Parakeet Café’s Jeff Armstrong combines traditional tastes with modern ingredients

BY Emily Booth  l  Photos By Roneil Chavez

Modern and thoughtful: that’s how Chef Jeff Armstrong describes his culinary style. And with a menu that features cauliflower couscous, beet-cured smoked salmon and plenty of mung beans, there’s nothing thoughtless going on here. Having grown up in a military family, Jeff hails from all over the U.S., but California has always pulled him home. His most recent culinary adventure took him to Aspen, Colorado, where he owned an Asian street food-inspired restaurant. With a talent for combining traditional fare with modern flair, it’s no surprise this innovative, SoCal believer ended up in the driver’s seat of one of La Jolla’s most forward-thinking cafés.

Why a chef? When I was younger, I loved the appeal of being a chef: the fast-paced work, the late nights, the way you command a kitchen… I was just drawn to it. The decision was easy for me: after high school, it was straight to culinary school.

What brought you to Parakeet Café? I actually met Jonathan and Carol, our owners, through Sixteen-Fifty, a creative agency I’ve worked with here in La Jolla for years. Rob Wells is the CEO there and is also a partner of Parakeet, so we were all kind of connected without even realizing it. Rob helped create the concept, and I really loved it. I particularly liked the idea of a café model versus a full-service restaurant because I knew it would give me the opportunity to focus exclusively on what I love: food.

Had you played around with whole foods like this before? Not really to this extent. I grew up on a farm for a while in North Carolina, so I’ve always had an appreciation for gathering my own food and knowing where it came from — but I hadn’t experimented with plant-based recipes until creating this menu.

How has Parakeet impacted your culinary style? It’s completely changed how I perceive food and its versatility. Take Mexican cuisine, for example. There’s so much more to it than Carne Asada, and much of it is in the form of plants. We have a protein bowl that features jicama, a true Mexican staple. We’ve used citrus and cilantro, giving it properties of a ceviche, and I really love that. I love rethinking traditional dishes and I think that’s what sets us apart.

Who has influenced you over the years? I’m a big fan of the classic French chefs — Paul Bocuse and Jean-Georges — those are still the guys to me. I actually worked for Jean-Georges in D.C. and New York for a while and he’s just fantastic.

Advice for aspiring chefs? Cleanliness. It’s hard to teach and I feel like you need to have grown up that way, but it’s so important in any kitchen.

If you could open a restaurant anywhere else? I’d stay right here. San Diego is the spot to be and the culinary scene is only getting better.