Meet Justin Yu, James Beard Award-winning chef. Before his restaurants were forced to temporarily close and only serve takeout due to Coronavirus, we had a chance to chat with Justin as he prepared his famous tomato toast in his home kitchen. He told us about his favorite cookbooks, food trends, and must-have fridge items. Now more than ever, his restaurants - and restaurants across the country - need our support. Read Justin's inspiring story and be sure to pick up delicious food from one of his restaurants if you're based in Houston.
As a Houston native, how has your hometown influenced your career and relationship with food?
Houston is the ultimate food lover’s town in many different ways. The diversity, not only in its people and cuisine but also in its wide appeal to value, is second to none in the U.S.
In Houston you can choose to enjoy a Michelin-inspired meal with beverage pairings and crisp linens for two hundred dollars. You can also stand in the heat at West Alabama Ice House playing ring on a string, sucking down Lone Stars and eating some of the city’s best lengua tacos.
Houston is open to everyone, and my relationship with Houston has inspired that aspect of my career as a chef and restaurant owner: I want to cook for everyone.
Theodore Rex offers a hyper-personal point of view. For great cocktails and tasty bar food, you can go to Better Luck Tomorrow and get messy with your hands. For something healthy, quick, and easy, you can head to Penny Quarter for a coffee and kale salad.
What inspired you to become a chef? Was there a key moment in your life when you decided to pursue this career?
My aunts, Betty and Josephine, owned a Chinese restaurant in Southern California. Growing up, we would visit them and our family gatherings around their restaurant table was where all the happiness happened. From a very young age, I wanted to do something with my life that made people happy, and this is what I knew. I remember one particular day, when I was probably too young to be wandering around by myself in the restaurant, I snuck into my aunts’ restaurant kitchen and saw the chef making a big fire in the wok. That moment really stuck with me, and I’ve just wanted to be a chef ever since.
You worked in restaurants in Chicago, Napa Valley, and in Europe before returning home to open Oxheart where you earned a James Beard Award. How did you decide to return home to open your restaurant in Houston?
Houston has always been home, but there was a point when I wasn’t sure that Houstonians wanted to eat the food that I wanted to make. At the time the best restaurants were steakhouses and “southern” restaurants all with very similar menus. In 2010, my friend Seth Siegel-Gardner opened The Pass and Provisions and invited me to cook at a month-long pop up series called the “Just August Project”. We used it as a testing ground to see if Houstonians were interested in the tasting menu-style concept we were envisioning. The entire month of bookings sold out in one day after we announced it. This is when I knew that Houston was ready and had been ready; chefs had just been afraid to take the risk.
In the past few years you and your business partner Bobby Heugel have opened Better Luck Tomorrow, Penny Quarter, and Squable, plus you are co-owner of Public Services and chef/owner of Theodore Rex -- so your hands are more than full. Where do you source inspiration for your concepts? What are the best and most difficult parts of owning and operating restaurants?
I love traveling, so a lot of my places have bits and pieces of inspiration from other bars and restaurants around the world. It’s always fun to weave and influence a new concept, but the best part is seeing where these businesses take themselves. We have great leadership within our community of restaurants and bars -- partners, chef de cuisines, sommeliers, managers and support staff -- who allow Bobby and me to oversee the creative aspects. The most difficult part is that the projects can be very personal and particular, and require a lot of attention. There’s only so many hours in a day and only so much energy in the body.
What words of advice would you give to someone who is training to become a chef who dreams of opening his/her own restaurant?
My aunts said this to me on my first day of working as a busboy in their restaurant: “Keep your head down, but your eyes up and always take time to listen. If you work hard, people will notice.”
Who are your mentors in the industry?
My mentor is Ryan Pera from Coltivare. I worked as one of his cooks when he was the chef of 17 Restaurant downtown. He taught me about the calm but unyielding way to conduct myself in the kitchen. I probably have a little bit more of a temper than he does though.
Food trend you’re most excited about right now? Any that you’re ready to see go out?
I love the vegetable-forward cooking that’s being done in high-end kitchens these days. I’ve been cooking vegetables for years, but it’s great to see them get their due with wider audiences.
I hate eggs that have been cooked with an immersion circulator and then passed off as a poached egg. Poaching an egg takes patience and technique. Circulated eggs have the texture of snot.
Your tomato toast has become one of your signature dishes. What was the inspiration behind this dish?
It was actually around the time I was thinking about opening Theodore Rex in lieu of Oxheart. On the Oxheart menu we had an intensely cooked down tomato fondant, and we’ve always made our own bread in house. I was standing in the corner after a night in the kitchen eating the bread with a little of that fondant and I thought, “Man, I cook with so many layers and bits and pieces for this tasting menu. I wish someday I could just cook something as simple and delicious as this piece of great bread with this tomato sauce.” So the simplicity of the toast really was the inspiration behind Theodore Rex.
When you’re not at one of your own restaurants, where are you typically eating and drinking around town?
You’ll find me at Nancy’s Hustle, Himalaya, and I’ve recently started going to Handie’s Douzo a lot. To drink, I’m ashamed to say how many nights a week I end up for a nightcap at Anvil or Poison Girl. I also have a (very) soft spot for Houston’s.
Go-to at-home meal?
A simple salad with good olive oil and lemon juice. I like being able to set something, leave, and come back and eat, so I make a lot of crock pot braised chicken stews. Plus they hold really well.
But mostly I cook eggs and eat them with Chinese Chili Crisp.
What are a few of your favorite local takeout spots for dinner?
Always in your fridge:
Wine. I love this boxed wine from The Heights Grocer called From the Tank that’s super delicious and, because I live by myself, I don’t have to feel like I have to finish an entire bottle or let it go to waste. Other than that, eggs, hot sauce, and salsa because I eat a lot of chips and salsa in the middle of the night.
Most used cookbooks in your kitchen:
On Vegetables by Jeremy Fox because of his simple-but-not-simple style. Everything I Want to Eat: Sqirl and the New California Cooking by Jessica Koslow for the same reason, but with a more homey feel. And The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science by J. Kenji Lopez-Alt. It’s a home cook nerd’s best friend. I love its well-written reasons for all types of cooking techniques that I often use as a professional chef, but had no idea why they worked so well.
Favorite Rigby piece:
I love the breakfast bowl because it’s just the right size for the broths and soups I make, as well as for snacks. Plus, it’s the perfect weight in your hand for walking around the house while eating.