Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Jonathan Justus is saving the world one sausage at a time

Posted By on Wed, Feb 9, 2011 at 3:00 PM

click to enlarge Chef Jonathan Justus (left) and wife/co-owner Camille Eklof in the kitchen at Justus Drugstore.
  • Chef Jonathan Justus (left) and wife/co-owner Camille Eklof in the kitchen at Justus Drugstore.

The story of Justus Drugstore can be told through two books that sit on the shelf of a wooden end table just inside the front door. Great Sausage Recipes is stacked a few titles to the left of Making Great Sausage. Both have creased spines and the typefaces of scientific textbooks.

When a chef has multiple books dedicated to making his own sausage, odds are that you've just entered a restaurant with a very different philosophy. And that's what has led the world to take notice of what's happening in downtown Smithville, Missouri.

Chef Jonathan Justus and his wife/co-owner Camille Eklof long ago made a decision not to have children. But to say their restaurant is their child is an oversimplification of the couple's profound commitment to sustainability. Their restaurant is actually the embodiment of all they hold dear.

"This is our legacy. This is how we're going to effect change in the world," Justus says.

The couple didn't have such big plans when they met in San Francisco. He was a bike messenger. She worked in a shoe store. They had a shared love of dining out, which turned into a mutual desire to one day own a restaurant, despite neither of them having ever worked in one.

"We would pay what should have been our rent money for dinner. Whether it was disappointing or unbelievable, each meal showed us what we liked and didn't like," Justus says. 

Justus learned to cook, while Eklof focused on the front of the house and what it took to run a small business. Their travels took them abroad and back before they eventually settled near his childhood home of Smithville.

"We left San Francisco with a Wells Fargo account in the dot-com era. When we left, it was plenty, when we got back, it was not nearly enough," Justus says of the two years they spent in Aix-en-Provence, France. 

So they found a little house in Paradise, Missouri. It was a run-down, 100-year-old bungalow with 650 square feet of space. Justus was cooking at Le Fou Frog, and Camille was serving to make ends meet.

"It was the world's cheapest, blue-collar vacation home," Justus says.

In 1999, they moved back to San Francisco, where he found work as a food stylist assistant working on the Williams-Sonoma American regional cooking books and an updated, illustrated version in the Joy of Cooking series. He earned his first head chef position at an Irish pub and took a stint at a restaurant supply company in order to learn how to butcher meat and portion fish.  

In 2004, the pair returned to France. While cooking in Paris, he received an offer to head the kitchen at La Motte du Couchant in the south of France, near Montpellier. It came with an apartment on the beach and a chance to cook with seafood caught that day. In between the lunch and dinner service, Justus and Eklof would cool off with a dip in the Mediterranean.    

But sand gets into everything, and after two years, it was time to return home. He unexpectedly discovered that his future was at the site that held his family's past. The family business, a neighborhood drugstore, lasted for 46 years in a bustling downtown where you could shop for groceries, buy your oven, and put it all in the back of your new car. But life, like Justus, had moved away from Main Street. 
 
"I was looking down Main Street and I thought Disney can't make a version of this," Justus says.

The years of planning became an actual plan. Justus and Eklof rehabbed the drugstore, converting the soda-fountain counter into the bar. She manages the front of the house, while he mans the kitchen, just as they envisioned nearly two decades ago in San Francisco. And in 2007, they opened the doors to their legacy. 

"The legacy isn't a meal. The legacy is how we think about food. A lot of people don't want to hear that. The word 'sustainability' is thrown around a lot, but are humans going to sustain life on Earth? I have to try to do something about it. I can't help myself," Justus says.

They do their dreaming now from that blue-collar vacation home -- the attached garden supplies berries and herbs for the scratch cocktails and seasonal menu. While their menu continues to get more local, their restaurant dreams suddenly seem a lot more global.

[Image via The New York Times]  

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