Oxheart, Justin Yu’s 31-seat Houston restaurant, has received an immense amount of praise since opening in March of last year. Bon Appétit, GQ, Texas Monthly, and numerous media outlets have dubbed the vegetable-centric restaurant one of the best in the nation. Naturally when the James Beard Foundation announced its semifinalists for the 2013 James Beard Foundation Awards, it came as no real shock that both Justin Yu and Oxheart were honored as semifinalists. Oxheart is a candidate for Best New Restaurant, and Yu is up for Rising Star Chef of the Year.
Yu spoke with Texas Monthly about the pressure that comes with praise, what chefs should win a James Beard award, and his sweet dancing skills.
Layne Lynch: This is your first James Beard recognition. You were also recently recognized in GQ and Bon Appétit. Do these recognitions change the way you work? In other words, how do accolades like these affect you as a chef?
Justin Yu: I do feel a lot of pressure with the expectations that come with the press we’ve received, but in the end, I know I have to rely on the reasons why we’ve gotten to where we’ve gotten in the first place. Some days, I feel as though we aren’t “pushing the envelope” enough with regard to how we stack up to nationally or internationally recognized restaurants, but I also know there’s a reason why I cook in the certain way that I do. If I stray too far away from that, I’m sure the food would suffer. Fortunately, I have the ability to lean on our talented staff of cooks to help execute our vision, and that’s something no chef can replace.
LL: Oxheart has garnered both local and national praise. What has been the greatest recognition thus far?
JY: Really, it’s having other cooks and chefs come in and enjoy our food. We’ve gotten an immense amount of support from a lot of the cooks over at Uchi, and oddly enough, a huge amount of chefs and cooks from San Antonio. There were chefs that drove hours to come and eat at our place. Then there is my own food hero, Kaiser Lashkari, from a small hole-in-the-wall restaurant, Himalaya, here in Houston. He’s at his restaurant seven days a week, putting in hours and hours cooking and greeting guests. I’ve been eating at his restaurant for seven or eight years, and he came in to Oxheart and loved it. That was a proud day. Having your peers come in and enjoy your food, there isn’t really much of a bigger honor than that.
LL: Are there any chefs or restaurants you want to see win this year at the James Beard Awards?
JY: I’d love to see Chis Shepherd or Hugo Ortega take home the Best Chef: Southwest award simply because those two have helped pave the way for the huge explosion in exposure Houston has received this last year. Otherwise, there are two chefs I’ve admired from afar for a very long time who are both up for Outstanding Chef: David Kinch because he’s taught and influenced so many great cooks and chefs, and his restaurant continues to push, develop, and inspire after so many years. Also, Paul Kahan from Blackbird in Chicago. I’ve loved every single restaurant he’s ever opened.
LL: Now that we’re into 2013, what are some things you want to change up this year at the restaurant and for yourself?
JY: I’m just excited that we’ve hit our first year. I’m really looking forward to being able to work with the seasons with more maturity and really show growth in our food, especially since I’m surrounded by such a talented team. Having them around me will free me up from the day-to-day operations so that we can really create more interesting, fun, and delicious food.
LL: Houston is heating up its culinary status. What do you think is causing all this change? Is it young chefs? Restaurateurs like Bobby Heugel? The population growth? What is it?
JY: First of all, I think if Bobby heard himself being called a restaurateur, he’d start laughing maniacally. I think it’s two things: the influence of the chefs that have always been here and the influence of the chefs that have left Houston for a while only to come home and create their own spaces. The two really push each other to peacefully compete when it comes to food and creating restaurants that guests love and want to come back to. Second of all, it’s the want and desire of the dining public here in Houston. Our restaurant has been welcomed with open arms by our guests, and because they come back on a regular basis, we’re free to push ourselves even harder.
LL: What would people be surprised to know about you?
JY: I spent the first year of my culinary career warming up bread and making baked potatoes at Pappadeaux’s [Seafood Kitchen] because no one would give me a job, even when I offered to work for free. That, and I’m one hell of a dancer.