How One Gjelina Alum Is Changing the Way Restaurants Are Run
Over the course of the afternoon, our interview with chef David Wilcox gets interrupted dozens of times. We shadow him while he preps for dinner, teaches the hostess how to bake bread and butchers a side of pork. The pork belly goes into the morcilla, a Spanish blood sausage; the skin is reserved for chicharrones.
“Did they get me the pork blood?” he asks the delivery driver. (Nope, no pork blood today from Peads & Barnetts farm.) At one point, a young man in khakis comes in and interviews for a job over the counter while Wilcox fillets branzino in the open kitchen. “So you don’t have any pastry experience, but you’re a hard worker? I like that,” he says. “Are you okay with cleaning stuff? Building stuff? All that other bullshit on your resume, I could care less about,” he says.
At Journeymen, Wilcox’s two-month-old restaurant in L.A.’s Atwater Village, employee roles are fluid. Interviews, then, are conducted differently. Nicole Pearson, a former manager at her last job, works front of house at Journeymen, but has also learned how to flip sourdough and cut pork belly. “There was a nipple on the skin,” she says, knife in hand. “I’m still getting used to this.”
“As a manager, you usually end up doing every job anyway,” she says. She’s used to bussing tables, bringing out plates, expo-ing (calling ticket orders). But here, multi-tasking is taken to a whole new level.
Wilcox has taken cues from working in one of L.A.’s most successful kitchens, Gjelina. It’s a restaurant that’s almost its own lifestyle brand, helmed by surfer chef (and James Beard Award nominee) Travis Lett. After leaving a sous-chef position in 2012, Wilcox was inspired by what he saw there, but he also knew he wanted to do something of his own. He did pop-ups, cooking at Mill Valley Beerworks in the Bay Area briefly. “They didn’t care about the employees. They were a couple of assholes, and I have no problem saying that. They gave me the example that I want to not see,” he says.
“If servers are going home with $400 or $500 a night and cooks are going home with $90 or $120 a night, there’s that disparity,” Wilcox says. At Journeymen, everyone starts at $14 an hour and does pretty much every job, although some more than others, depending on how much experience they have.
By hiring people who may be less experienced—but are more willing to learn new skills—the restaurant, it seems, saves money on wages while also having a more-equal wage distribution throughout. Tips are baked into employee salaries, based on skill set and proficiency, according to Wilcox. “We run an open book system, so they see how we distribute the allocated payroll revenue. We’re not hiding any numbers,” he says. “We’re sharing with everyone how it works, and saying, ‘Hey, if the restaurant does well, you’re going to do better.’”
Although an oft-cited statistic for industry profit margins is 3 to 7 percent, Wilcox has worked at restaurants with 20 to 25 percent profit margins, which is what he’s aiming for. And he’s hoping his leaner model will help him do it. He’s in the process of setting up a profit-sharing system in which employees own a small percentage of the company, 1 or 2 percent. He and his co-owners will reserve the right to buy anyone out and not have people sell their shares to others.
Most restaurant groups compromise quality as they expand, Wilcox says, and he hopes to mitigate that with profit sharing and well-rounded employee training. “The way we see it, if people have a stake in it and are literally invested in it, we’re going to be longer lasting and able to expand.” If all goes well, Wilcox hopes to open a bakery. (Journeymen has a robust bread program; its star is a pain levain with purple barley flour, with an almost custardy interior that’s a sweeter, less sour version of sourdough. Wilcox was also instrumental in developing the bread program at Travis Lett’s Gjusta bakery.)
By investing more time in teaching employees new skills, Wilcox hopes to revive the mentorship aspect of hospitality that he feels is missing from the industry. “The apprenticeship model has been kind of lost,” he says. At Journeymen, he spends much of time teaching and mentoring. “I work 100 hour weeks,” he says. “I don’t know how I’m doing it.”
If the mission behind Journeymen is compelling, the food is even more so. Bucking the lighter Mediterranean influences that are all the rage in L.A.—shaved watermelon radish, mountains of dill—his cuisine is heartier, filtered through a Southern French and Basque lens. “I’m not from that heritage so I can’t draw upon it in that way, but I’ve always loved the cuisine, especially so after traveling to those places,” Wilcox says.
The menu is hearty with whole-grain mustards atop charred turnips and crusty toasts with raclette and nettle. A whole wall of tiny mason-jarred jams is on display; they are paired with cheeses, which are served without the distraction of bread.
An unexpected star on the menu is the plate of sweet corn, just warmed-through but still toothsome, under a mountain of melted Pleasant Ridge Reserve raw cheese that’s salty and nutty. The dish is bodied with confit leeks and duck stock and topped with purslane, a succulent that has a hint of okra texture. Although one might be doubtful about ordering a whole plate of corn (everything at Journeymen is meant to be shared anyway), you’ll probably end up eating the entire thing yourself. It’s utterly savory yet sweet, moreish yet light.
Everything at Journeyman is vegetable-forward, although a vegetarian might be hard-pressed to eat here—many plates are richened with duck stock, nubs of goat cheese or paper-thin crisps of fried ham. Wilcox, who was actually vegetarian for four years, holds that most plant-based food is terrible. When he finally started eating meat, he forced himself to participate in a farm slaughter to see how it was done. “You know you do it right if, when you cut it, the eyes roll back,” he says. “It’s over in three seconds. But it was really intense the first time. If you’re willing to take the life of the animal and you see it, you don’t want to waste an ounce.”
This week, there are lamb sweetbreads and hearts from Bill Niman’s recent lamb harvest. (Yes, interestingly enough, it’s called a “harvest,” not a “slaughter.”) Lamb heart tartare makes an ephemeral appearance on the menu, served with salt-roasted sunchokes and charred pimento garlic salsa. The sweetbreads, because they’re so tiny, were only featured for a few days. This hyper seasonal, of-the-moment approach to the menu, which is printed daily, also helps keep costs down and operations lean. “It’s a balance though,” Wilcox admits. “You want to have that continuity so people know what to expect.”
For Wilcox, Journeymen’s very existence is a triumph. “I came to L.A. with $200 in my pocket,” he says. At one point, he says, “I was living in L.A., on the West Side, as a single dad, just going into debt.”
After he left Gjelina and contemplated his next step, the beloved restaurant Canelé closed. It felt like a sign. He knew he wanted to take a chance and buy it. He did, along with co-owner (and fellow Gjelina alum) Guy Tabibian. The restaurant is also co-owned with Fredel Romano, who also worked at Gjelina briefly. At one point, after purchasing the restaurant, they had $9,000 in the bank. It sounds like a decent amount of money, but it wasn’t even enough to open the doors. (For perspective, it cost $2.5 million to open Gjelina.) “We didn’t have the money, but we kept going, and we were like, ‘Nope, we’re just going to figure it out,’” he says. “Not to get all hippy dippy, but I just had to trust the process and put one foot in front of the other.”
In its second month, Journeymen seems to be doing well. The food is excellent. People are driving from the West Side to eat here, Wilcox says. (In L.A., that’s as lavish praise as can be had.) Jonathan Gold is rumored to be coming in soon. And, throughout it all, Wilcox is determined to succeed with his employees, not at the cost of them.
“When you’re young, you want to change the world,” he says. “But you grow up, and you just try to change the people around you.”