Spotlight: Justin Campbell of h.wood Group
They say that that cooking is both science and art, and that certainly extends to mixology. When I mentioned that term to Justin Campbell, Bar Director of the trendsetting h.wood Group, he reacted a bit as we sat across from each other in a cozy 40 Love booth on a sunny Sunday afternoon.
“Mixology is a weird term, a bit negative, cold, and science-based when cocktails are supposed to be pleasurable,” he says matter-of-factly as I sipped on The JoJo (Absolut Elyx vodka, St-Germain, fresh lemon, strawberry, sparkling wine, rosewater).
This, coming after he explained the importance of the sugar ratio in a frozen cocktail, and effects of ice cube and vessel choice to the overall experience of a cocktail. He obviously knows his beverage science, but it’s the art that causes his speech cadence to speed up with the passion of someone who loves what they do. And in West Hollywood, a great cocktail is truly an artform.
Born to Do This
His 15 years of experience in bartending, bar management, and opening cocktail programs at new bars and restaurants prepared him for the demanding pace of directing the h.wood beverage program. His midwest work ethic mixed with his global savvy (he recently completed a 9-month sojourn that included Iceland, Prague and Germany) give him the right background to tackle this demanding new career here in West Hollywood.
Originally from Michigan, Justin began his love affair with hospitality as a busboy at 14, and moved his way up the ranks. He began bartending on the sly when he wasn’t yet of legal age, after learning how to make cocktails from a DVD-course he ordered off the TV.
Meet the h.wood Venues
This hospitality group boasts a celebrity-filled line up of West Hollywood venues including Bootsy Bellows, Delilah, Poppy, and Harriet’s Rooftop. Right outside our borders – Slab, The Nice Guy, Petite Taqueria, and the Peppermint Club also welcome tourists to experience something distinctly LA. Justin treats each cocktail menu as a way to connect patrons with the origins of the spirits, vibrant local ingredients and finely honed methods.
He is obsessed with balance, and you will see that each of his beverage menus caters to the cultural context and unique personality of the venue. For instance, Harriet’s offers fresh flowers in each of its libations (a nod to his grandmother’s garden), 40 Love elevates tailgate classics like the Bud Light Straw-ber-rita and for Petite Taqueria, it’s margaritas, tequila and mezcals. Although there are some recurring cocktail stars (looking at you The JoJo and Spicy Siena), each venue has its own distinct bar program.
Dream Job, Please
Justin was originally tapped to launch h.wood’s Blind Dragon and Mason in Chicago. As can happen, construction fell a bit behind and the leadership team didn’t want to lose him. They asked if he would come out and be a part of the opening team for 40 Love, which was perfect since he’s a self-professed sports guy. After launch, he went back to Chicago and opened up Blind Dragon and Mason and was then offered a choice of Chicago or LA.
He chose LA.
Officially part of the h.wood Openings Team, Justin designs the bar programs. This includes creating the drinks, choosing the glass wear, identifying the ice, designing the backbar and creating the bar staff training materials – as well as training the staff in his Garden-to-Glass philosophy.
Fresh produce is the perfect complement to a high-quality spirit, and Justin “has a guy” who sources the freshest local produce possible, loads that directly into his truck to be delivered via a West Coast circuit with a distinct stop just for Justin and his team. Inspired by the freshest things possible, Justin is currently experimenting with things like sweet corn, gooseberries and beets – kinda perfect for the West Hollywood palate. (Psst! Stay tuned for Alice’s Kitchen at The 1 Hotel that just may be home to some of these vegetable surprises).
And then there is the method. For instance, the sugar levels in a frozen drink have to be just right or it won’t freeze. It may be too hard or too soft. “I am aiming for the consistency of granita,” Justin says about his frozen drinks.
Now THIS is LA
His work schedule, and the breakneck expansion of the h.wood group have Justin sticking pretty close to his West Hollywood home – he doesn’t even know how to get to K-Town yet. Of course we had to find out where he goes when he’s not working: Alfred’s for coffee, Beverly Center for shopping and newly opened SLAB for BBQ. “I had to stop myself because I had been there five days in a row!” he said.
He loves, and is inspired by, the al fresco patio culture of WeHo, and finds the views from Harriet’s Rooftop unparalleled. “The first time I saw that view at sunset, I thought ‘now THIS is LA!’”
Throughout our afternoon interview, Justin makes frequent references to his mother and grandmother. His grandmother’s garden inspires some of the choices at Harriet’s Rooftop, and it’s the work ethic that his Mom instilled in him that prepared him for the grueling pace of a busy restaurant. As early as 5 years old, he was “paying half” for things he wanted with the money he made from his chores. She was also supportive of whatever caught his interest. “All of my ideas and inspiration stem directly from my mother and grandmother.”