Interview

Justin Wills – Chef Owner of Restaurant Beck + Sorella

Photographs courtesy of Jannie Huang and the Whale Cove Inn.

Tell us a bit about your career history and how you ended up in Oregon?

I knew by age 12 that I wanted to be a chef, but at the time growing up in Iowa the culinary scene wasn’t what it is now. I worked at one restaurant there for a bit, then went to The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY graduating in 1997.  From there I worked in Mendocino, CA, Park City, UT, Dallas, TX, Denver, CO, Bend, OR, Portland, OR and now I currently own two restaurants on the Oregon Coast: Restaurant Beck and Sorella.

Who are some chefs you consider mentors?

I would say my first chef, the one who showed me the ropes as a very very green cook would be Mark Dym.  The other would be Scott Neuman with whom I worked with at Oba Restaurante in Portland, OR, he is now the chef of Jaspers in Houston. He taught be a great deal on the day to day operations of the restaurant business. As far as Chefs that I would consider to be a mentor, even though, I have never worked for him would be Charlie Trotter, his books for me, when I was a very young age was eye opening for come coming from Iowa.

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How did you partnership with Whale Cove Inn develop?  

Stormee, my wife and co-owner, and I were approached by the GM of the Whale Cove Inn in April of 2009. After a month or so of conversations we came to an agreement. We opened Restaurant Beck, named after my son, Becker in June of 2009.

How would you describe the food you’re doing there?

You know, my personal answer would be progressive local. Progressive, meaning we cross paths between modern cooking techniques and modern classic French techniques.  Local, being that we buy probably 90% of the ingredients we use from Lincoln County.

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What is the best part of running a destination restaurant.

I would say running a destination restaurant is very hard under that title.  The cool thing is though once season gets up and running we get to see our die hard fans who show up during the months of April and October

What are the challenges?

Having 65% of our sales be during our season and being a destination restaurant. Also, there are challenges when you own, operate, raise a family, etc with your spouse. Our love is strong…but honestly it can be frustrating for both us.

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Last summer you opened Sorella, a more casual restaurant.  How’s that experience been different?

This experience has been great.  It’s faster paced and much less expensive, focusing on handmade Italian Cuisine.  Sorella is a much larger restaurant, 75 seats compared to 30 at Beck. I love our bar down there, it has proved a very creative avenue for our bartenders to  really work their craft. We definitely do things team driven down there. Stormee and I may be at the top on paper, but we have some of the best employees on the coast and it allows the select few to be creative.  It’s refreshing….when I am not replacing a water heater! 

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Can you tell us about a dish you are excited about right now?

With spring in full swing right now we are seeing a lot of wild greens foraged locally… so an upcoming dish will be called “Gazpacho” it consists of cucumber water combined with juiced wild watercress, seasoned with wild herbs of oxalis and miners lettuce. We finish the whole thing off with house made kefer, puffed black rice, compressed rhubarb and peach, Oregon extra virgin olive oil….and this dish is a sign that more wild herbs are on their way and it will eventually become a dish called “seeds and shoots”….that’s a whole other paragraph.

Any favorite ingredients or purveyors you are working with right now?

Right now anything from the forest.  Purveyor wise: Forest Foragers, Newell Seafoods, and Amazon is great being in a rural area.

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Essential kitchen tools?

My Takamura R2 is awesome. Then the ‘Luna’ Spoon from World Market…perfect for saucing, quenelles, and rocher.

Can you share some recommendations for dining in Oregon and elsewhere?

For Sushi: Zilla in PDX, For overall experience: Departure, For meat, meat and more meat: OX. Mexican: La Roca in Lincoln City. Cafe Boulud in NYC…and that’s about it…I don’t get out much…business and family keep us very busy!