PCH — Chef Whitney Werner makes his bacon doing more than making bacon.
During his 25-plus years in the hospitality industry he has taken a thoroughly unconventional approach to his role as chef that has brought him financial success and praise from his peers.
“When it comes to chefs, people are always talking about what we call added value,” Werner said. “Essentially, what else are you bringing to the table besides putting food on the plate?”
After 15 years of study and service with the American Culinary Federation, the chef has shaped his responsibilities around a philosophy of collaboration and innovation.
Encouraging chefs to consider and contribute to the overall dining experience of their restaurants, Werner has mixed in his experience as a hotel development and hospitality consultant with his proven skills in the kitchen and emerged a leader in his field.
Earlier this month he was selected to receive the ACF’s regional Chef Professionalism Award, and he will be vying for the national distinction in July.
He is also president of the ACF’s Los Angeles chapter, and has been recognized for his leadership efforts with a number of regional and national awards over the last decade.
But before he could lead, Werner had to cook his way to the top.
He began his career bussing tables and scooping ice cream in Santa Monica, eventually working his way into the kitchens of local landmarks of old including Clancy Muldoo’s and Gulliver’s.
“At Gulliver’s I was the Yorkshire pudding man,” Werner said of one of his first kitchen jobs. “I didn’t know it at the time, but there were tremendous skills being leaned, even at that stage. I had to guess the business coming in the door so I could keep the pudding hot and fresh without throwing any out. You never know what you’re learning at the time when it doesn’t seem like it.”
After graduating from Santa Monica High School, Werner attended the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY and completed an apprenticeship at Tavern on the Green.
“At Tavern on the Green we would do 1,500 a la carte dinners on Saturday nights. It was another amazing factory,” Werner said, explaining that his experience in large, fast moving kitchens was invaluable, teaching the full spectrum of culinary approaches. Werner took the opportunity to get extra training in with the restaurant’s top-tier staff.
“When I was there, they had stolen all the good soup chefs at the good French restaurants,” he said. “They saw my potential and brought me under their wing.”
After graduating from the CIA in 1984, Werner was part of the opening team at the Ritz Carlton in Laguna Beach, catapulting him into the hotel industry.
“There is nothing like the feeling of opening a hotel because it is such a big, big engine,” Werner said. “You see walls go up, and the equipment go in. And you hire the crew, and you create the menus, and all of a sudden from the day you create this thing until eternity, that machine is going 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, year round.”
From there, Werner went on to help start a number of Hilton Hotels, many of them in Thailand.
While there, Werner saw an opportunity to study something completely different from his primarily-Western cuisine background.
“One of the guys in the barbecue station in one of the hotel kitchens was scholarly, and he translated all of these ancient Chinese recipes for me,” Werner said, explaining that while in Asia he was helping to train chefs in American and Western cuisine.
The blend of the two influences led Werner to a breakthrough, pushing him toward the realm of Asian-fusion cooking, one of his staples and an area in which he has been a pioneer ever since.
But Werner returned to his roots. A job offer stateside at the Beverly Hills Hotel brought him back to Los Angeles.
“When I was working at the Beverly Hills, all these chefs that I had worked for as a kid would come in to eat,” he said, listing the names of a number of famous Santa Monica chefs. “And I’ll never forget it: one time I cooked lunch for Renee´ Rubin and another chef I had worked for when I was 15. And I remember, Renee´ turned to the other while they were eating and said ‘you know, I guess you don’t have to be French to cook.’ This was my father of cooking, and I showed him that a Santa Monica boy could throw down. That was a pinnacle of my career in a way, inside.”
In 1990, Werner opened Whitney’s, a successful but short-lived restaurant on Montana Avenue. There too, Werner received praise from former cooking mentors and idols, but because of overhead costs he decided not to renew his lease in 1995.
Instead, he moved Whitney’s to The Beach Club, the nearly 100-year-old establishment on the Pacific Coast Highway where Werner had been a member since age 7.
Now, Werner functions in a hands-on administrative capacity. He plans events and menus for the club, researches and experiments with new dishes, and continues his work as head of Los Angeles ACF.
Working at a club, Werner is in a position often sought by chefs at the end of their careers as a type of marginal retirement, but he continues to push himself to do more.
He is preparing to take the master chef exam, a process he said he expects to take some years still.
“I’m ready for that next step, but I’m not ready in my craft. Some of that is to do with the path I’ve taken, jumping into management before I really perfected my craft,” he said.
Largely, he says, because of the influence of the ACF, Werner has also been working on developing techniques for training and motivating employees about kitchen safety, cleanliness and simply cooking well.
“By far I’m right where I need to be. When I want to cook I can cook. When I want to teach I can teach. When I want to consult I can consult” he said.
Consistent with his feelings on great chefs being great teachers, Werner is excited to be training and experimenting with new generations of chefs. He is glad to share what he knows, saying that exchanging information will push others to be creative and innovative in their cooking.
“My philosophy is, give it away and come up with something new,” he said. “Because if you’re not coming up with something new all the time, everyone else will still be moving forward, and you’ll be moving backwards.”