Earlier this year, we held the third annual Food Republic Interview Lounge at the W Austin during the Austin Food & Wine Festival. Ever since, we’ve been featuring video excerpts of the sessions with host Richard Martin. Next up is Justin Yu of Oxheart in Houston, Texas.
Yu had more really intelligent stuff to say during our chat, so here is an edited, condensed transcript of the entire interview with the chef, which includes further insights into his young career, his inventive cooking and his love of fantasy football.
You were recently named one of the best new chefs from Food and Wine magazine for 2014. So tell me a little bit about that.
It was a huge surprise. It’s just one of those things that you never think that you’re actually gonna get. But when you get the phone call, you’re shell-shocked. They fly you to New York, and it’s just this whole whirlwind tour of meeting with the other chefs, going through all of the photo shoots, and having the big party at the end of the night. It was a lot of fun to meet everybody and talk with people who you’ve been seeing from afar for years and years.
And I would think it’s a real honor for you because at this stage in your career, you’re pretty young. You’re in your 20s?
Yeah, I’m still 29. I’m almost there.
Are you from Houston?
I’m originally from Houston, I was born and raised here. I learned how to cook in Houston, to start. But then I just left for about four or five years, just to get a little outside education form the world, really.
And you didn’t just leave, you went to Europe.
Yeah, I went to Chicago, Napa and then Europe. Europe was amazing. I would suggest it to anybody, but I would suggest a lot of young cooks to use it as a finishing school rather than a learning style.
So you were on stages in restaurants there. And one of the restaurants was In De Wulf. It’s a hugely acclaimed restaurant that’s in the middle of nowhere in Belgium, right?
It’s in the countryside. And generally on stages, they don’t put you up. But here they put you up because they have to. There is literally nothing around you. When they pick you up from the little train station, they actually drive a road that keeps on passing back and forth between France and Belgium. And every time you go into France, it welcomes you to France. And you get a text message. And so you get about six text messages on your way down into In De Wolf. There’s not really anything like it in the US. The restaurant is really about the place where it’s at.
And did that inspire you at all in terms of knowing – like in Houston you have this huge audience to draw off of? But it’s also gotta be challenging because it’s so spread out, right?
A lot of people would think that it’s a challenge, but Houstonians are really happy to drive, especially for good food. Houston is an eating city. It’s really based on a lot of cuisines and cultures and people who base their life around coming together and eating. And so we were really lucky in the fact that a lot of people were willing to seek us out.
And you talked a little bit about drawing on the culture there. You’re in a place that has an incredible mix of different ethnicities, food cultures, and that’s really what Oxheart’s about. The menu is educational to read. There’s so much going on.|
For a lot of people it might be a little challenging to read it. I try to be as obscure as possible, not to intimidate people, but mostly to not set an expectation that we can’t necessarily meet. And I think more so than anything, the cultures around us, especially the Vietnamese culture, affects more so my palate in the way that we design food. I love Vietnamese food. It’s my favorite cuisine. And Houston has the best Vietnamese food in the U.S., for sure. Probably some of the best outside of Vietnam. Reading the menu, and then kind of looking at the dishes, it’s not immediately obvious if you didn’t know I was Asian, the style of food, the way that the food is constructed. I value a lot of acidity, I love umami, and a lot of herbaceousness. That’s a really Vietnamese kind of palate. And I love using hard spices, and that’s definitely from me visiting down on Hillcroft where a lot of Pakistani and Indian restaurants are. And so it’s a less obvious way of putting food on a plate that’s really affected by the cultures around us.
You talk a lot about being ingredient-driven. How much do ingredients drive you?
[In] California, you can get everything at its peak of ripeness nearly year-round. What’s great about Houston is that it has its own standard of growing regions and timing, whereas everybody’s winter – that’s what we are during summer. So we have to take spring and fall crops and ferment them so we can use local products all throughout the summer as opposed to the other way around. Which sets off a completely different sort of palate to your food because a lot of times, people are taking summer crops and then saving them for winter. Whereas we’re doing the exact opposite. And I think it really sets Houston apart. I think it’s great too because there’s a lot of times where someone like a cook from California will come down to Houston and be like – well the produce isn’t very good, it’s not super ripe. But to me, you should look at it in terms of flavor. We don’t have the best strawberries in the world. They’re slightly sour. But sour is a flavor. And we work with it to utilize what’s best about that strawberry that’s grown in Texas that a lot of people would consider a flaw. And you shouldn’t consider it a flaw, you should just consider it a part of what’s great about Texas.
“I think it’s great that we got Food and Wine. I never thought that I would be nominated for a James Beard award. But I still don’t really take myself too seriously. It’s just a restaurant, we’re just cooking food.”
That’s a very intriguing way to approach it. Is that something you learned in Belgium or – you also cooked in Copenhagen, right? That sounds a little bit like the way they’re approaching their unusual ingredients.
Absolutely. A lot of it had to do with when I was in California, and using things from the beginning of the season and the end of the season where things were over-ripe and under-ripe. But definitely – a lot of the times, especially in Copenhagen, they use flavors as flavors as opposed to just specific ingredients.
Now let’s talk a little bit about the buzz of a certain city scene – I mean Copenhagen’s an intriguing one because you’ve got this kind of small, Danish city that, in the space of five years, has gone from being not that important in the world to being considered the center of the food universe. Why do you think something like that happens?
I still believe it started with one restaurant, Noma. And just the idea that sprouted off of that and then all the little things that come off from that. It was an amazing idea, the food was and still is extremely progressive, very delicious, very unique to the area, and a lot of people, especially on the higher end of dining, are looking for that.
Where did you stage in Copenhagen?
I staged a month at a restaurant called AOC. And a restaurant called Geranium.
And from your point of view, being a chef who can go in a kitchen and do what 99% of us can’t do, just making stuff out of nothing, do you think Rene Redzepi is really that talented and that far above everyone else, that he’s just got this incredible talent?
He’s an exceptional chef and cook. Obviously I haven’t seen him cook personally, but then also, part of being chef is being able to put people in a place to excel. Even when you’re not in the kitchen. And somehow he has been able to do that. I think his raw talent has been able to attract the right types of chefs and cooks for him to work with him. And he treats them as such, where people are coming to work with him as opposed to for him. And that’s why they have 60 stages in a room, half of which probably have been sous chefs or should be sous chefs anywhere else in the world.
What about the buzz aspect though? Was it palpable there? Could you sense that there was this kind of culinary scene going on?
I think it’s pretty funny because a lot of them didn’t take themselves too seriously. Which I think is something really great, especially in Houston too. I think it’s great that we got Food and Wine. I never thought that I would be nominated for a James Beard award. But I still don’t really take myself too seriously. It’s just a restaurant, we’re just still cooking food. And I think – I learned a lot of that from the cooks and chefs of Copenhagen. They realized that they’re on a center stage. But if they try to push themselves so hard that it moves them out of what they actually grew up doing, or how they learned to be chefs, then they’re reaching too far and over-reaching what they should be doing.
Well there’s a lot of hype right now. So much so that you even got a review in The New York Times. Which is strange for a restaurant in Houston to get. What did that do for you, for the restaurant?
Fortunately for us, we’re such a small restaurant that we were already busy. I feel like it brought in more out of town guests, that would make reservations ahead of time, just to come see and check out what Houston was about. I guess Oxheart is supposedly considered one of the better restaurants in Houston, and obviously you’re going into a place where if you’re just there for a short period of time, you want to try its best restaurants especially if you’re really into food. For me, there’s a lot of pressure that comes along with it. But in the end, it’s still just one of those things where you could either buckle to the pressure and start cooking the way that you think will impress people, as opposed to something that you’re really passionate about. It was a huge learning experience for myself and my staff of how to continually push ourselves without moving outside of what we were. We’re not a fine dining restaurant by any means. We use tweezers but we don’t do a lot of garnishes and things like that. Just staying true to that, every single day, is a hard thing to do, but something we have to do.
On the website for Oxheart, you list a little bit about yourself and you come across as a very thinking-man’s kind of chef, but you seem to have some personal interests that are fun. Fantasy football? Burgers?
I love fantasy football. I could probably eat a burger every single day. I hate the whole celebrity chef aspect of it. I’m a human being. I love to have fun. I don’t want anyone to really take us that seriously. You’re coming to the restaurant, and it’s almost like coming to our home – to spend the night with us. And is it gonna change the world? Hopefully, it gives you a new perspective on things that you see in the city already. But more so than anything, I like to have fun during dinner. I like to enjoy the people that I’m with. And I don’t want it to be just about the restaurant. So hopefully that knocks off that “chef glowering over you” kind of thing. This is someone just cooking some food, and I hope you enjoy it with the people that you came with.
Presented by our friends at the W Hotel Austin.