Decades after Wolfgang Puck and Alice Waters and a slew of other chefs opened restaurants built on fresh produce and a confluence of global flavors, thereby pioneering California cuisine, the Golden State is experiencing a culinary comeback in New York City. Jeremiah Tower, a longtime West Coast chef and mentee of Waters, came here to take on the troubled Tavern on the Green; Jonathan Waxman, another former Waters lieutenant, is reprising Jams; and last year, Stephen Starr teamed up with chef Justin Smillie to open Upland (345 Park Avenue South, 212-686-1006), a modern meditation on what the chef ate growing up in Southern California.
On the whole, the cuisine, says Smillie, “is evolving into adulthood now. More and more people are looking at light cuisine, healthful cuisine, good flavors, and real food.” What started as ingredient-driven fare with an Italian, French, Asian, or Southwestern bent lent style and identity to the larger American canon. “People wanted to go out and have a really nice bottle of wine without having to wear a coat and tie,” says Smillie. “That’s what this California movement did — it removed the pomp and circumstance and religiosity from dining. Dining doesn’t have to be so ritualistic.”
At his own restaurant, Smillie says, dishes “start in the market with the people who grow food for us and bring it to us. Upland is a continuation of a hospitable, warm, and gracious style of service, with fresh simple food. I’m cooking food that I like to eat.”
And food that he’s learned to make over his long career. Smillie lived in Upland, California, until he was fifteen, and became attached to his mother’s garden early. “I fell in love with the smell of tomato leaves,” he says. “I grew up with vegetal, simple food around me.” When his family moved to New Jersey, he took a job as a busboy at a restaurant, and asked to be transferred to the kitchen when he realized the back of house was having more fun. He loved the energy of the kitchen, and he loved being on his feet and working with his hands.
He progressed through better and better restaurants in high school, and then enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America, only to drop out — “I realized that financially, coming out of it, you make $10 an hour,” he says, and he wasn’t ready to face that kind of debt. He moved around a bit, working with Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Tom Colicchio, and Marco Moreira before falling in with Waxman.
Waxman’s cooking and philosophy spoke to him, and Smillie stayed in his kitchens, first at Barbuto and then at Washington Park, and then again at Barbuto, for seven years. “At the time, Barbuto was about what you can remove from a dish as opposed to what can you add,” he says. “At that time, a little over ten years ago, that was kind of radical.”
After he said goodbye, he landed with André Balazs, with whom he opened the Standard and then ran the kitchen at the Sunset Beach hotel out on Long Island for two summers. Here, says Smillie, he learned to attune to what the guest really wanted, and he met purveyors who brought him excellent seafood. When he exited that group, he had plans to help the Red Cat’s Jimmy Bradley with a new spot, but then Bradley got sick, and so the opening was shelved. He met Il Buco owner Donna Lennard as he was trying to figure out his next move, and soon, he was running the show at Il Buco Alimentari e Vineria.
“That was a roller coaster,” he says. “I went from relative anonymity to getting invited to events and having the press talking about everything I was doing. It was another layer, and an unbelievable experience. Pete Wells called us a village, and it really was — there were a lot of people working really hard to curate this special handmade restaurant.” Whereas many of his menus had him starting with fresh produce, Alimentari forced him to start with his pantry — Lennard had long relationships with artisanal olive oil producers in Italy, and so he’d create dishes that could showcase that product and preserve its legacy.
He pulled all of those experiences together when he started talking to Starr and the pair plotted Upland. Smillie was attracted to Starr’s group because the organization and structure gave him support for his creative endeavors, and the group allowed him to function as an entrepreneur. That helped him continue moving upward along his career trajectory. “I always took jobs that I knew were going to take me to that next thing,” he says. “Some was based on what I was going to learn about the business, or what I was going to learn operationally, or food choices.”
And that’s his advice for young cooks getting into the business — move upwards, and cook what you like. “Ask yourself, what five jobs are going to get you to your dream?” he says. “What will make you a well-rounded operator? A well-rounded chef? Help you become a better team leader? Other than that, cook what you’re passionate about, what you like to eat and eventually serve.”
What’s next for Smillie? “To keep developing this — it’s the food that resonates with me the most,” he says. “I’d like this style to become synonymous with who I am. Maybe more restaurants down the line, but who knows. I really love being in the mix every day, and being with the staff. I never really plan too far ahead — I think that’s the holdover from Waxman.”