At Fine Dining Restaurant Group, where West serves as culinary director, he's had the opportunity to live out his childhood dream. Photo: Nick Sulzer // Buckrail

JACKSON, Wyo. — For most of us, it was our favorite television show after soccer practice. But for Joe West, a culinary fascination paired with a palate that yearned for more sent him away from the living room and into the kitchen.

“I grew up watching Julia Childs and Lidia Bastianich on PBS and writing down the recipes to try to recreate them. I would go to soccer practice and then after that, I’d come home and try to do a dish,” said West.

At Fine Dining Restaurant Group, where West serves as culinary director, he’s had the opportunity to live out his childhood dream.

“This is definitely a dream job for me,” he said.

About a month ago, West was hired to oversee all culinary operations for the company. In his role, he rotates in and out of all Fine Dining restaurants along with the commissary kitchen, overseeing new menu creation, working throughout each kitchen and serving as the direct report for Fine Dining chefs.  With both corporate and culinary responsibilities, it is up to West to successfully streamline an entire restaurant chain that meets the gold Fine Dining standard.

Ultimately, a culinary director is a crucial component that sets the Fine Dining experience apart from others as it emphasizes a commitment to excellence and forward progress.

Launched into the Industry at an Early Age

A Kansas City native, born in Japan, West was thrown into the industry at an early age by circumstance, and by the age of ten he was well acquainted with restaurant culture.

“When I was younger my mom was a server in a restaurant so she would work late nights. I was always around restaurant culture, there would be times where my sister and I would be hanging around the restaurant and I grew up running around in the back of the house.”

At the age of sixteen, West found himself comfortable in the kitchen and a participant of a culinary program that took him out of class for three hours a day in high school. From there, West won two full-ride scholarships and went on to attend Johnson & Wales in Denver.

Before arriving in Jackson, West built his repertoire working in a variety of culinary leadership positions throughout the country. Over the course of his career, Joe has worked in James Beard and Food & Wine recognized kitchens, as well as the 2-star Michelin-rated restaurant Alex at Wynn Resorts in Las Vegas. An award-winning chef himself, Joe brings his culinary creativity, experience leading teams and an approach to building flavors using modern and traditional cooking techniques to his role overseeing Fine Dining’s culinary operations.

He most recently was the Executive Chef of 21c Museum Hotel and The Savoy Restaurant in Kansas City.

“I spent my whole life as someone just trying to go up the ladder and learn as much as I can, I totally geek out on food and being a chef.”

For the most part, it’s been a lifetime of being a food nerd.

“I was the type of kid who would go to culinary school but then at home, I’d be researching chefs, where they’re at and what their menus were online. I would read cookbooks, and constantly want to work for these chefs.”

Food is For the People

With his knowledge, a love for the craft and a philosophy that food is ‘for the people’, West arrived in Jackson this summer to begin his role as Culinary Director at the Fine Dining Restaurant Group.

“Everyone has their own process, every restaurant has their own style and way of doing things, and I want to keep it that way.” Photo: Nick Sulzer // Buckrail

On any day West can be found curating new menus with chefs, tasting new plates and even occasionally washing dishes in the back of the house when things get busy. There’s no job too small. In fact, he says that time in the dish pit has shown him what guests leave behind on the plate; he takes it all into consideration.

While West has heavy oversight on the plates served in each respective Fine Dining restaurant, he likes to give way for chefs to take the reigns.

“Everyone has their own process, every restaurant has their own style and way of doing things, and I want to keep it that way.”

“Say a chef wants to change a dish at The Bistro, if he just wants to taste the dish I’ll come over and taste it with him. We will taste it and talk about it and be like ‘you know what I think it needs more acid’, or ‘the texture is off’.”

Everyday West helps to fine-tune dishes, and it’s clear that he has one down to perfection: Okonomiyaki Ribs, a current menu item at The Kitchen.

“Okonomiyaki is a traditional Japanese dish that is like a pancake –a savory pancake. It’s puffing up on the griddle with vegetables and generally some sort of pork that’s on top, piled with more cabbage, it’s steaming and grilling at the same time.”

“Instead of just doing that we added smoked ribs and a sweet sauce glaze on the ribs and used all the topping that would go on the Okonomiyaki. It has shaved bonito flakes, nori powder, puffed rice, sesame seeds, there’s a little bit of ginger aioli on there. Then we have this sweet soy glaze called ‘bulldog sauce’.”

Clearly, it’s not your typical barbecue rib.

The Last Affordable Luxury

West speaks of dining out as one of the last affordable luxuries left in this world. Mentioning how the entire experience revolves around an individual catering to you and your needs so that when it’s done right, it’s one of the best affordable experiences one may indulge in.

At Fine Dining restaurants, menus change with the seasons. In his new role, West expressed that he hopes to reflect the desires of his customers and to curate menus that are unique, fun, but also straightforward.

“I think people are looking for something that is comforting but still unique and fun, so a refreshed version of something they’ve grown up eating. I also think simple is making a comeback. I think people appreciate that- food that is straightforward”

In his role a culinary director, West hopes to serve as the common ground between the different restaurants within the group.

“I think it’s just being the person that glues everything together and trying to find the commonalities between each kitchen, chef and restaurant so we can streamline it better. I’m hoping to have this standard and expectation for anyone that comes into a Fine Dining Restaurant is going to expect a certain level of service no matter which one they go to.”

“Once we create that stability we can start going further with the creativity and make our food even better.”