Star chefs honor the legacy of Chef Joe Miller by preparing a meal like no other

By Jessica Koslow

Left: Chefs Raphael Lunetta, Jill Davie and Kevin Meehan were among the culinary all-star roster at Miller’s memorial, hosted by The Mar Vista. Right: The Mar Vista’s Gulianna Sarto grills seafood for the evening’s knockout menu.  

Notable chefs, farmers market vendors, family and friends gathered on Dec. 2 at Venice Boulevard destination restaurant The Mar Vista to remember Chef Joe Miller, best known as the founder of Joe’s Restaurant on Abbot Kinney Boulevard.

There had been other memorials before — Miller, who was only 60, died in late October from complications of cardiac arrest — but this was a celebration of his life … with food. The event centered around dinner, which longtime Joe’s Restaurant fan Gail Rogers said was the best food she’s ever eaten — “and the wine was flowing.”

Michelin-starred Joe’s Restaurant was open for 24 years before closing in 2016. My entire family loved Joe’s, and most of them attended the dinner. I, too, have fond memories of the nights we celebrated family occasions at Joe’s.

I think about how Joe’s was one of the first fancy restaurants in Venice — before Abbot Kinney became famous as the “coolest” street in America. Then I think about how Miller also made himself a part of the community — about him shopping for local farmers market produce and about all of his volunteer work at WE Garden at Westminster Elementary, right across the street from Joe’s.

In addition to Joe’s (and all the other hats he wore during his chef career), Miller operated Bar Pintxo from 2006 to 2017 near Third Street Promenade and, most recently, opened Rudy & Hudson diner in 2017 in the former IHOP space at Santa Monica Boulevard and 20th Street.

The roster of chefs in The Mar Vista’s kitchen last Monday night was impressive: In addition to Jill Davie, owner of The Mar Vista, it included Raphael Lunetta (JiRaffe, Lunetta), Neal Fraser of Redbird, Clark Staub of Full of Life Flatbread, Josh Gil; Rich Mead, Govind Armstrong, Kevin Meehan of Kali, Lisa Walker and Ben Ford.

Both good friends of Joe, Christopher Keller was pouring his Emanuel Tres wines and Steve Roberts from HopSaint provided his beer on tap.

“We sent out texts and emails to all the chefs, friends, farmers and family members we could think of who knew or worked with Joe, asking if they’d want to participate,” says Davie.

Those who jumped on board were each asked to whip up a specialty for the evening. On the menu was grilled rib-eye, kampachi aguachile, bouillabaisse, pizzas, heirloom tomato salad, fresh oysters, whole fried local rock fish and pho, and
on and on.

David Plonowski, who worked with Miller at Bar Pintxo, flew in from Cincinnati to make paella. Staub drove his wood burning oven down from Los Alamos for the occasion and parked it on Venice Boulevard. Miller’s ex-wife Monica Balsz and daughter Harper were in attendance.

Not only was the night a celebration of the life of chef Joe Miller, but it was a night celebrating the lives of chefs. Participating chefs goofed, played and joked as much as they cooked and prepared, ensuring a joyous, and far from somber, atmosphere.

“We don’t get to be together,” says Davie, alluding to the busy life of the kitchen that by virtue of workload tends to keep star chefs from spending time with one another.

In front of the restaurant’s corner “Wishmas” tree, chefs and farmers and friends took the microphone one by one to speak about Miller. One of the master gardeners at WE Garden paid tribute to Miller and the time and energy he gave cooking regularly with the kids and preparing healthy dishes (with the food they grew) for them to taste.

The chatter around the room was lively. One guest remembered the delicious prix fixe lunches and her favorite table at Joe’s Restaurant: “When you walked in, if you turned left, up the little step (they always said ‘Be careful!’), then an immediate left, there was a table by the window facing Abbot Kinney. No matter what day we went for lunch, there would be a gentleman sitting alone adjacent to us. The servers told us that he ate there every day, and that Joe would prepare him a special lunch.”

On the tables in front of each guest were pieces of paper, with the instructions to jot down a wish for Joe.

“Every year I encourage everyone to garnish our tree with wishes at The Mar Vista,” says Davie, “and then after the New Year, I take them up to Full of Life Flatbread and ceremonially burn them in my husband’s hand-built wood burning oven [blessed upon building by Chumash elder Shaman]. I like to think the wishes come true!”