This weekend, a lineup locally and nationally known chefs, restaurateurs, sommeliers, mixologists, cookbook authors and television personalities will descend upon the Austin Food & Wine Festival, so we spoke with a handful of chefs participating in the festival.
Below, Justin Yu of Oxheart in Houston discusses his recent James Beard Foundation Award nomination, his favorite Austin restaurants, the progression of Oxheart and a dreamy Taylor Swift-themed restaurant.
Congratulations on your second James Beard nomination. What was your reaction to find out that you were once again featured amongst some of the top chefs in the nation?
It’s always a huge rush of emotion. These types of awards are things you always dream about even before you’ve had a chance to start your career. I remember wanting to go eat at Quattro all during high school because Chef Tim Keating he was the only chef from Houston nominated for a James Beard and trying to save money so I could go eat there.
To even be considered one of the country’s top chefs is very humbling and it makes me very proud to be a part of a team that hopefully puts out great meals every night.
I hate to ask this question, but I’m going to anyways: if not you, who should win Best Chef Southwest?
Well, except for this year when I didn’t have a moment to go out for my birthday, I would always go eat at Hugo’s. There is no restaurant that is more consistent and delicious, and there is no more gracious and deserving chef than Chef Hugo Ortega and his team.
Looking back, how would you say Oxheart has evolved, progressed, or transformed in the years since its opening?
I think the restaurant as a whole is just more functional, as we’ve finally had the money to do things like buy more comfortable chairs and stools for the counter. Our service staff, Diana and Bridget, has been with us for almost two years and they’ve just really hit a groove and are amazing service people. They make it a lot of fun to eat with us.
The food is less plated and more focused on flavor. It’s more rustic, but still fun and I hope both thought provoking and tasty at the same time. This past year we switched to just two, six-course tasting menus to help us really dial in the type of food we really want to put out. In the three years of menus when I look back, I can’t believe the amount of personal growth our kitchen has had.
To be honest, there were times where I put stuff on the plate that I was just really excited about or put too many garnishes or flourishes that didn’t really add to the food. Those were things that I learned when I worked in California and staged in Europe that I thought were cool. But it makes sense there, not here. We don’t really get those really delicious flavorful small leaves and herbs. I hope nowadays our food seems more mature, but still pushes the boundaries of what people know about food. But the days of a cold thing on a plate with eight leaves sticking up in the same direction are probably done for us.
How do you think you as a chef have changed?
I’d like to think I’m a little more relaxed. I used to be really uptight and controlling about every little thing. I’m probably still a little controlling, but I’ve learned that I have to really trust my staff. With my more senior kitchen members, our sous chefs Mark and Jason, and with Sam, who started with us way back when, I like to get a heavy dose of input from them on the function of the kitchen and how the food tastes.
I think it shows in how the food tastes better, services run smoother, and everyone has a better time. The food still has one voice, but a lot of people help shape that voice.
Does the pressure to perform above and beyond ever alleviate, or is it a pressure you feel every day in the kitchen?
It’s a huge weight to have to represent the great press we’ve been lucky enough to receive. Some days it feels like a little too much. I’ve had plenty of people tell me “Well, we were really hoping this would be a lot like The French Laundry,” but many of those people also walked out after dinner loving us because we weren’t necessarily like The French Laundry.
I have no illusions that I’ll ever be a good enough chef to own a restaurant like that, but I do know I love making people happy by cooking food, and I’ll just continue doing that with what we have, the best way I know how.
I love that you opened a bar with Justin Vann. What was the attraction to highlighting whisky in particular?
Funny you say that. Public Services originally at first was supposed to be a wine first, whisky bar second, hence why wine is first in the name. But people just really love whisky, and the space that we walked into really lends itself to having nice, quiet conversation with a nice glass of brown drink.
I’m exceptionally lucky to have Justin, who knows a good amount about whisky in addition to wine, and a great general manager, Sean [Jensen], who brought a lot to the table, too. Just like Oxheart, we just wanted to do something a little different.
There are plenty of cocktail bars on the block [in Houston] and Poison Girl and Reserve and Dipper have such great selections of bourbons already; we wanted to showcase a side of whisky that was less well represented in the city.
I had someone I didn’t know even come tell me we were going to fail if we didn’t expand our bourbon selection, but we’re doing well. Both Justin and I have a little bit of gamble in us because who would have thought a vegetable-focused tasting menu restaurant would do well in Houston either?
You’re from Houston, so I have to ask where you like to stop and dine when you come to Austin?
I had a really friggin’ great meal at Olamaie about six months ago. Everything from the beautiful room to the great drinks and the food was great. It’s modern, but approachable in a fun way. I love Tatsu-ya [of Ramen Tatsu-ya] and want to check out his new space. Of course, Qui and Lenoir are always great.
I’ve been dying to get back to Bufalina though. I had a really rushed meal there because I had to get back to Houston, and I want to sit and enjoy myself because the pizza and wine list is really fantastic.
What chefs are you most excited to see at the Festival?
It’s always fun to bullshit with Ned [Elliott] from Foreign & Domestic whenever I see him. Especially since the L.A. Lakers had such a great season this year.
I’m also just excited to meet new people and reconnect with old friends. Last year I meet Diego Galicia and Jesse Torres from Mixtli, and I’ve really admired from afar what they’re doing in San Antonio.
The growing season in Texas is always sporadic, but humor me, what are some of the ingredients you’re looking forward to playing with this season?
I’m just ready for spring produce to actually get here. It’s been a really wet season and we’re in the middle of a huge gap between winter and spring produce because a lot of seeds rotted in the ground.
I’ll be excited when there are more bright leaves rather than just roots to work with. It’s been a tough last month.
Tell me what you’ll be doing at the Festival.
I’ll be doing a simplified version of our sunchoke dish from Oxheart at the Taste of Texas Kickoff event. They’re sunchokes from Animal Farm in Cat Springs, roasted then fried and served with honey, cream, Meyer lemon, and tea.
What’s next for you or for Oxheart?
Who knows. I’m happy where I am right now, but the possibility of new things popping up is always possible. I’ve been kicking around the idea of a Taylor Swift-themed, all meat restaurant and dance club with artisan soda sommeliers. Maybe then she’ll come and eat with us when she comes into town in September. She can leave Calvin Harris at the door though.