Dean Barker has a touch of the wild thing about him.
Dean Barker has a touch of the wild thing about him.
Danny Liao

Chef Spotlight: Wild Thing Dean Barker

Dean Barker is an unapologetic wild thing, traveling DJ, music producer, horticulturist, child of the ’80s and an accidental chef. Just like Max in the Maurice Sendak classic Where the Wild Things Are, he loves to create a ruckus and looks forward to the day when he can live in his own underground forest.

Barker is the sous chef at Catch L.A., one of the city’s trendiest and most magical rooftop dining spots, which overlooks West Hollywood and beyond. The seafood-focused West Coast outpost of Catch N.Y. is the brainchild of Eugene Remm and Mark Birnbaum and is known for its truffle sashimi, Cantonese lobster and Japanese Miyazaki Wagyu cooked tableside on its signature hot stone.

Birnbaum says, "The wildest of dreams are achieved by those who follow their gut imagination," in describing his wild child.

“I became a chef because I wanted to produce music,” the former Chopped contestant tells L.A. Weekly. “I was a 20-year-old producer and had to move out of my parents’ house and was trying to figure out how I could buy more equipment. I had already spent all my tax returns from the age of 15 on studio equipment.”

The young Barker started as a culinary manager at Olive Garden in New York, then moved on and up the ranks at Applebee’s.

“I kept moving up but was restless and didn’t really have what I wanted,” Barker says. “The food was disgusting and where it came from was disgusting. The chicken was gross, and I just couldn’t do that kind of food anymore, so I went into fine dining.”

He moved around to various wine bars on the Upper West Side, including one owned by Bruce Willis, and then to a Peruvian restaurant, where he discovered Peruvian pastry and seafood dishes, which became his inspiration. With his interpretations of Peruvian cuisine at Catch L.A., he became the first sous chef to create an item on the menu — the seafood pizza.

Three years of horticulture in high school and time at Cameron University in Oklahoma fostered Barker’s fascination with cultivation and the power of plants in his latest obsession, cooking with cannabis. He recently constructed a cannabis causa with octopus, next to a peach and pluot cannabis carpaccio for an event hosted by Bong Appetit’s Ry Prichard. Barker is planning his menu for the next dinner, “Cannabis and Caviar,” which takes place this week at Clark Gable’s old mansion and will include five infused seafood towers as well as a Peruvian-style cannabis-infused dessert.

Dean Barker
Dean Barker
Danny Liao

“I’m a horticulturist. A lot of people look at marijuana and think it’s just about getting high and partying,” Barker says.

"Dean is incredibly talented and has such a great aesthetic eye for food," Prichard tells L.A. Weekly. "His background as a DJ/producer definitely influences the multisensory approach he takes, and it’s exciting to work with someone on an event like this who can provide more than just food.

"A truly great dining experience weaves together multiple elements, and this dinner will do just that with Chef Dean providing a customized aural experience as well as the cannabis, food and beverage elements," Prichard says.

Barker believes that the power of marijuana as a plant can change the entire world.

"It’s obvious — hemp can be used in everything in front of you, including the tile we’re sitting on right now, the clothes you’re wearing, the glass you’re drinking out of," he says. "So much can be made out of hemp. And sure, I like to smoke a little to relax."

Born in Kansas, Barker was an army brat who traveled the world with his parents and two sisters and was always encouraged to be himself. By the time he was 12, he had lived in Germany, seen the Eiffel Tower and the Mona Lisa, learned to play the saxophone and stolen his father’s turntable to experiment with Donna Summer, Prince and Michael Jackson records.

“After moving back to the States, I discovered Nirvana, Nine Inch Nails, Smashing Pumpkins and Green Day,” Barker says. “It was so awesome. Beavis & Butt-Head, MTV — it was a great time.”

He kept up the cooking gig, which made it possible for the music projects to continue growing. Barker has toured London, Russia, Romania and Portugal and performed at the Electric Daisy Carnival in May. He created the art for his debut release on Insomniac Records, which features hip-hop stalwarts Camp Lo.

“I like to produce music I call hip-hall, a combination of hip-hop and dancehall and dubstep and trap all mixed together,” Barker says. “But when I play, I like to play all genres. I’m not a big dubstep fan, or house music, but I’ll play all music. I’ll drop the Chemical Brothers, Fat Boy Slim, then Kendrick Lamar and then back to Pusha T.”

Chef Dean Barker
Chef Dean Barker
Danny Liao

Like Max, Barker sees a forest growing in his room. In five years, he wants to open an underground pescatarian/vegetarian restaurant in an abandoned subway station and grow the produce on-site, inspired by the Lowline Lab in New York, where light is siphoned from above to mirrors on the ground and the interior looks like an underground jungle.

“This is the beginning of how you can change the world,” Barker explains. “I’ve been drawing that idea since I was 7 years old. Once I’ve done it in New York,  I’ll do it in L.A. — there are so many secret underground spaces here. It will completely change our society.”

Barker says his parents gave him and his siblings the freedom to be themselves; he describes his dad as a pretty cool dude with a huge afro and a reel-to-reel tape player. One sister, a mother of four, works in the investment baking world and the other drafts architecture.

“My parents let me go crazy, like have multicolored hair,” Barker recalls. 

“I used to have an afro like Lisa Simpson. I had candy bracelets and 16-inch-wide jeans. They figured it was just a phase that I’d grow out of. People told my parents I needed Adderall or Ritalin and they said no way. They said just let him be hyperactive while they were putting everybody’s little kids on Ritalin. They just let me be myself. I wouldn’t be the same creative person that I am now if they had put me on drugs. I’m super lucky that my parents let me be crazy.”

The Chopped episode in which Aaron Sanchez accused him of abusing a zucchini airs on Thursday, Aug. 16. The best part — where Barker roars at judge Geoffrey Zakarian off-camera after being chopped —  unfortunately ended up on the cutting-room floor.

“I said 'I know you’re famous, but I don’t really know who you are, and I don’t really care if you don’t like it,'” Barker recalls in a typical Max moment without blinking.

“The producers were speechless and pulled me backstage to thank me so much for that moment in their lives. I just pissed him off on-camera and nobody’s ever done that. I didn’t care. I’m pretty sure that’s why things ended up the way they did, even thought the chef next to me burnt her shit black. Everybody said I got chopped because I called out Geoffrey Zakarian, and they said, ‘you can’t do that!’ and I said, ‘yes I can.’

In between the music and the madness, Barker is developing a video game featuring the autobiographical character Baws Fyte, who runs wild in a boxing gym, and is working on developing his own TV show, The Hot Plate, in which he cooks on location while on tour.

“I just want to change the world of food forever,” he says. “I want to change the way we perceive food and the culture of it. I want to take it back from the government. The government controls our food and resources, which is why 80 percent of the human race is starving somewhere.

“I’m not a Michelin star chef and I don’t need to be, and I don’t care who is. The culinary world is starting to get too complicated and I just want food to be fun!” Barker roars as he takes off on his skateboard, home to where his supper is waiting for him.

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