With a steady gaze and a mellow twang, Wes Whitsell is charming, if a little uneasy about being the center of attention. But we’re in his territory — the open-air courtyard of the new Hauser Wirth & Schimmel gallery in the Arts District, where Whitsell’s forthcoming restaurant, Manuela, is under construction — and as we dig into his vision of the space, his energy rises and his guard drops.
“I’ve seen my fair share of galleries and museums, but this one is unlike any I’ve been in, in sheer mass and in the decision to leave parts of it raw,” Whitsell says, pointing to exposed beams and brick. “It’s an old flour mill, so there are a lot of great nooks and crannies. There’s also a fascinating dynamic with us cooking in the same space."
When asked why the gallery needs a restaurant, Whitsell’s answer is simple: Everyone needs to eat. Whether you’re a prospective buyer or an arts appreciator wandering the rooms, Whitsell wants Manuela to be the place you sit down and break bread.
Though the menu isn’t finalized just yet, one thing is certain: Most of it will pay homage to Whitsell’s culinary roots. Whitsell was raised in a rural area outside of Dallas, where his parents grew and hunted much of what they cooked. Melons, onions, tomatoes, peppers and corn were regularly part of their bounty. Meat was whatever his father could shoot or catch, from fish and frogs to deer and pheasant. Chicken and beef were rare offerings on the family’s table.
“Other places I’ve been chef — Osteria La Buca, Soho House New York — had Mediterranean-Italian influences,” Whitsell says. “Manuela will be the first time I’m able to stay true to my upbringing, and it feels great to break free and to cook the flavors I was raised on.”
The chef is both sentimental and giddy when reminiscing about hunting with his father. Whitsell goes back a generation to paint me a clearer picture. His dad was 6 years old when he was given his first gun. He had two bullets, and with them he somehow shot three birds — a fine origin story for any hunter. Years later, Whitsell became an important part of his dad’s outings. He recalls the bliss that was snacking on pimento cheese and Ritz crackers while waiting for pheasants to fly or a deer to appear, and on helping out on nighttime frog escapades.
“It’s called frog gigging,” Whitsell explains with a grin, straightening his arm and jabbing it forward like a harpoon. “Headlamps help you spot the frogs’ eyes, then you gig ’em and put ’em in a sack still alive.”
If his dad was doing the gigging, Whitsell had the sack of live frogs on his back, sometimes carrying as much as 50 pounds of them home. Then they’d clean the frogs and fry their legs. Whitsell is quick to remind me that the dish is really one of traditional French cooking, not some backcountry Texas thing.
“What I ate as a kid wasn’t anything like what my friends were eating,” he says. “They were probably having TV dinners and chicken breast. But Dad was a great cook. Even something as simple as duck and rice was incredible.”
When prodded about how those childhood meals will translate to Manuela, Whitsell goes down a gamey rabbit hole. There will be a deer burger fired over wood, he says, plus elk chili, elk tartare and dishes made with pheasant, quail, smoked fish and house-cured sausages. For dessert, roasted seasonal fruits will adorn olive oil or butter cake. Biscuits and doughnuts are priorities, too.
“I want the food to be soulful, like something your grandma would cook for you,” Whitsell says. “Nothing should be too fussy. That’s not what food is to me.”
Seasonal ingredients will be sourced from California farms that Whitsell trusts. Combine that with the chef’s penchant for Texas-style cooking and you get “California Southern” cuisine — the term Whitsell’s most comfortable using to describe his fare. Chef Brian Dunsmoor is cooking along similar lines, he says, making the fare at Hatchet Hall some of Whitsell's favorite in town.
Another perk to Whitsell’s new gig is the vastness of Manuela. Unlike so many chefs, Whitsell will have the room he needs to take on some of the more space-consuming processes behind killer kitchens. For example, he will make his own vinegars and helm a fermentation lab of sorts, aging cabbage, pickles and more in barrels. Other luxuries include a curing room, a smoker, a place for open wood-fired cooking and an on-site garden, where the team will grow herbs, fruits and vegetables and keep chickens (for their eggs) and bunnies. Whitsell says the latter won’t be eaten — they just make great playmates for the hens. As busy as this sounds, there is little doubt the space will be aesthetically pleasing, with Matt Winter (the Lincoln, Gjusta) helming the design.
To say he’s come a long way from flipping burgers is a legitimate understatement. While attending Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas, Whitsell was a serious baseball player who also managed to work part-time at a local bar. The venue may have offered a humble menu — hamburgers, French fries, fried pickles — but Whitsell found the kitchen exhilarating. Later, when he was studying abroad in Copenhagen, Whitsell impressed his peers by whipping up evening meals. His friends bought ingredients; he did the work and got a free meal. Their accolades pushed him back to the kitchen, and to L.A.
In 2013, when he was working at Osteria La Buca, a close pal brought art curator Paul Schimmel to dinner. It was an intentional connection — Schimmel had by then left his position as chief curator of L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art and was signed on to help start a downtown gallery and restaurant. Now Whitsell’s name had been tossed into the ring.
Whitsell eventually left Osteria La Buca and went to New York to “clear his head.” He first landed at Il Buco Alimentari e Vineria and got to cook alongside buddy Justin Smillie. Then he went to Soho House. That’s where, about a year after their initial meeting, Whitsell reconnected with Schimmel, who was still looking for a chef for his L.A. project. Schimmel then brought in the Wirths (who are co-owners of Manuela with Whitsell). Whitsell and Iwan bonded over their shared love of hunting — they even flipped through digital photos of a pheasant hunt Iwan had recently gone on. Of course, the couple also enjoyed Whitsell’s company and food.
“Manuela, Iwan and I see eye to eye on what good food is: grass-fed, local, sustainable and made using ingredients that are sourced and raised with integrity,” Whitsell says. “Really, it’s a perfect match.”
Whitsell says that his ability to run an entire kitchen and crew is another feather in his cap.
“Being a chef isn’t only about being a good cook,” he says. “You have to lead a whole team. I did some good things at Soho House and had a lot of people behind me. I think that speaks to what I can do.”
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He smiles and purposefully thickens his twang a bit.
“I’m not just some small-town chef anymore,” he says. “I’m doin’ big things, baby.”
Whitsell anticipates Manuela opening Sept. 1. Lunch service will be rolled out first (in line with gallery hours), followed by dinner and breakfast.