On November 16, well-known Dallas chef Justin Holt revealed that he has acute lymphoblastic leukemia—a cancer of the blood and bone marrow—and has been hospitalized for more than a month. Because of the illness, Holt has had to permanently close Salaryman, his highly regarded ramen and yakitori shop—the only place in the city where the noodles were made by hand. After opening in the Bishop Arts District in September 2019, the 27-seat Salaryman quickly garnered attention. It was nominated by the James Beard Foundation for a Best New Restaurant award and also made this magazine’s list of the state’s ten best new restaurants for 2020. But Holt was known on the dining scene long before that. He was sous chef at beloved Italian restaurant Lucia for six years; while there, he started a series of sold-out noodle pop-ups that would eventually lead to Salaryman. On November 17, Holt’s partner, Trina Nishimura, who was also Salaryman’s beverage director, spoke with Texas Monthly about the harrowing last few months.
We opened Salaryman in September 2019, and we kept our crew on as long as possible when the pandemic lockdown happened this spring. But finally we had to flip the shop—literally overnight—to do takeaway only. It was just Justin, myself, and one other person doing everything.
Around April, Justin began to feel a little icky. Things got worse, and he went to the emergency room. The doctors there gave him medication for a viral infection, but he went back in a week because he was not getting any better. He went to his own doctor, who also thought it was a viral infection.
By the beginning of June, it seemed like we were seeing a different doctor every other week. Nobody could tell us what was wrong—or anything, really. It was frustrating and really scary.
One thing you need to know about Justin is he never misses work. Not in a million years. You’d have to cut off his arm for that to happen. But he started missing work for the first time in the seven or so years we’ve been together. He couldn’t even get out of bed. Finally, a dear family friend connected us with a really smart doctor, and eventually we got the diagnosis. He was in the hospital 48 hours later.
Acute lymphoblastic leukemia is an aggressive cancer, and it moves quickly. It has been touch and go. His treatment is super aggressive, too, which means his vitals have to be monitored around the clock. But he’s pulled through because he is a champion.
I am staying with him at the hospital. The patients on his floor are immunocompromised, and if I left—even got in the elevator—I wouldn’t be allowed to come back, because of COVID. Neither one of us has been outside in over a month. If we had been able to get this diagnosed in May or June, it would be a different story.
Their Story Together
We met about seven or eight years ago. [Justin was born in Texas, raised in Wyoming, and went to the Cordon Bleu in New Hampshire immediately after high school.] I grew up in Amarillo, went to the University of North Texas, and then just stayed in the Dallas area. I had been a bartender since college, and when I graduated, I continued doing that while I was pursuing an acting career. I am a voice-over actor, and I also do a lot of dub work and video game work. Also mo-cap, or motion-capture, where they draw dots on your face and you act out a scene or do a commercial. With the help of some friends, we have actually made a makeshift studio so I can keep working. The hospital lent me their sound room—they’ve been great.
About 2013, I had been on a diet for a movie role that ultimately didn’t pan out, and I happened to see a gorgeous picture of toast with scrambled eggs and truffles that this chef had just posted on Facebook. I messaged him and ended up asking him out! I thought it would just be a cheffy fling for the history books, but he ended up being the most amazing human being I have ever met.
[Over the next several years, Holt worked as a chef at Italian restaurant Lucia, whose owners David and Jennifer Uygur are now business partners with him; became obsessed with ramen; and eventually opened Salaryman with Nishimura as beverage director.] Providing health insurance was one thing we were really passionate about when we opened Salaryman. We had known so many people in the service industry who had something happen to them; we had even hosted several fundraisers. We just didn’t know that we would be the ones who would need it.
Ramen Still Rules
Justin is responding really well to treatment. It’s the beginning of a long and aggressive plan that will last quite a few years, but two days ago, he was untethered from things [like monitors] and, in true Justin fashion, he’s been taking walks around the halls and pushing himself way too hard.
One morning, the doctors came in and asked what he wanted. He asked for a hot plate, a Vitamix, and a mini fridge for the room, so he could cook. They basically said no. We’re allowed to have only hospital food or prepackaged food; we can’t even have fresh flowers delivered. My younger sister picks up packaged groceries for us.
So he has gotten really creative with instant ramen. Over the last week or so, he has ordered things I didn’t think would go together, like, oh, cheese and peas and jalapeños and random condiments. He puts them in a bowl and I go microwave it. He has made the most amazing things for us to eat! And he’s directing it all from his bed.
With the holidays coming up, we are settling in here and getting comfortable. It’s sad, though, because this will be the first time in about five years that we won’t be working the Freebird [a free lunch for Dallas residents in need] at the Slow Bone barbecue joint on Thanksgiving. I had to call them and tell them we weren’t able to make it.
It’s up to the doctors now, but Justin just wants to get back to work. He wants to cook food and to serve people. We have been talking with the doctors about the next phase of treatment, but all he wants to know is, “When can I go back to work?” He is an amazing, extraordinary human.
Holt and Nishimura’s friends Tony Nicastro and Brina Palencia have set up a GoFundMe campaign for the chef. They hope to raise $75,000 to help defray costs not covered by medical insurance. For news on this and future fundraisers, Nishimura suggests following the couple on Instagram at @justnholt and @trinanish.