After almost ten years as the wizard of Hollins House restaurant, chef John-Paul Lechtenberg is taking his skills into a bold new arena at the new Venus Spirits Cocktails & Kitchen, scheduled to open in April. I caught up with the 32-year-old chef—and brand-new father—to find out how this new gig came about.
“I’d heard about the plans to open the place, and was interested in the idea of a new restaurant on the Westside where I have a lot of family,” he told me.
Lechtenberg contacted entrepreneur Sean Venus, and got the job—“we met and hit it off.” The chef told me his goal is ultimately to own his own restaurant, and “this was a great opportunity—getting it all started, being involved in the trouble shooting, and being able to add my own expression from the beginning.”
With experience at Spruce, Hayes Street Grill, and Au Midi, Lechtenberg wasn’t interested in joining a group whose ideas were already set in stone.
“Here it’s a collaboration of the whole team,” he says.
Stripe Design Group is orchestrating optics for the 100-seat restaurant, and overseeing the front of the house will be Catreina McGovert, who most recently opened the Jack O’Neill Lounge in the Dream Inn.
Asked about the trickiness of designing a menu to pair with liquor, Lechtenberg says, “that’s the cool thing. Since this is craft spirits, I like to zoom into the underlying ingredients in the liquors, rather than just putting liquor into the foods.” With the celebrated Venus Gin No.2, for instance, the chef was interested in exploring the gin’s spices, florals and berries, and utilizing those in recipe experimentation.
The new Venus restaurant’s culinary story could be called “Americana,” and Lechtenberg points to our melting-pot culture. “Especially here in California,” he says. “We have everything —Spanish, French, Native American. This is an American restaurant. There are no walls as far as where we’ll go, but it will be refined in the sense of using the best of the season. Absolutely no limits to what we’re planning.”
Lechtenberg made it a point to add that he was looking forward to bringing in new cooks to learn and grow—“I want the kitchen to be a learning environment.” From the new Venus dining room, we can expect “cocktails that complement the food and food that complements the cocktails.” The focus will be on shared plates, says the chef. “Meals can begin with bar snacks and then move on to shared entrees. Communal dining will be encouraged. I married into a Greek family where entrees are always shared.”
Slow Food Santa Cruz
If you hurry you can catch an all-star tasting from artisan cheesemakers paired with fine craft beers on Thursday, January 16, from 4:30-7pm at Staff of Life Market, 1266 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. Expect to sample cheeses from France, Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, the UK, and California and learn tasty details from the producers themselves. Should be a terrific opportunity to expand your palate at one of our natural foods landmarks.
January is Mushroom Month (for obvious meteorological reasons), so check out the mushroom special this month at Barceloneta—grilled mushrooms encircling a Spanish-style fried egg, and dusted with parsley-garlic ajillo with black truffles. Si!