On the Line: Benjamin Wallenbeck & Justin Odegard of Ways & Means Oyster House, Part One
Best friends. Significant others. Chefs de Cuisine. However you want to classify them, I've been interviewing pairs for On the Line as of late. I don't know if they're trending, but there's a positive energy that occurs when you have another person to collaborate with (Maybe it's because you share the stress?). Either way, our subjects for this week are creating a name for themselves at the edge of Old Town Orange. We bounce questions off both Benjamin Wallenbeck and Justin Odegard, the chefs de cuisine over at Ways & Means.
How are your responsibilities divided up?
Ben Wallenbeck: We always divide responsibilities based upon strengths. Our kitchen is a team-driven atmosphere. Those who are more creatively driven will take on responsibilities along those lines, while others who are more organizationally inclined will gravitate in that direction. However, we always have input from everyone so that we have a more well-balanced approach and perspective.
What advice do you have for people afraid to cook seafood?
Justin Odegard: Get over it. You'll never know it until you do it. Like anything in life, practice makes perfect.
Culinarily speaking, Orange County has the best:
B.W.: Orange County definitely has one of the more diverse culinary spectrums. So many different cultures represented from all over the world in what is a relatively small area.
Your best recent food find:
J.O.: Fresh rock fish snapper from the Dory Fleet in Newport Beach.
B.W.: Cherimoya. Amazing flavor from our farmers market.
Most undervalued ingredient:
Both: Cilantro stems. We've seen people just throw them away. They have interesting flavor, texture and aroma.
We noticed a new Tuesday special: The One Night Stand?
B.W.: Every Tuesday night we feature a new lineup of wines from a different winemaker that we pair five courses of food, only to be served that night. These are not items from the menu, or items that will be on the menu in the future. (It's an) exclusive, one night only menu.
Justin: How is working at Ways & Means different from a brand like Roy's?
J.O.: Different kitchen setup, different equipment, different people with different experiences. A new frontier.
One food you can't live without:
B.W.: Coffee! But if that doesn't count, I would say fresh bread and butter. Nothing simpler than that.
What is your beverage of choice?
J.O.: Beets, carrot juice, orange juice. Mix. From the Earth.
What's so special about your tasting menu?
B.W.: The six course tasting menu is $65. The selection from the menu changes every day. It's a great way to experience six different selections from our menu and really get a feel for our style. I would allow yourself about an hour and-a-half to really sit down and have the full experience, see our selection for that day, enjoy each course and see who we are.
How traditional is your colcannon mash?
B.W.: Who am I to question an Irishman on how Irish his dishes are?
Where does the restaurant's name come from?
Both: Serving our guests any way and by all means.
Favorite places to eat.
J.O.: El Toro Bravo, Costa Mesa.
B.W.: Benji's. Love that place.
Where was your most recent meal?
B.W.: My most recent meal was at Cucina Urbana in San Diego. They have a great menu there. Whole roasted branzino, smoked trout, pasta carbonara, and don't miss out on the sweetbread gnocchi.
J.W.: At home. Oatmeal with bananas.
Let's talk about the clambakes!
B.W.: Every Wednesday at the oyster bar we feature our clambake. $9.99 for 6 clams, 3 mussels, sausage, chorizo, grilled corn and poached potato all in one pot. It's one of those dishes that has great, fresh flavor: sweetness of the corn, spice from the sausage, and the natural saltiness from the clam liquor, fresh herbs, and of course, BEER!
J.O.: Delicious, flavorful, great value, fresh bread-dunking broth.
What is your restaurant experience?
J.O.: Dishwashing, meat butchery, breaking down fish, wood fire broiling, teppanyaki, saute, saucier, oysters, wine dinners, braising, baking, . . .
B.W.: I started working in coffee shops after I dropped out of traditional higher education. From there, I began waiting tables and bartending just to pay bills. I eventually ended up in a small kitchen at Thomas Restaurant (Kansas City, Missouri) washing dishes and making salads. Over time, I moved my way down the line, learning each station.
Since Kansas City, I've been able to work with many great people in different kitchens in the OC area, always trying to learn, have fun and express ourselves in what we do.