Countless California chefs cite seasonal produce and farmers-market finds as their muse, but few have tied their fate so intimately to nature’s bounty as Jeremy Fox, the chef at Rustic Canyon Winebar and Seasonal Kitchen. These days, pristine dishes like roasted beets with charred berries and quinoa seem almost effortless when they hit the table at the popular Santa Monica restaurant, but it’s been a long—and at times tormented—journey for the chef to feel so relaxed in the kitchen.
Before taking the helm at Rustic Canyon, Fox transformed Ubuntu, attached to a yoga studio in Napa, into the most important vegetarian restaurant in the United States. “When I worked at Ubuntu—a restaurant where we had our own dedicated garden—I was constantly reminded that these ingredients weren’t just showing up on our doorstep by magic,” he recalls. “They’re not made in a factory. There’s actual people who are working hard and making what you do possible.”
The chef sees seasonality, and the general unpredictability of what’s available, as inspiration instead of an obstacle. Like any true creative, he knows when to innovate, when to improvise, and when to practice restraint. He also knows the darker side of obsession, and looks back on his maniacal pursuit of excellence in these years as a near-fatal experience.
Cooking is the only thing that ever seemed normal.
After garnering worshipful praise for his vegetable-focused cuisine, the chef left Ubuntu in February 2010. In an interview for Lucky Peach, Fox explains the toll that working at the restaurant took on him: “I had lost about 40 pounds, literally going days without sleeping, and working on a cookbook that never happened. I probably would have died if I had kept going much longer.”
Even as Fox teetered on the brink of collapse, he realized he couldn’t abandon the kitchen entirely. “It wasn’t an easy time, and I didn’t necessarily want to keep cooking, but I think some of it was as simple as: this was all I knew how to do, so I better figure it out.” He moved to L.A. to reset, and bounced around for a bit before landing at Rustic Canyon in 2013. “It was a matter of figuring out what I did love about cooking and why it was something that I wanted to do my whole life. Cooking is the only thing that ever seemed normal.”
Since coming to Los Angeles, Fox has let go of the unrealistic pressure he placed on himself during his time in Napa. He’s also shown a knack for refracting his ingredient-focused approach through the prism of L.A.’s diverse foodscape, leading to knockout dishes like his pozole verde with clams. He’s happy at Rustic Canyon, and feels at home. “I don’t want to leave. I don’t want to open more restaurants. I just want to work here until I’m like 70 with the same people, and have a bunch of 60-year-old line cooks that have been with me for forty years.”
Angelenos should consider themselves extremely lucky. From an eye-opening turkey-and-aioli sandwich, to his signature pozole verde at Rustic Canyon, here are 10 foods that kept Fox looking forward.
Grandmother’s Beef Tongue Pot Roast
My grandmother’s parents were from Hungary, but she grew up in Philadelphia. Most of my family didn’t eat my grandmother’s pot roast, which she did with beef tongue—it was pretty much just my grandfather and I. And I think I only ate it because I wanted to be like him, but I really did enjoy it. The tongue was served in thick slices, not sliced thin like it would be at a deli. Beef tongue is still one of my favorite meats. I love the flavor and texture; it’s just so tender, but it doesn’t fall apart. (Photo: paleonick.com)
Progresso Lentil Soup
My mom would heat up Progresso lentil soup and add a ton of garlic powder and fake parmesan to it, so it got super thick and was garlicky and cheesy. It’s not a fancy food, and it wasn’t even homemade, but it was always a treat. I haven’t had it since my mom made it for me, but I would definitely eat it again. (Photo: Progresso)
“Breast Years of Our Lives” Sandwich at Oxford Books (Atlanta, GA)
When I was in high school in Atlanta, Georgia there was a small chain of bookstores called Oxford Books. The bookstore cafe had this sandwich called “Breast Years of Our Lives”—it was sliced turkey with alfalfa sprouts and avocado, and it had aioli on it. At the time, I didn’t know what aioli was, I didn’t know how it was different from mayonnaise. Twenty years ago, that was super fancy and sophisticated—it was something new. That opened my eyes to food and wanting to understand what other things were out there. It piqued my interest in terms of wanting to find out more about different foods. (Photo: Hometown Seeds)
Pecan-Crusted Chicken Breast at Anson Restaurant (Charleston, SC)
While I was going to culinary school, I got a job at Anson Restaurant in Charleston as a line cook, working for Mike Lata [current chef/partner at FIG]. He had just taken over, but hadn’t necessarily put his stamp on the restaurant yet. One dish on the menu was pecan-crusted chicken breast with blackberry sauce and whipped carrots. It’s not the most exciting dish, but it was in the sense that I was a young cook and it was my first time on the line, and the dish had a lot of variables. First you’re breading the chicken with flour, egg, and bread crumbs—and you’re making sure to do it neatly. When you cook it in the pan, you’re making sure the pan’s not too hot so you don’t burn it. You’re making sure you have enough oil in the pan so it doesn’t burn, and you’re making sure the chicken’s cooked through. You can’t necessarily feel if it’s cooked by touching it, because it’s covered in crispy breadcrumbs. I think that was a good practice dish to start out on the line with. (Photo: Facebook)
Strawberry Gazpacho at Manresa (Los Gatos, CA)
The strawberry gazpacho at Manresa was really simple, but it was the mindset of tomatoes aren’t in season, but I can replace tomatoes with strawberries, and it works that was eye-opening for me. It was eye-opening to see that juxtaposition, and how you could replace one ingredient with the other and it mimics the original. The gazpacho was served as an amuse, in a little cup. It was a completely raw product of strawberries, cucumber, bell pepper, a little garlic—and everything was just macerated together and puréed. It was garnished with a fine brunoise of strawberries and peppers, as well as balsamic vinegar. When I first started at Manresa, we were getting the strawberries from Dirty Girl in Santa Cruz. (Photo: Flickr/Ulterior Epicure)
Langoustines & Mayonnaise at St. John
My entire meal at St. John in London was memorable. There was langoustines with mayonnaise, Welsh rarebit, brains on toast with green sauce, bone marrow and parsley salad—which is legendary—and a chitterlings and dandelion dish. Everything was so simple, and pretty light and clean and completely unfussy. I staged in the kitchen there, and I remember one dish that I picked up on the line was teenage carrots—like way bigger than baby carrots, pretty much close to full-sized carrots, with the green still attached so in span they were about three-feet long. The carrots were unpeeled, on a plate, with a hard-boiled egg still in its shell and a dollop of mayonnaise, and that was the dish. There was no pretense, it was just: these are carrots, and this is an egg—we’re not even going to crack it—and here’s some really good mayonnaise. I thought it was a great dish. I think I am [really into mayo], but I wasn’t for a long time, until probably age 16. I refused to eat it because I had a babysitter once who made me eat a bowl of warm mayonnaise, so that ruined mayonnaise for a good chunk of my life. (Photo: Jason Lowe)
“Rock Out” Vegetables at Manresa
When I was still at Manresa, we would have vegetarians come in, and I took on the responsibility of doing the food for them. At the time there wasn’t a set menu, so I would do a vegetable entrée and it would just be a huge plate with twenty to thirty different vegetables on it. We called it a “rock out” because I would rock out and do these big plates. It was kind of a reference to jamming on stage; it was always different. I think that was me getting into the thought of vegetables and seeing how much I enjoyed doing it. I remember doing an impromptu vegetable dish with braised black radish and porcini, and a diner enjoyed it so much they ended up sending a letter to the restaurant saying how good it was. That was really nice. (Photo: Yelp)
Cauliflower in a Cast-Iron Pot at Ubuntu (Napa, CA)
When I was doing a tasting for the job at Ubuntu, I did a dish that basically got me the job. The working title—what I wrote down—was “cauliflower in a cast-iron pot.” That dish was on the menu at Ubuntu from day one, it never changed, and it was definitely the signature dish. It was a little black stone pot that was filled with a mixture of creamy cauliflower purée, and chopped caramelized cauliflower flavored with vadouvan curry brown butter, with raw cauliflower, cilantro, and sometimes citrus when in season. It was served with little crostini that were brushed with brown butter before toasting, which you dipped in this creamy, bubbly, buttery, curried cauliflower. It was making something that was really humble and common into something decadent, while still being vegetarian. It was a good crossover dish. (Photo: Yelp)
Lavender Almonds at Ubuntu/Rustic Canyon
I had them [Marcona almonds tossed with lavender sugar and sea salt] on the menu at Ubuntu, and they’re on the menu at Rustic Canyon as well. They led to me meeting my wife. I was in L.A. trying to figure out what I wanted to do, and I was thinking about maybe packaging the almonds. She was a food buyer for a cheese bar, and she’d had them before at Ubuntu, and she ended up buying them for the restaurant. That’s how I met her, and then we got married a couple years later. (Photo: Rick Poon)
Clam Pozole Verde at Rustic Canyon
This is more or less the signature dish at Rustic Canyon. It’s clams that have been cooked out of their shell in a broth made of the clam cooking liquid, with a raw purée of Poblano peppers, jalapeño, garlic, olive oil, vinegar, and cilantro. It’s got hominy, some Rancho Gordo beans, tortillas, and radishes. I think I was attempting to do an L.A. dish. It was on the sample menu I gave to Josh Loeb, the owner of Rustic Canyon. It was the one on the list that he flipped out about the most—even though I had no idea how I was going to do it at the time. It just came together and it seemed to be that kind of dish that set the tone for what the rest of the menu was going to follow suit with. (Photo: Jeremy Fox)