Turned On and Tuned In
Chef Daniel Wendell of The Food Studio turned on and tuned in but never dropped out of life. “I grew up in a Volkswagen bus. My dad was very much a gypsy,” he says of life after his parents divorced. Landing in Gualala, a Northern California coastal counterculture enclave, Wendell learned how to surf fish. While living in San Francisco in the Victorian houses his uncle and father were remodeling, he experienced the Asian cuisines popular in that city.
Chico, California, became Wendell’s home at age ten and four years later, he turned to washing dishes at Chico Cheese and Charcuterie. “They fired me because I was a terrible dishwasher, but they needed a prep cook,” he says. They hired him on at age fourteen. Even in one of the richest agricultural areas in California, Wendell recalls the absence of a local farmers market, so the two owners of the shop took him on weekly sojourns to the San Francisco farmers market to buy product.
Here he crossed paths with Alice Waters of Chez Panisse. Years later, at seventeen, after his father had passed away, he took a prep job at the iconic neighborhood bistro in Berkeley where the concept of farm-to-table began. During this period, he also sampled the food of other local culinary notables: Barbara Tropp of China Moon, Joyce Goldstein of Square One, and Charles Phan of Slanted Door.
“Learning and exploring new recipes are fine, but be open to trying what you think sounds good.”
Wendell moved to Anchorage to be near his mother. He found a home at Sack’s Café, a bistro serving seafood and upscale Mediterranean and Asian cuisine. A year later, he became the executive chef and started the restaurant’s catering business. “This was what I was already at home with,” he says, describing the bistro as a variation of his familiar California cuisine. “I mixed it up a bit for them. I had a lot of freedom to create.”
Wendell took on other jobs as learning opportunities in the Last Frontier. Prepping at Daruma taught him about Japanese food; washing dishes for a paella specialist introduced him to the traditional Spanish dish. The spirit of perseverance as symbolized by the Daruma dolls carried Wendell to New Mexico, Colorado, and to be fortuitously drawn back to Alaska to meet his future wife, Eva. They ventured to Montana in 1999, where he joined the kitchens at Lone Mountain Ranch, Rainbow Ranch Lodge, and Yellowstone Club’s Rainbow Lodge in Big Sky.
The Food Studio provided Wendell a venue to operate his catering and private chef businesses. He purchased the space owned by the specialty food business All Things Italian in 2012. The already established kitchen and the former retail space readily converted into the high-end culinary studio with a certified commercial kitchen where he hosts dinners and caters parties.
Restaurants have always been home to Wendell. “I found family in restaurants. You form a camaraderie and make friends when you are under stress in a kitchen,” he says. These days, he empowers his culinary team to pursue their own ideas: “I help direct them to make the food they envision.”
His food philosophy: “Quite often good salt, pepper, and oil are all that is needed to enhance the flavor of the food you cook. Learning and exploring new recipes are fine, but be open to trying what you think sounds good. Often, simpler is better.”
With a strong team in place, Wendell pursued the launch of Tanoshii, which means delightful and pleasant in Japanese, but the COVID-19 pandemic has delayed him. “Japanese soul food” will be served up in a long and narrow space, seating up to 30 people once the restaurant opens, likely in January.
From an unencumbered beginning, Wendell has built family in his restaurants and life. With a new restaurant and three children, Wendell is turned on and tuned in to staying around.