This year, Juniper & Ivy is one of just two San Diego entries on OpenTable's list of "Top 100 Hot Spots in America for 2017" (Ironside Fish & Oyster is the other). But the Little Italy fine-dining spot known for serving exclusively West Coast ingredients has something else to celebrate.
On Jan. 1, Anthony Wells was promoted to the position of executive chef. If you haven't heard of Wells, you're not alone. Mike Rosen's perennially packed 235-seat restaurant is better known for its supervising chef-partner, Richard Blais of "Top Chef" fame.
Blais is at ease working the dining room and posing for fans' selfies. But the soft-spoken, publicity-shy Wells figures he's been out to mingle with diners just three times since the restaurant opened in March 2014. The 30-year-old San Diegan prefers to let his food do the talking.
Up to 50 diners every night order his tuna Wellington, a fish filet ingeniously cooked inside a puff pastry. A dozen more snap up his $67 whole duck plate (legs braised then fried in duckfat, roasted wings and breast on the bone). He's quite proud of his in-house butchering and charcuterie program, which includes sausages and a play on the childhood favorite "pigs in a blanket." And he's recently developed a foie gras tart made with pickled green strawberries.
Shortly after Wells took the lead at Juniper & Ivy in January, Blais said he believes the food being served there now is the best it's ever been.
"He's a much better craftsman than I am for sure and an incredibly talented hands-on chef," Blais said of Wells. "With Anthony, I know I can throw out an idea and he can always take it one step further."
Wells spent his 20s cooking and training at some of America's best kitchens, but, like Blais, he grew up on simple homestyle foods like spaghetti and meatloaf. His left shoulder bears a tattoo of the grape cluster from the Smucker's jam jar, honoring the PB&Js his grandpa still eats after every meal.
Wells grew up a multisport athlete in small-town West Virginia. His father worked in a steel mill, his mom was in sales for Philip Morris. He earned an academic scholarship to a college in the next town over, but he had a restless spirit. After one semester he dropped out, then surprised his family by announcing he'd taken out a loan to attend the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco.
"I wasn't really a great cook or anything, but I was always the one making food for the guys I hung out with," he said. "It was about the time when the Food Network was really becoming popular and I just had a knack for it."
Through a school internship, Wells spent five winters learning classic French techniques from Chef John Farnsworth at a country club in Vero Beach, Fla. Then at 24, he interned at a bistro in Nantucket where he learned to experiment and collaborate. After that, he felt ready for New York, where he spent a year at Thomas Keller's Per Se, then two years as the opening butcher at Jonathan Benno's Lincoln Ristorante. While Lincoln's a success now, it got off to a rocky start, which Wells said taught him to trust his gut (not critics' reviews) and kitchen management skills.
"I learned about working clean, being organized, communicating well and how to keep my head down and work efficiently," Wells said.
But then he got a call from home that his beloved grandmother, who'd been battling breast cancer for years, was dying. He rushed back to West Virginia to nurse her and then grieve for her and over the next few months realized he didn't want to go back to New York. About that time, Blais won "Top Chef All-Stars" and was preparing to open a fine-dining restaurant in Atlanta. Wells had never met the star chef, but thought they'd get along, so he took a chance and sent Blais an email asking for a job.
"I liked Richard's whimsical approach to food," Wells said. "He always had the most interesting combinations of flavors that intrigued me.' "
Blais describes meeting Wells as a gift from the culinary gods.
"It's like in the movies when someone delivers a beautiful baby on your doorstep and it's a blessing," said Blais, who brought Wells into The Spence restaurant as a prep cook and promoted him to sous chef within three weeks.
Wells stayed a year at The Spence, then in June 2013 he followed his girlfriend, Nicole Holmstrom, to Napa Valley, where she'd been hired to manage a hotel. He cooked around town for a year at Meadowood, Redd, Morimoto and the French Laundry. Then, when he heard about the Juniper & Ivy project in San Diego, he sent Blais another email. He was hired as sous chef under executive chef Jon Sloan and was eventually promoted to chef de cuisine.
Juniper & Ivy owner Mike Rosen said it took him a long time to crack through Wells' protective exterior and figure out what made him tick. The young chef seemed moody and unhappy at first, but Rosen said he eventually realized that Wells felt the kitchen staff wasn't working at its full potential.
"We realized that he was a quiet leader," Rosen said. "He just gets pleasure out of growth, his own growth and other people's growth."
When Sloan moved over last fall to supervise the expansion of Rosen's Crack Shack restaurant company, Wells was the obvious choice for promotion.
"Anthony's leadership and ability gets people to think outside the box," Rosen said. "He's very collaborative and nonthreatening."
Wells, who lives with Homstrom in Normal Heights, arrives at the restaurant every morning around 9 a.m. and leaves about 10 each night. He's a hands-on leader and enthusiastic teacher of his 30-member kitchen staff. He butchers his own lambs, pigs, poultry and seafood, makes his own charcuterie, oversees the in-house prep of breads, butters and pastries and - when things get really busy - he moves station to station, lending a hand where needed.
"I like to float around to help," he said. "For the younger cooks to have the chef cooking next to them goes a long way."
Two years ago, Wells developed a high-end chef's tasting menu at Juniper & Ivy that allowed him to spread his culinary wings and mentor young chefs. But it was too labor-intensive at a time when they were trying to open the first Crack Shack, so it was discontinued. Now, with Wells' promotion, the Chef's Counter Tasting Menu is back. The Thursday night menu, served to just eight guests seated along the kitchen counter, includes eight courses for $150. Wells said he's excited to have a new, and constantly changing, outlet for his imagination.
Blais said some chefs are motivated by money and some by fancy titles, but Wells is driven purely by his curiosity.
"With Anthony, it's just 'can I come and do what I want to do,' " Blais said. "He's constantly thinking about food, traveling to faraway places and he's immersed, full in. Getting to watch him, for me, has been one of the best things that's happened to us. It's fun seeing him get the opportunity to shine on a bigger stage."