Part one of our interview with chef Justus ran yesterday.
Today, he discusses why we don't have patience for food and whether
he'll ever be a contestant on a reality cooking show. Tomorrow, he'll
be giving his recommendations for local, sustainable shopping.
At 3 p.m. on a Wednesday, the dining room is so quiet at Justus
Drugstore that I can hear the nearby hum of the refrigerator behind the
bar. The hostess makes sure that the napkins are square to the edge of the
table as soft jazz floats over the speakers. The restaurant is at rest, waiting for the hum of diners. But chef Jonathan Justus is a body in motion, bouncing from the bar to the kitchen and out to the patio, where icicles still hang from the awning.
There are truffles to be ordered for a charity dinner, menu ideas to scrawl in a spiral notebook and ice water to be gulped from a QuikTrip cup. His energy infuses the restaurant with life. The bartender begins to juice lemons and limes and prepare simple syrup for the scratch bar. A vacuum buzzes, and pans sizzle in the kitchen.
How have diners changed since you opened Justus in 2007? It's much easier for us now because there was a weeding-out process. Not everybody likes this meal. It's a long meal. I've seen it online -- when I heard it was going to be a two-hour meal and I had never sat for longer than a hour. Then someone writes: The time flew by, and it was fabulous. It's not for everybody, it should be for more people. If you can't take the time to sit down with a meal and have a conversation ... I look out and see two or four people not talking, and I know that's a problem table. That's awful. I just remember when we first opened, a server came back and said a guest told him that "for these prices, I would expect the food would come out faster."
Why don't we have patience for food? Maybe it's that our hunger for consumer products has driven us to have to work so many hours that we don't have time for anything real in life. A part of that is the meal and the social connection that should come from it.
Would we ever see you on a cooking competition show? Probably not. I'm not that good a cook. I've got much better cooks in my kitchen. I cook four nights a week and I prep. But I need to cook in order to make sure I can articulate what I want. I'm not cooking other people's food.
What's the key to a great recipe? All in the composition, just like a painting. Simplicity versus complexity, saturation, line edge, the concept, dualities and juxtaposition. You can't appreciate it if everything is so complex. Like with musical compositions, it's not just the note but the space around it.
What keeps a plate from being great? Often the tiniest thing denigrates a plate into disaster. Sometimes it's articulation. It's such a tightrope. That said, any amount of technique and frill around the edges isn't going to save a bad foundation. If the foundation is wrong, it doesn't matter. Still, a lot of chefs think it is just about the food, but Camille and I talk about theater of dining all the time. If you have good food, a good atmosphere and great service, you're all set. But if you have great food, poor service and a poor atmosphere, you'll only be open for a little while.
One book that every chef should read? Emile Zola's, The Belly of Paris. It's fun, and I love the history of cooking. Fun and history. Love the history of cooking. This was back in the day when the average life span of a cook was shorter than that of a coal miner because of the carbon monoxide that was produced by trying to keep the food hot.
Not the same book is going to be the right fit for every chef. The last book I read was The Scavenger's Guide to Haute Cuisine. I learned that not everybody should try complicated food. The idea is to gather friends for a three-day, 45-course meal, and he admits that there are disasters. He spent a year to create a catastrophe. But it wasn't about the manifestation in the end; it was about the pursuit. For me, that was awesome.
Who's got the best barbecue in town, and what are you ordering? Smokehouse Bar-B-Que beans. They put the beans under the pit and let the drippings drip into them. Gates sauce because it's not so sweet. Oklahoma Joe's for pulled pork.
If you could steal a dish off anybody's menu in town? I had one of the coolest dishes right when Julian opened. Celina [Tio] did this spinach souffle. It had a runny yolk in the center. It came with a baguette and shaved pancetta, and you dipped it in like a big spoon to break the egg yolk. I think she called it green eggs and ham. It was a great dish. But I know great dishes can't be great if you feel like you can't articulate it perfectly every time. It was really fun.
A chef is only as good as ... the last plate out of the kitchen. Always.
[Image via Culinary Idea Lab]