Twenty Strangers. Two Chefs. One Secret Location. Spare Parts Bistro started as the brainchild of former Sous Chef of Julienne, Weston Richards. Tired of the lackluster dining scene, Richards was ready to create his own enterprise of “pop-up” dining, teaming up with fellow restaurateur Alvaro Rojas of Alcazar Tapas and Milk & Honey. From restaurants to private residences, the location is always secret, released upon RSVP confirmation. Using reclaimed resources and supplies, this conceptual experience is a labor of love, designed to awaken taste buds and challenge industry conventions.
“I’ve done the “Santa Barbara” menu before – salmon, chicken breast, filet mignon. When I decided to start Spare Parts, I realized I was not going to compromise. I’d rather go down in flames than compromise my vision. I don’t do it for the money…I do it because I make some kick ass food,” said Chef Richards.
Limited to 20 people, I was able to score a coveted seat for last Sunday’s soiree. The evening began with home-made margaritas, lubricating conversation while guests were seated at a beautiful wooden table. Hand-crafted from reclaimed wood, this labor of love took Richards and Rojas three days to complete, and has become a defining trademark of the brand. Promoting communal dining, each supper club is BYOB, allowing wine to flow freely and new friendships to form. In the Italian tradition, a small glass called an “l’ombretta” is placed at each place setting, encouraging sampling and sharing of vino.
“I’ve been surprised at how well complete strangers get along at these dinners. I love the friendships that have evolved from them. Sitting strangers shoulder to shoulder, I wasn’t sure how well it would work. But that’s why the communal table is cool!” said Richards.
The first course was grilled pacific squid, placed elegantly on top of homemade sourdough flatbread, with spicy greens and creamy egg yolk accompaniment. Cited as their “guinea pig” dish, Richards strives to create dishes off the beaten path, creating exciting new combinations for both his guests and his culinary intrigue.
“Spare Parts started as a restaurant concept. I wanted to do something different, something original. I was tired of restaurants that had kept the same menu for 20 years, the “good enough” restaurant syndrome. It’s a brave new world of food out there. I try to create at least one dish that I’ve never done or heard of before,” said Richards.
After each course, the Spare Parts team would announce the next item, creating anticipation for the next chapter in flavor.
The second course was a beautiful local halibut ceviche, placed alongside fresh summer corn and cilantro. The homemade crème fraiche was a wonderful contrast to the spicy grilled jalapeño.
“At our dinners, there’s no pressure to leave. I hate turning tables at the restaurant – dining should be about an experience. We try and create a full-on theatrical feel. You are going out for an occasion, not just to feed your face,” said Rojas.
The third course was uniquely presented, a savory soup consisting of baby vegetables, house made egg noodles, herbs, and local Joelle olive oil. The pork broth, composed of pig bones and pigs feet, had a gelatinous texture, poured tableside over the sautéed beans and vegetables.
Each dinner offers a localized interpretation of the best that Santa Barbara has to offer. Sourcing their food locally, Richards will attend local farmers market, knowing what’s in season and fresh. Bringing notes and recipe ideas, Richards spends nearly 30 hours of prep time creating unique, customized menus. With sustainability a key factor, Richards is very attune to where he buys his products. From sourcing local seafood from the Santa Barbara Fish Market to Niman Ranch beef, guests can be comfortable knowing where their food comes from.
“It’s an absolute must that our meat be antibiotic and cruelty free. On a chef level, animals that are treated well and slaughtered humanely simply taste better. It’s a proven fact. I have several vegetarian friends who will only eat meat if I’ve made it for them!” said Richards.
Lamb carnitas followed for the fourth course, eagerly soaking up the red wine rushing through our veins. Accompanied by fresh cannellini beans and grilled asparagus, the lamb was crispy on the outside, fluffy on the inside. Cooked in a mixture of garlic, onion, and tomatoes, the flavor was aromatic and bold. With the evening winding down, the dessert offered a wonderful palette cleanser, a Meyer lemon shortbread, with fresh strawberries, mint, and indulgent bavarian cream.
Dinner flowed effortlessly from course to course, culminating in a 3-hour feast. Pulling out all the “spare parts,” the dining experience was an intimate adventure in food, reclaiming the weekend supper in a communal setting.
At the end of the evening, Rojas and Richards invited us to carve our names into the table, no longer strangers in the hands of two incredibly talented, whimsical chefs.
“We definitely want to make a splash in Santa Barbara, giving guests something different than what they are used to. I always refer to this as living the restaurant dream. We are doing what we’ve always wanted to do. It’s a true labor of love,” said Rojas.
-Rachel Hommel, LoaTree Team Writer and Food Researcher
(All Photos by Rachel Hommel)