At Julep, Brent Gunnels reveals himself as a burgeoning chef
For the last six months, Brent Gunnels has been in charge of the kitchen at Westport’s Julep Cocktail Club. The new summer menu — which co-owner Beau Williams considers a revamp of Julep’s overall culinary direction — belongs entirely to Gunnels. It’s his first proprietary menu at the restaurant. And yet, he isn’t sure he has a title.
“I’ve never been called a chef,” Gunnels tells me, standing in the overflow dining room at Julep during a busy happy hour. “The title is pretty transient, but I feel like ‘chef’ is a title you have to earn. I’ve never officially worked in that position before. I’m the kitchen manager here. You can call me what you want.”
Gunnels describes himself as “more or less” self-taught. He started working in kitchens eight years ago, eventually moving to New York City and starting at a pizza joint called Vinnie’s Pizzeria in Greenpoint before moving back to Kansas City and working the ovens at Il Lazzarone in the River Market from February to September. It was at those places that Gunnels found his love for the art of food.
“I developed my own flavor philosophy,” he says. “It’s sourcing ideas from traditional Chinese medicine, which connects different flavors with different elements — metal, water, wood, fire, earth — and, in turn, helps create balanced dishes.”
Gunnels — in a baseball cap, square-framed glasses and polka-dot chef pants — has just revealed a deep level of food nerdery. I ask him to elaborate.
“The main thing that I look for is color variation,” he says. “In one of his books, James Beard talks about the rainbow flavor — having all the colors of the rainbow in every plate. That all ties into the traditional Chinese-medicine philosophy, where each element has its color along with flavor.
“When you start looking at plate with that frame of mind,” he continues, “you start to understand why things go together the way they do and why they work, and why things that don’t seem like they work together balance each other out.”
For someone who doesn’t call himself a chef, Gunnels certainly talks like one. Suddenly, I’m imagining heavily designed, overly intricate dishes that would spin Julep’s Southern-inspired comfort-food menu on its head. Will Gunnels transform Julep’s beloved mac and cheese into an overwrought monster featuring five singular noodles and a cheese-foam garnish? I am terrified.
Gunnels assures me his menu is not that intimidating. The focus is still on small plates and shareable entrees, and a few Julep staples — steak tartare, deviled eggs — are staying. The mac and cheese is changing, but the combination of brie, gruyére and Granny Smith apple he pitches sounds smart. The cheese and charcuterie plates will be designed with a more localized focus, and the menu as a whole will incorporate more of a nose-to-tail strategy. The duck Gunnels gets in will provide the pastrami for his hot brown, the confit legs for a salad and the stock for a chilled ginger-carrot soup.
About that hot brown: Gunnels offers a fresh take on the 90-year-old Louisville, Kentucky, classic. The open-faced sandwich comes on a thick slice of sourdough, piled with shredded duck breast and a housemade duck-breast pastrami, bacon and blistered cherry tomatoes. It’s covered in a decadent gruyére-cheddar-and-mozzarella sauce that’s so creamy it might pass for fondue. Gunnels serves it piping hot in a miniature cast-iron skillet, and while it’s a little awkward trying to fork-and-knife my way to a mouthful, I’m grateful. Gunnels’ cheese sauce stays gooey and warm until the final bite is dragged around the circumference of the skillet.
When Gunnels presents his “blue grass gnocchi,” it looks inviting, but not at all how I envisioned the dish. Instead of potato, Gunnels has used corn flour; what looks like hushpuppies are topped with cute tufts of lavender-colored mashed potatoes mixed with parmesan and fresh chives. These are pop-in-your-mouth hors d’oeuvres that shouldn’t taste as light as they do.
“I wanted to make a small bite, and I wanted to make pastrylike cream puffs, almost,” Gunnels says. “I found a recipe for gnocchi alla romana, which just means gnocchi of Rome. They used semolina flour, and I thought using corn flour instead would give us something that’s a really Southern take on a classic Italian dish.”
Gunnels’ pickled-shrimp salad boasts soft, leafy greens from Missing Ingredient in the Crossroads, sweet strips of carrot, plump cherry tomatoes and shrimp pickled in lemon juice. Together with the horseradish vinaigrette, the flavors are bright and pleasantly acidic. This dish is perhaps Gunnels’ simplest, purest presentation, but it still packs a surprise: I feel like I’m eating a perfect shrimp cocktail, not a salad.
Gunnels seems particularly proud of his bourbon-chicken dish. The chicken breast has been prepared as a roulade, with the remainder of the chicken made into a stock, which fortifies the jambalaya-style rice that accentuates the plate. Plucking from New Orleans cuisine, Gunnels has seasoned the rice with “the holy trinity” — peppers, onions and celery. A bourbon-sauce reduction, cut with orange zest, casts a Zen-like circle around Gunnels’ sliced roulade. These flavors are savory and subtle. This is a dish I can imagine myself enjoying with a heavy pour of something barrel-aged and boozy.
I consider Gunnels’ earlier testimonial. I’m not sure if I could pick out each element in every dish Gunnels has prepared, but I have been both soothed and inspired by his presentation — and I suppose that’s the point.
Online, in bold, all-caps letters, Julep’s menu credits its creator: executive chef Brent Gunnels. He should consider the title well-earned.
Julep Cocktail Club
Blue grass gnocchi $6
Hot brown $12
Bourbon chicken $14
Pickled shrimp salad $13