Great cooking is a fine balance between art and science, and at its best is created with a sharp focus and consummated with a generous display of passion. Local culinary master and rising gastronomical star chef Whitney Werner is bestowed with these qualities in spades, and I recently sat with him over coffee as he shared his thoughts on the joy of cooking in his current role as Executive Chef at Santa Monica’s exclusive Beach Club.
An avid surfer to this day, chef Whitney is a genuine Westside native. Raised and educated in Santa Monica and Brentwood, he subsequently attended the prestigious Culinary Institute of America in New York and served his apprenticeship at Tavern on the Green in Central Park.
Chef Whitney has since honed his culinary skills in a variety of international venues including The Ambassador Hotel in Taipei, Taiwan, the Kauai Hilton in Hawaii, and more locally at Diaghilev at the Bel Age Hotel in West Hollywood, as well as sharing his expertise as an instructor at the Los Angeles Culinary Institute in Burbank.
I asked chef Whitney how he keeps a menu fresh and alive and what research he does for new ideas in the kitchen. “I can get inspiration from a variety of places, even from a local coffee shop or hot dog stand. It’s important to constantly be aware and open to new things.” He also said that “the Internet is invaluable” and that he incorporates many Google updates on his website, chefwhitney.com.
In the kitchen, chef Whitney believes that it is vital to encourage his aides to learn. “I like to be a teacher,” he said, “it’s important to share information.” At that moment he took a call on his cell phone, and it turned out to be a colleague asking advice about the preparation of Boston Cream Pie. His eyes took on a deliberate focus as he rattled off a couple of recipes with the ease with which most of us share our addresses, and the speed of an auctioneer in full flight. Indeed, always the teacher.
One of chef Whitney’s interests is the relatively new art of Deconstruction Cuisine. “Deconstruction is the process of taking a traditional dish and reconfiguring it, giving equal importance to each element of the dish. In other words, there is no ‘Center of the Plate’ or hierarchy to the elements. So a classic Indian chicken curry dish might change to something like chicken consommé, coconut gelee, curry ice cream, raisin-onion relish, and banana crisp. You might be saying, ‘Where’s the chicken?’ But rather than having an oversized, gluttonous piece of protein on the plate, you simply have another small and tasty dish.” Added chef Whitney, “It may not become mainstream, but it certainly has its place.”
Chef Whitney is not one to rest on his laurels. “I recently took a five-week course culminating in an examination that furthered my knowledge in healthy cuisine, including Mediterranean, Arab Levant, and North African cooking styles, and have incorporated some of these dishes in my menu at the Beach Club, including a Chicken Tagine, a Moroccan chicken dish cooked with preserved lemons, olive, and saffron. I am also further expanding sustainable qualities in my cooking.”
When asked the best advice he would give to an aspiring executive chef he responded, “Know what you don’t know.” He continued to explain that he lives by a quote from world-renowned chef Thomas Keller, who said, “I don’t like to call myself a master chef, I prefer to see myself as a monk on a continuous journey of perfection.”
Chef Whitney then invited me to join him later in the day to sample some of his creations, and so that evening my palate was pampered with a delicious French onion soup, an outstanding beet salad with goat cheese, and an Asian tuna tartar stack that was quite simply…perfect.
Below is the recipe for that very same Asian tuna tartare stack for you to try at home.
Asian Tuna Tartare Stack
Rainbow micro-green mix
Fried wonton skin
Sriracha chili sauce
2 oz. chopped frozen blue fin tuna #1
Pinch sea salt/kosher salt
Dash virgin olive oil
Thicken a basic room temperature teriyaki sauce of soy, water, sugar, ginger, and garlic by adding cornstarch (bottled teriyaki glaze will work)
Wasabi powder, mixed to paste
Champagne vinegar (to taste)
Salt and pepper
Thin Wasabi paste to sauce consistency with cream, and season to taste with vinegar, salt, and pepper
3:1 oil to acid
Pomace olive oil
Salt and pepper
Place square mold on plate
Fill bottom with tuna
Top with teriyaki and Wasabi cream
Top with rice
Toss micro-greens with vinaigrette
Top with fried julienne wonton
Design the plate with the Sriracha sauce, teriyaki sauce, and Wasabi cream