May 31, 2022 – One of the area’s most anticipated new restaurants has tabbed an executive chef.
John Harry will oversee food at both the forthcoming Venus Spirits Cocktails & Kitchen Beachside and Venus’ original Westside Santa Cruz restaurant-bar-tasting room, though he will be based at—and primarily focused on—the new location.
He arrives after recent roles with Big Sur Bakery and Sierra Mar at Post Ranch Inn, and cites preceding kitchen stints in the Southeast as key to his culinary development.
Venus co-owner-operator Sean Venus met Harry as part of a guest chef series the restaurant was conducting and things clicked.
“After a short discussion, it was clear that he could be a strong asset,” Venus says. “He shares our culinary vision for fresh, local and coastal cuisine.”
Venus goes on to reference Lowcountry items on the current menu—like the fried chicken and cornbread with bourbon-bacon jam—adding, “Guests will be excited to see how his Georgia upbringing will impact our menu, which already boasts southern influences.”
Big Sur Bakery executive chef Tim Eelman also finds Harry’s history relevant.
“John is a natural leader [and] genuinely loves to feed people and accommodate them,” Eelman says. “Whether it was at his house or at Sierra Mar or Big Sur Bakery he always maintained a light hearted positive attitude while upholding standards—he has a unique ability to be professional and refined while not taking anything so seriously that it affects the positivity in the kitchen. He fits the [model] of southern hospitality. I’m lucky to have worked with him and call him a close friend.”
Edible caught up with Harry as he was making the move from the South Coast to Aptos, eager to embark on a new epicurean chapter. Here are a few of his thoughts as he prepares to debut Venus Beachside.
How would you characterize the food and mood you want to create for Venus?
We want to do classic seafood dishes with sustainably sourced products. Kind of an East Coast-meets-West Coast feel, the classics from New England, New Orleans and The Lowcountry with fresh California seafood and produce. We want it to feel like a treat or something worth going out of your way for and also accessible and not too stuffy.
What will surprise people about what you and your team plan to do?
I really want to share a true taste of southern food with California. Southern cuisine has gotten so trendy and is often poorly imitated and too rich. We’re hoping to show people what modern Southern cuisine can be and what that looks like through a California lens.
What are some of the things that make this a great partnership between you and Venus?
The connection was organic and felt good immediately. I spoke with them about my vision to create a culture that values employees above everything and what I think we could create with that mindset. They had a similar vision.
I’ve also always had a huge appreciation for cocktail culture. When I worked at Kimball House in Decatur, Georgia, the kitchen and the bar program were constantly pushing each other and growing and learning with each other. I’m looking forward to collaborating in that sense again.
When do you feel most alive in your work as a chef?
I love mentoring young chefs and knowing that the skills and tools that I pass along to them could make a big difference in their futures.
The spot for Venus in Aptos is pretty legendary. How does that inform what you want to do with the menu?
It’s such a beautiful location and I’m really excited to get to know the community of Aptos. We’re definitely planning on keeping sand dabs on the menu. I grew up gigging for flounder with my dad in coastal Georgia, so that is exciting for me.
What parts of your career will serve you best in this new role?
I always come back to Five & Ten in Athens, Georgia, which was my first real deal kitchen job. I always feel fortunate to have come up in a kitchen that really had strong fundamentals for sourcing and technique.
There were two prep cooks there, Sergio and Homero. They cooked circles around everyone and did it humbly and with a great attitude. I used to come in early every day and set up my cutting board directly in front of Sergio. I wanted to be just like him. One day we were folding towels and we each had our own bag and I was racing him and ended up beating him by just a hair. I started boasting a little and without saying anything he just looked at my stack of towels which was disheveled and messy compared to his, which was perfectly stacked.
He didn’t have to say anything and taught me a valuable lesson that has always stuck with me—work fast, but more importantly work clean and stay humble.
What do you wish I asked you? (And what would the answer be?)
What would your last meal be on death row? Grilled Monterey Bay king salmon collars and short grain rice.