Jesse Barber is the Executive Chef of a humble restaurant near the beach in Venice, California, called Barnyard. I first met him through Summit Series—an organization dedicated to fostering entrepreneurship, addressing global issues, and now proud owners of a mountain in Eden, Utah, where Summit is permanently headquartered. For a couple of years now, Jesse and I have crossed paths fairly often. And these paths always involve food: whether we’re making plans for a tech startup in the food space, chopping onions for 100 guests in Utah, or I’m eating at one of his restaurants. I admire his no-BS approach, his extreme work ethic and, above all, his incredible talent as a chef.
Today I am sitting at his restaurant before opening the doors for dinner. When Jesse and I first met, our lives were much different; Life & Thyme didn’t exist and neither did Barnyard. So it was exciting to catch up and hear the full story behind the raw nature of this young, ambitious chef.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up primarily in Oregon, but I’m from LA originally. My parents moved to Oregon to live a simpler life—right after the LA riots. I did some college but I didn’t last very long. I kinda had no idea what I wanted to do. A friend of mine was going up to Portland for culinary school and I thought that was a great idea.
I love to eat, and I don’t want to be in an office. The career path I had chosen was psychology—both of my parents are psychologists. I realized I don’t empathize with people like someone who is trying to help other people should.
Where did you attend culinary school?
I ended up attending Western Culinary Institute in Portland (Le Cordon Bleu). I think on my first day of school I was juggling some brand new knives and cut myself. Of all the dumb things somebody can do, I was definitely doing most of them. I really liked the hands-on opportunities culinary school afforded me but I had never experienced having a trade before.
My first experience at a restaurant was an internship at the best restaurant in the world—at the time—The French Laundry. At that point, I had no idea what The French Laundry was.
How did you land at The French Laundry?
I spoke at my graduation and graduated with honors at the top of my class. One of my teachers really liked me and said, “you should apply to this place”. And I said, “okay, I will apply to this place”. I had no idea.
I started at Bouchon and then I would work at French Laundry a couple days and then back to Bouchon. A lot of back and forth. But it was amazing. I slept for two hours in a closet, woke up and did a military shower and hosed myself off, then two hours later I would work another 20 hour shift. It was nuts. I had no idea what I was doing but I could not foresee myself doing anything else.
I was living in Yountville, which was like seven miles away—door to door—from the restaurant and this house I was staying at. My mom helped me find this house through her church or something. I just had to cook for this old lady. I would ride my bike—it was a 45 minute bike ride each way. That bike ride saved my life. If I hadn’t been exercising, I would have died. I don’t know how the other guys did it. They all drove and chain smoked.
What was your role at the kitchen?
I was what was called a commis. I put away produce for the first six weeks, peeled fava beans, picked parsley, anything and everything. I did a lot of sweeping, cleaning, and scrubbing. Then after about a month, they put me on the oyster station at Bouchon. That was really fun. I never shucked an oyster before. The first time I did it, I stabbed myself really, really bad. Every once in a while, when I start shucking oysters, my joint will pop out of place and I have to pop it back into place. My final night at Bouchon, I got to work the fish station for like 45 minutes—I just got crushed.
There is something to be said about those restaurants. Even the air feels different.
It’s the sense of perfection that’s all around you. It’s almost crushing. You walk into a room and all of the table cloths are straight and all the menus are exactly in line. You just walk around and you’re like, “wow, someone really has an OCD problem.” But it’s great and I love it.
It’s the sense of perfection that’s all around you. It’s almost crushing.
What came next after Bouchon and The French Laundry?
I went to Per Se—worked there for one week. There was an electrical fire in the building six days after we had originally opened. I ended up staying in New York for three months and then lived in Eugene for a while and worked at a restaurant called Marché for about three years. Then moved to Portland and worked at a restaurant called Blue Hour.
At a certain point, I decided that I wasn’t growing at these restaurants and I was just partying a whole bunch. I wasn’t really taking it seriously. Then I quit my three jobs and got hired as a line cook at a restaurant called Clarklewis. Dan Mattern—who is now the chef at Cooks County in Beverly Hills—and his wife Roxanna moved to Portland and took over Clarklewis. They were very inspirational and making me slow down and take things seriously. That’s how I met my wife, Celia.
Then I worked at a ramen shop for a year and one of my friends called me and asked “what are you doing in two weeks?” I said “I’m making ramen. What are you doing in two weeks?” He said “I’m opening up a restaurant in Los Angeles, do you want to come and do it with me?”
So I moved to LA. I was living in Silverlake and traveled to Venice to work at Tasting Kitchen. I was there for two-and-a-half to three years. Left and did some private events, had two catering companies, and did some weird pop-ups.
Michael Hebb from Summit Series called me and was like, “what are you doing with your life right now?” I said I was doing a series of grilled cheese pop-ups. He said, “that’s really cool. Do you want to stop doing that dumb shit and come hang out with me?” I asked if it paid and he said yes. I asked where he was and he said, “Utah, my friend. Utah.”
I believe it was around the time we met.
Right. It was right around then. They had gotten a giant house in the middle of nowhere in Utah. I flew in, rented a car, and got a phone call on my way from Salt Lake City and they said, “We don’t have anything to cook with, or on. We don’t have anything”. They took a photo of their AmEx, texted it to me, and I went to a restaurant supply store. I called some people in the industry that I knew and begged, borrowed, and pleaded and I got enough food, cooking equipment, and a cleaning crew to help me pull off a dinner for 150 people that evening.
I came back to Los Angeles and they ended up calling me like three days later and said, “Hey, we want to hire you as our chef. Do you want to come out and do this for a year?” So I was back and forth for Summit Series.
Then I got married and wanted to be in LA and be near my wife. I needed a bit of a break and took two months off. Then got a phone call and was offered Barnyard. We opened the restaurant 30 days after I was hired, which is kind of a crazy timetable.
What is the concept behind Barnyard?
Simple, honest food. It’s kind of whatever I think of for that day. I usually get here around 9am and walk into the walk-in and see what’s fresh and nice. My farmers start delivering to me around 10:30 or 11 which gives me a couple hours to chop shallots and have some preliminary ideas. My seafood will show up around 1 o’clock and by then, I kind of have a basic idea. I don’t have much knowledge of what is coming in every day.
Simple, honest food. It’s kind of whatever I think of for that day.
How would you describe the food?
It’s really mediterranean. There is definitely some French and a lot of Italian. There is a little bit of Moroccan and a little bit of Japanese, as well. It follows California cuisine because I am using food from California.
I wanted a place that I could go eat at with my friends and just have a beer at the bar and not break the bank. What goes along best with a beer or a great glass of wine are small plates. It’s more about the drinking culture and a community that can afford to hang out together.
What are some of the plates you offer at Barnyard?
We do a braised octopus with fresh chickpeas. I love fish, so we do a crudo and a daily catch. They change everyday and sometimes twice a day. We’ll go through half of service with one fish set and then I decide halfway through that I don’t like it and I change it. The staff is never really happy with me when I do that.
I’ll go to the market and buy these beautiful peppers and I eat them. Maybe I won’t use them that day, but I’ll be thinking about what that pepper tasted like, what it wanted, and its highlights. The other night we did a lamb dish—lamb links with lamb chop—and took some red lipstick peppers. We roasted them, took the skins off, and chopped them up, and added a little bit of olive oil, some sherry vinegar and shallot, and some really nice big clumps of feta. The flavor combination was so great because you got this almost spicy but not spicy pepper, and the salt and the texture of the feta really lent itself to the soft texture of the pepper and the texture of the lamb.