Justin Woodward has been running the kitchen at Castagna for the past year and is more than filling the shoes left by the sudden departure of the former chef. Justin is a Southern California native — San Diego — and his cuisine at Castagna is imaginative, extraordinarily creative and fun. Working with the best possible ingredients, Justin creates inspired dishes using interesting cooking techniques. We spoke with him about his process of running the kitchen at Castagna.
What are you making in the kitchen today?
Spring salmon has just started so we are going to take local salmon, cure it in a bit of wild licorice that we foraged, cook it briefly and then pair it with spring onions from a local farmer. We like to create dishes using various different methods with the same product. For example, right now, we are playing around with a lot of onions. We’ll dry onions for a crunchy element, make a ripe puree using acid from lime leaves, and then glaze sweet chipolinis with four or five different herbs from our herb garden and finally make caramelized onion jus enriched with vadouvan spice.
What is your process when you are creating these dishes?
When we get a product in, we decide the best way to showcase the product. For example, cooking the salmon at a precise temperature for a certain amount of time develops a nice velvety texture. Salmon and onions are both in season right now, so it makes sense to pair them and they work well together. I wanted to pair the salmon and onions with something that has a really deep flavor, like a really strong umami. Onions naturally have a strong flavor and additionally we are making a Vadouvan, which is basically like a caramelized onion French curry that has a lot of umami in it. That should work well with the salmon. It will be very pretty with the green top and very rich and they work well together. I wanted to pair the salmon and onions with something that has a really deep flavor, like a really strong umami. Onions naturally have a strong flavor and additionally we are making a Vadouvan, which is basically like a caramelized onion French curry that has a lot of umami in it. That should work well with the salmon. It will be very pretty with the green top and very rich.
How many tries does it take for you to get it right?
That really depends on what it is. It is very rare that things work out well on the first try. Usually there’s a lot of trial and error, which is fine because you learn from those errors and that’s what it’s all about for me. Knowledge is what it’s all about.
Where are you from and how did you get started cooking?
I’m from San Diego. My dad always had a garden. He always cooked. My grandma always cooked and I basically grew up cooking and working in really nice restaurants in San Diego. I worked for Ryan Johnston who is the chef for Whisknladle (in La Jolla). He was great to work with, and does an excellent job. I also worked for Paul McCabe, a James Beard award-winning chef (Delicias in Rancho Santa Fe). I then moved to New York and worked at wd-50, for about a year under Alex Stupak. I became a stagiaire at numerous restaurants around New York and Europe. I staged at Noma in Copenhagen and Mugaritz Restaurant in San Sebastian, Spain. Then I moved back to California, worked at El Bizcocho in Rancho Bernardo, for a very short amount of time. Finally I came up here to Castagna in Portland. I came to Portland for this job.
And we are certainly glad that he did! Check out Justin at Castagna from Wednesday through Saturday. You can enjoy the prix fixe menu to opt for à la carte if it’s a lighter night.