This weekend, a group of acclaimed food and beverage personalities will flock to Austin for the third annual Austin Food & Wine Festival, including Justin Yu of Oxheart in Houston. Below, Yu discusses his recent James Beard Foundation Award nomination, eating Austin ramen, and Paul Qui’s enviable fashion sense.
Layne Lynch: The Austin culinary scene is continuing to draw a lot of national attention. What do you think is going on in Austin that’s inspiring such creativity?
Justin Yu: There are a lot of great mentors up in Austin: chefs Tyson Cole and Philip Speer from Uchi, who've been at it for years; Paul Qui, of course; and chefs like Ned Elliot from Foreign & Domestic, Todd Duplechan from Lenoir, and Bryce Gilmore from Barley Swine. Because Austin is such an attractive place to live for young cooks with its music scene and lifestyle, it really gives chefs a chance to make their stamp. The city's rustic, yet very energetic and progressive. I've heard of plenty of cooks—from New York to San Francisco—being interested in moving to Austin to work.
LL: Houston delivered three James Beard Award finalists this year—you being one of them. Do you see Houston becoming something similar to Austin in terms of culinary creativity and acclaim, or is it unique in its own right?
JY: Every set of restaurants has to react to their guests a little differently in their own cities. I think Houston is on par with Austin in terms of creativity, just in its own way. It is really exciting to see us using similar ingredients in different ways though. I think we, in Houston, are happy with cooking the way we love to cook the best we can't to make our guests happy, and I think Austin does the same thing.
LL: Are there any Austin chefs or Austin restaurants that inspire you or that you admire?
JY: I wish I could be as stylish as Paul Qui. He was the only one that showed up to the Food & Wine Best New Chefs photo shoot who didn't get styled by the stylist.
LL: Will you be checking out any restaurants while you’re in town?
JY: If I can, I've got to squeeze in a meal over at Ramen Tatsu-Ya. I love what Tatsu is doing there. It's some of the best ramen in the U.S. and I greatly admire him and his staff.
LL: Tell me a bit about what you’ll be doing at the festival.
JY: I'll be cooking at the opening event. I’m doing a little garden fritter for all the festival-goers, which is a lot—about 1,200 guests coming out of a 350 square foot kitchen—but hopefully they'll love it.
LL: Oxheart is going into its second year. In your opinion, what’s changed about the restaurant and what’s remained the same?
JY: think we've come into our own as far as what direction we want the food and service to go. I've moved further and further away from the way I used to cook at Ubuntu and taken a lot of cues from the things I learned when I was staging abroad to instead really make food that we think is delicious and unique. With the space, we've tried our best to make it more comfortable and welcoming; it's almost night and day from when we opened. I think we've hit a nice groove between being casual and having better than ordinary service that we didn't always have when we first opened. I like to say we're just a bunch of nerds—now we're just more comfortable with being a little nerdy.
LL: What’s coming up for you and Oxheart in 2014?
JY: Trying to get better. I want to make better food, deliver better service, and have guests even happier when they leave us. So, in that sense, not much will change except that we're always going to put that pressure on ourselves to make sure expectations are met and exceeded when the guests come spend their time and money with us.
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