Editor’s Note: This guest column was written by longtime foodie and social media legend Larry “From Yelp” McClements. Larry is probably the best outside expert on Newhall Refinery and has always been a joy to dine with while there because of his extensive knowledge of the menu and rapport with the staff. It was for that reason that I asked Larry to write for us.
The Santa Clarita food scene was rocked this past week with the news that Newhall Refinery and Executive Chef William Brunk have parted ways. We can’t confirm the reason for this, but read on to understand what this means.
When it opened in early 2013, Newhall Refinery generated quite a buzz. The brain child of well-respected owners Simon and Shannon Mee (of Egg Plantation fame), they promised a place that would be unique to Santa Clarita. Well, they certainly delivered by opening our valley’s first genuine gastropub in the heart of the Old Town Newhall. The well thought out décor paid homage to the oil days of our valley and featured exposed rafters and Edison lighting. They served up great food with 22 rotating microbrews while shunning away from the mass-produced uber brews like Budweiser or Miller Lite.
As with any new restaurant, there were some initial kinks to be worked out and some staff turned over. Months after opening, news came that a new Executive Chef had been hired, William Brunk. Changes to the food lineup slowly emerged. Some menu items were retired and new ones were introduced. But this wasn’t a one-time thing. This process became part of the magic that now makes Refinery what it is today.
The menu rotates, almost constantly. A new dish seemed to appear on the menu weekly with others being retired depending on the seasonality of ingredients or popularity. There is always something new at Newhall Refinery, and this is part of its greatness.
But unlike a chain restaurant where someone in a corporate boardroom decides new menu items, the duties of overseeing this process fell to William. Under his leadership, diners saw such menu items as sea scallops with carrot ginger puree and wasabi avocado mousse, beef butter (bone marrow) with truffled rocket arugula, quail pops with chipotle crema and peach salsa and braised lamb shank with mascarpone parmesan polenta and a smoked cherry glace. This is food the likes of which our valley has never seen.
But it did not end there. I personally have dined at Newhall Refinery in excess of 50 times. I really came to respect what William and Newhall Refinery have done during my many visits and especially William’s passion for food. My best vantage point was from the counter where I could watch all of the action in the open kitchen. One night William raced into the kitchen and excitedly told the chefs that the scallops would be in the following day. Everyone became really excited at this news and William went on to talk about his thoughts on how to prepare them.
I had many conversations with William about food. In all honesty I don’t consider myself much of a chef, I am more of an imitator. I draw many of my inspirations from dishes that come out of Refinery (my 2014 Christmas dessert will closely mimic one of theirs). I recently spoke with William about one of my all-time favorite food items, foie gras. William looked at me and said that if he ever had to get a tattoo, he would get ‘foie gras’ tattooed across his knuckles. It was not uncommon to see William strolling the restaurant and interacting with customers. William has a true passion for food and it certainly shows.
It is fair to say that an Executive Chef is essentially the CEO of the kitchen. They are responsible for recipes, meal creations, ensuring the food comes out properly and overseeing all aspects of the kitchen from ordering supplies to staffing. As such, the food that Newhall Refinery has been putting out is largely a reflection of William. So with his departure, one thing is clear. Things are going to change at Newhall Refinery. They may be better, worse or just as good. However, whoever steps into the new role as Executive Chef will have their own vision and the food will change to reflect that.
There are many people that help to make Refinery what it is. There is the knowledgeable wait staff, attentive managers and owners that invested their time and money to bring everything to us. But it is clear that under William’s leadership, Newhall Refinery went from being a great SCV restaurant to one of the top restaurants in our valley.
The departure of William is really a loss for the SCV food scene. We can only hope that the passion William brought to Newhall Refinery is carried on by someone else.