Growing up in “landlocked” Nelson, B.C., Justin Witcher dreamed of seeing the world after he graduated from culinary school in Vancouver. He got a job cooking on a cruise ship and visited places in Australia, Asia, Europe, and beyond. The experience piqued his love of travel, his favourite place to go proving to be the home of tapas and sangria.
“I love Spain,” the executive chef of ¿CóMO? Taperia tells the Straight during an interview that starts off like a version of Carpool Karaoke (albeit less hilarious). I’m tagging along for the ride, recording device on, as he zips from the Mount Pleasant restaurant to a nearby bakery for fresh bread needed for bikini sandwiches for a Visa Infinite dinner. “I love the simplicity of the food. You don’t need to do much to it; the ingredients are so good they speak for themselves. There’s no better ham in the world than Iberico ham. There’s no better nut than Marcona almonds. Pair them with sherry and you’re set.
“It’s simple, but Spanish people also play with their food,” he adds. “Italy or France don’t stray from what they do too much; you don’t fuck with a spaghetti vongole. It is what it is. It’s tried and true and super good. In Spain they really experiment more. So many chefs think outside the box. It’s cool that they’re so progressive.”
With his long-standing love of all things Spanish, it’s no wonder the Vancouver Community College grad got excited when bartender Shaun Layton (previously of L’Abattoir) and Meat & Bread cofounder Frankie Harrington told him about the tapas restaurant and bar they wanted to open on Main Street.
From the moment it launched, ¿CóMO? has bedazzled diners. This year, it earned the title of Best New Restaurant in the Georgia Straight’s Golden Plates. The lively eatery was also named the second-best new restaurant in Canada last year by enRoute magazine—the only Vancouver establishment to make the list. For Witcher, the accolades have been overwhelming.
“It’s been a whirlwind,” Witcher says. “Even when I thought about it being at its absolute best, I didn’t imagine it would be like this. It’s pretty cool. Feels pretty good.
“It’s not just good food, but good drinks and good atmosphere,” he says of the team’s vision. “You can come and have a quick drink and a quick bite at the bar, have a glass of sherry and meet your friends before having dinner reservations somewhere else,” he says. “We have people who do that. Of course, we want them to have dinner here, but we really want people to talk to each other. What inspired me about restaurants in Barcelona was that within an hour, we knew everyone around us; we were eating off other people’s plates. It was so cool. ¿CóMO? is something new for Vancouver.”
Witcher got his start in the industry right after high school, when he got a job as a dishwasher at a small Mexican restaurant in his hometown. “I had to pay snowboarding bills,” he says with a laugh. He worked his way up the ranks before taking on a role at an Italian restaurant. At 20, he moved to Vancouver for his culinary training.
After his cruise-ship stint came more work and more travel, including time at Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen Melbourne, which employed marginalized youths; there, he learned patience. He had a gig at the Wedgewood Hotel, where then executive chef Lee Parsons helped unleash his creativity: “He got me thinking more outside the box.” Then it was back to Australia, where he worked with hospitality company Atlantic Group, cooking for visiting world leaders and royalty. “It was a big jump in my career,” he says. “I had so much more responsibility. It was intense.”
After three-and-a-half years, Witcher was back on the West Coast, battling it out with two other chefs vying for a position with the Clayoquot Wilderness Resort. Each had to spend a full day cooking at the luxury property to prove their chops. He won, embracing the opportunity to work with some of the best B.C. ingredients available, all sustainable and locally sourced. Eventually, a mutual friend introduced him to Layton and Harrington, who, from their own travels, share a deep appreciation for Spanish cuisine and culture and the way they’re deeply intertwined.
“We wanted it to be authentic—to make croquettes like your tavern croquettes from Spain,” Witcher says. The menu features classic items like patatas bravas, goat-cheese stuffed peppers, and bikini sandwiches with jamón and Manchego cheese. Then there are more daring dishes like arroz negro: black rice with squid ink, squid, prawn, dashi, smoked paprika tempura bits, and aioli; and a recent special of uni foam with hot smoked paprika, spot prawns, and squid-ink focaccia. The bar offers selections not easily found on this side of the Atlantic: Spanish vermouth on tap, for instance, as well as an extensive selection of Spanish beer, sherry, and cava by the glass. Of course, there’s an entire section dedicated to gin and tonics.
Witcher says people often ask if another restaurant is in the works; perhaps, he says, but the team is in no rush to expand. “We want to be true to our work here,” he says. “Maybe we’ll slowly branch out, but for now we want to continue to make people happy."