Quick Take:

Our wealth of fresh organic produce enticed John Harry, the new chef of Venus Spirits Cocktails & Kitchen Beachside, to California. Now, the veteran of Alderwood and Post Ranch Inn is working to create a novel taste for Santa Cruz County on the Esplanade in Rio Del Mar.

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A Q&A with chef John Harry

Since 2013, Venus Spirits distillery has grown steadily on Santa Cruz’s Westside, garnering legions of fans and national accolades for its artisanal spirits and craft cocktails. In August 2020, owners Sean and Grace Venus opened a full-service restaurant, Venus Spirits Cocktails & Kitchen, in a brand-new 11,500-square-foot warehouse space close by the original distillery off Swift Street and Delaware Avenue. From breaking ground to opening day, the restaurant came to life in just under a year and a half — a breakneck speed for openings in Santa Cruz County, and it would have happened even sooner if COVID hadn’t gotten in the way.

Now, Venus is expanding from the Westside and opening a second restaurant location beachside in Aptos’ Rio Del Mar next week. Compared to the previous speedy opening, this one is a flash in the pan: The team is turning what was once Café Rio into Venus Spirits Cocktails & Kitchen Beachside in under two months.

John Harry, already an experienced fine-dining chef in the area, joins the Venus team as chef de cuisine. A Georgia native, Harry is familiar with the Central Coast — he came to the area to become the opening chef de cuisine at Alderwood in Santa Cruz at the end of 2018, and later served at Post Ranch Inn in Big Sur. During the pandemic, he offered his services as a private chef. Now, he’s bringing his low country, ingredient-driven cooking style to the Esplanade at Rio Del Mar.

Harry spoke with Lookout about his culinary background, how the Central Coast influences his cooking and what we can expect to see on the menu at the new restaurant.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Lookout: What brought you out to California from Georgia?

John Harry: Agriculture. I have always been fascinated with the food culture of the Bay Area and wanted a taste of that. I worked in Denver between working in California and Georgia and I was underwhelmed with the produce — most everything was commodity organics coming from California. Working with all the amazing producers on the Central Coast has been a dream come true. Chefs are getting a lot of the limelight these days, but the farmers and producers are the true rock stars. I love getting to know them and try my best to do all their hard work justice and share their stories through the food. This is how I find inspiration.

Lookout: How would you describe your cooking style?

Harry: I grew up on the coast of Georgia and my style is very informed by my low country roots. I love cooking rich, comforting food but I also love fresh, light and bright flavors. It’s important to have that contrast. I love the classics and doing them justice. My food is ingredient-driven and I try to let the products speak for themselves with simple seasoning. I aim to create memorable and impactful experiences. Beyond influences from the American South, my food is informed by French, Japanese, Spanish, Mediterranean and Mexican cuisines.

Chef John Harry at work
At Venus Spirits Kitchen & Cocktails Beachside, chef John Harry plans to create a seafood-leaning menu with a raw bar. Credit: Via Liz Birnbaum / The Curated Feast

Lookout: What attracted you to the position at Venus Spirits Cocktails & Kitchen Beachside?

Harry: I really wanted to create a culture that prioritized the employees’ well-being. Sean and Grace Venus were already embodying that mentality so it was a natural fit. I went and saw the restaurant on the beach at Rio Del Mar and it felt like a dream come true. I’ve been biding my time to take an executive chef job waiting for a good fit, and this kind of came out of nowhere through a random “small world” connection. The timing, the connection — it felt serendipitous. I feel so grateful and lucky to have this opportunity, and it is my intention to breathe some life into this historic restaurant while honoring its established patrons and history through thoughtful service.

Lookout: How are you approaching the menu?

Harry: I want to keep it focused and don’t want to try to do too much and lose sight of the details. A few of the classics from the Westside restaurant will come over, including the burger and the crispy Brussels sprouts. The menu will be seafood-leaning with a raw bar. The seafood will be sourced sustainably and locally when possible. There will also be nice composed vegan and vegetarian options that don’t feel like afterthoughts. The menu will evolve and grow as our team and guests evolve and grow.

Lookout: Can you share one or two dishes that will be on the new menu?

Harry: We’re excited to offer oysters Bienville, a classic New Orleans dish of baked oysters with shrimp, mushrooms, bacon, white wine and scallions.

Sand dabs were a staple at Cafe Rio, and we’re planning on keeping them on, with a little different setup that is more Southern — cornmeal dusted and fried with cheese grits and braised greens. It’s kind of like that Outkast song “Now throw your hands in the air, and wave ‘em like you just don’t care, and if you like fish and grits and all that good stuff, everybody let me hear you say oh yay-yur.”

Lookout: Will you relocate from Big Sur to Santa Cruz County?

Harry: I have already made the move, and I’m stoked to be back in Santa Cruz. Big Sur is a magical place and a very special community that will always hold a special place in my heart, but it can be a little sleepy. It feels great to have such an engaging project to dive into.

Lookout: Will you appoint a sous-chef? If so, who?

Harry: My sous-chef for Beachside is Israel Castillo-Mar, who was running the kitchen at Café Rio. We absorbed the staff from Café Rio, and we are incredibly grateful to have them on board for the new project. Everyone is great. Israel and I have really hit it off — he has a fantastic work ethic and attitude which is paramount in this industry. We’ve also worked for some of the same people, which is an added bonus.

The scope of this project is big with both restaurants, the tasting room and the distillery. Long term, I’m definitely hoping to wrangle a few of my esteemed colleagues from the East Coast and Big Sur to help execute our vision. Who knows?

Lily Belli is the food and drink correspondent at Lookout Santa Cruz. Over the past 15 years since she made Santa Cruz her home, Lily has fallen deeply in love with its rich food culture, vibrant agriculture...