TL&CC Q&A – Jonathan Justus, executive chef & co-owner, Black Dirt

28 November 2018
Jonathan Justus, Black Dirt

Jonathan Justus was a gallery-represented painter and bike messenger for fifteen years, a cook in Paris, and ran a kitchen in the south of France while living as an illegal immigrant. He was executive chef at Justus Drugstore, which he co-owned with his wife Camille Eklof. In 2007, Justus Drugstore was nominated by the James Beard Foundation for Best New Restaurant (nationwide). Chef Justus has two James Beard nominations for Best Chef Midwest, and he and the restaurant have been featured in numerous publications including USA Today, Bon Appétit and The New York Times Sunday Magazine. Justus and Eklof recently opened their much-anticipated Kansas City concept, Black Dirt.

What is your idea of perfect happiness? When I am intensely focused, whether it is off-road cycling, off-piste skiing, shooting billiards, painting, or cooking – all else recedes back. All darkness, hate, intolerance or greed, dissolve. It is only me and the object of my focus.

What is the purest thing you have ever tasted? The not-quite-bloomed black locust flower. It tastes like a floral starchless sweet pea. They are elusive here. Finicky spring weather allows for foraging them three or four out of every ten years, or so.

What is the best thing you can do with your hands? Keep them. I almost lost my right one because of nerve damage caused by a car door opening in front of me on my bicycle. This ended a fourteen-year career as a bicycle messenger.

What do you love most about what you do? Bringing people back from their culinary fears. I often have people tell me, “Chef, I eat things here that I would never try somewhere else because over time I’ve learned to trust you.”

What do you consider the most overrated ingredient? It’s a toss-up between lobster and truffles. You’ll impress me more with your creativity using pedestrian ingredients. Show me something I haven’t seen with a zucchini (courgette).

What’s the best thing you’ve ever been taught? To not be my own worst enemy. It’s a constant struggle. Wait, I haven’t learned anything.

Is there anything you don’t particularly care to eat? Anything that hasn’t been respected. Think about that for a moment or two.

When was the last time you ate out, and where? Last week at The Antler Room in Kansas City.

Are there any mentors or food heroes you would like to thank? Noboru and his wife Yoshimi, the chef duo of a ten-seat sushi restaurant in San Francisco I visited nearly weekly for over ten years and whose name I’ve sworn to secrecy, for teaching me the aesthetic of ‘less is more’ and how to use the entirety of an abalone – including the partially-digested seaweed still in its stomach.

What are your favourite books or cookbooks? The out-of-print The Professional Charcuterie Series, Wild Edibles of Missouri, the 1943 ‘War Edition’ of The Joy of Cooking that was a wedding gift from my mother replete with diagrams on how to skin a squirrel, and Blue Highways by William Least Heat Moon.

What do you make from scratch? I always said if we can’t make it from scratch, we just won’t serve it, and I would follow that with a ‘for instance’. For instance, we’ll probably never make…

What would you be doing if you weren’t doing what you are doing? Looking for work.

How do you like to spend your day off? Exploring.

What does success mean to you? Effecting change.

What is your current obsession, the thing you think about at 3am? My OCD is pretty intense and it’s wrapped in a tightly-wound ball of low self-esteem that works for me. Last night it was the thought of these questions keeping me awake.

Can you tell us something we don’t know about you? I have very attractive feet.

Which three words best describe your cooking style? Sense of purpose – I hope.

What do you see when you think of the cuisine of your own country? To the average citizen, it’s a meal serving up heart disease and diabetes and unfortunately, we’ve been masterful at exporting it.

Which talent would you most like to have? A decent memory.

If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be? I need to strive every day to remember to be more empathetic.

Do you have a motto or mantra? Expectations are the death of pure experience.

What is your number one sustainability tip or trick? There is no panacea. Our restaurant is in a very conservative part of the US. There is little social pressure and scant infrastructure for things as seemingly simple as recycling. My tip is to be massively determined and virulently vigilant.

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