lurie: Josh, what were your initial goals with Rustic Canyon?
Josh Loeb: To open a great farm-to-table restaurant was something I felt like I had seen living in Berkeley, living in New York, a place that made everything by hand and used the best ingredients, but wasn’t stuffy. You could come in jeans and a T-shirt, or you come in a suit to celebrate your anniversary and have a crazy bottle of wine. I wanted to have that everything place, which I feel like I have.
JL: The notion persists that it’s a wine bar. You lead with that in the name. Do you still see it that way?
Loeb: I’ve been thinking of taking Winebar out of the name. It’s grown into so much more. We now have a real wine bar and wine shop in Esters. Sometimes people – especially if they’re writing about it – that’s the only time it really comes up…Especially with Jeremy’s food, the restaurant’s become so much more than that. Wine Bar doesn’t actually do it justice, but at the beginning, the reason I had Winebar in there was because I wanted it to be thought of as a friendly, casual place, not a restaurant that would intimidate. I still want that, but I feel like we’ve achieved that now, just with 10 years of people experiencing it. Now it’s a little unnecessary.
JL: Josh and Jeremy, how did you end up meeting, and what appealed to you about working with each other?
Jeremy Fox: We met a year or two before I actually started. We had briefly talked about doing something, but it wasn’t the right time. December of 2012, I was doing this pop-up, and Josh and Zoe came into eat. They were looking for a chef. I was looking for a job. That’s how it started. We talked about it for several weeks and made it official.
JL: Why was it such a good fit?
Loeb: We were both kind of vulnerable at the time, to be completely honest. As a restaurant, we had gone from two great chefs who were really important for the time – Evan Funke and Samir Mohajer – and we were going through an odd period, and it wasn’t really the right time. Jeremy was going through a transitional period for him personally, and in his career. He was looking for the right fit, and we were looking for the right chef. One thing about Rustic, I never wanted it to be one kind of food. I wanted it to reflect these principles of seasonality and craftsmanship, but I wanted it to go where whoever the most talented person available could take it, as long as it was warm and unpretentious. We had a lot of people cook for us. It was not even close. Jeremy was so much more talented than any person who came in our kitchen, and there were some really good people there. I felt like he’s on another level.
Fox: I did overcook the pork.
Loeb: You did overcook the pork, but everyone overcooks the pork. Evan [Funke] overcooked the pork when he did his tasting. Erin [Eastland] overcooked the pork when she did her tasting.
JL: What was on the menu for your audition?
Fox: Carrots with carrot top pesto. Shaved apple and kohlrabi salad. Beets.
JL: How would you say that Rustic Canyon has evolved since you arrived?
Fox: I’ve evolved since then. What I wanted with Rustic Canyon was to start a new chapter, maybe go in a different direction in terms of my food. I didn’t necessarily have a map for that. There wasn’t a strategy involved, but over time, it evolved to a place where it almost didn’t matter who was in the kitchen. There was a style that was Rustic Canyon that could be interpreted by any number of people, but the ethos and what it was, and the philosophy, was imprinted already.
JL: What have you learned from Josh and Zoe about running restaurants?
Fox: I’ve learned how to run a successful restaurant, that doesn’t hemorrhage money. It’s a place where people enjoy coming to work every day. Anything superfluous has been stripped away. What we’re looking for is just to be really great. Obviously not perfect. Anytime you have that as a goal, you’re going to fail. Just a really great restaurant with really great food that makes people happy, a restaurant that makes people feel welcome, and there’s nowhere else they’d rather be at that moment.
JL: What’s the criteria for a dish that would go on your menu?
Fox: The criteria for a dish, it just has to taste good. That’s it. If it looks great, that’s awesome, but what I think of as a beautiful presentation has definitely changed in the last five years. I just see the beauty in something, whatever it is, whether it’s roasted chicken with greens and a little bit of jus. That’s a great dish to me. I’m happy with that. As long as it’s great chicken, great product, whatever goes with it, it doesn’t matter. We’ve moved away from conceptual dishes, like, “This is my take on this.” That bores me now. Windrose [Farm] has this right now and Coleman [Family Farm] has this? That’s what is going to go on the chicken. You’re not going to go wrong. You can make some questionable combinations, but that’s just common sense. As long as you have good ingredients, they’re going to go well together.
JL: It appears that you’ve become known for intricate, interesting family meals.
Fox: I don’t even do them. I just take pictures of them.
JL: Tell me about that tradition, and what that process is like.
Fox: At Ubuntu in Napa, we didn’t even do family meal. When I started here, family meal wasn’t satiating. It was what it should be, clearing out the walk-in. There wasn’t a structure in place. You’re here 10, 12 hours a day, you want it to be really good. We weren’t buying anything for it. It got to a point where I took away family meal for a week or week and a half and said, “We’ve got to rethink this.” It wasn’t permanent, but something’s got to give. What if we gave the cooks a modest budget of what they could spend? They’re still using things that need to be utilized, but they could bring in tough cuts, off cuts, things like that, that are inexpensive. It gave people an outlet to do what they wanted to do. I have to guide the cooks, “Cook this, this way. This is how I want you to do this.” With the family meal, I didn’t tell them what they had to do. They were able to cook what they wanted as long as they stayed within the budget and made enough food for everybody. It was good for me because I got to see what everybody’s natural abilities were, which could help me guide the menu. This person’s really strong with doughs, we could do more with breads. Since we change our menu all the time, I can kind of do that. That was really useful for me. It was a friendly competition. People wanted to make the best family meal. They would come in and spend a little bit of time each day working on it, so the day they had to do it, it wasn’t all the work being done. It was just a great source of pride, and I started taking pictures of it. I did a hashtag for it, and that got more of a following than the food I was doing here on a daily basis. People love that family meal stuff, and I got to enjoy the benefits of just getting to eat it.
JL: What will family meals lead to, and what has it led to so far? Have dishes made the menu?
Fox: Yeah, for sure. Dishes have made the menu. Even if it’s just components, that’s how the green sauce for the posole happened. I had a concept for this clam posole, but I didn’t know what it was. We had this sauce; if you put this in with the cooking liquid at the end, it tastes great.
One of the cooks did this avocado crema with some sort of taco. It was awesome, we use that from time to time and morphed that into a sort of green goddess dressing. The cooks have worked in other places, they’ve cooked with other chefs, and they have their own repertoire. A lot of it is stuff that I haven’t been exposed to, so it’s a learning experience for me too. I’ve worked in fancy places, but until last year I never made stuffing before. A lot of basic home-style things, I’ve never really done and have had a chance to work into my regular repertoire.
JL: What was the process and inspiration for the most recent dish that made the menu?
Fox: Some of it is just what’s really good right now, what’s the best at the market. Sometimes, it’s myself, my chef de cuisine and sous chef, we meet every Friday. That’s our creative meeting. What do we want to learn? What do we want to teach ourselves? What do we want to do? That turned into pate en croute, which is something we’re kind of obsessed with. We’ve got one we’ve got to cut into today that looks beautiful. Sausages. There’s duck prosciutto. There’s sauerkraut. Olives are brining. There’s a slow food stuff that’s more the direction we’re into. It’s not just get this ingredient, cut it up, put it in a pan, and put it on a plate. We’re putting a lot more time into it.
JL: Who gets to work at Rustic Canyon, and what attributes do these people have to have? Has that changed in the last decade?