How to Piss Off a Chef

A Vegetarian’s Questions for a Professional Chef

My best friend makes my favorite food. Deceptively simple flavor profiles, lots of comfort. Justin and I have known each other since high school. We met in a graphic design class and right away I knew he was an awesome weirdo like me. Almost immediately it was a brother-sister friendship. Many funky parties ended with Justin in the kitchen, half drunk, trying to make something tasty from whatever was left over. I remember lots of creative omelets and pastas. Once at a restaurant, Justin had a pasta dish with a really unique sauce of pureed broccoli, garlic, olive oil and cheese. He went right home to duplicate it.  One of his great inventions is using coconut milk in mashed potatoes.

By the time we grew up and were able to appreciate really fine food, we had moved in opposite directions. Now I’m on the East Coast and Justin’s in the Midwest, but we still talk food. I turned out to be a vegetarian yogini and he’s a meat-loving chef. I was wondering what chefs think about vegetarians, so I asked Justin.

YSTD: How would you describe your food?

JJ: It’s a regional hodgepodge. I lean towards the rustic foods of Italy, France, and the Mediterranean. I constantly cook for my family so there’s lots of crowd-pleasing pasta. Even these daily dishes are carefully prepared – I really enjoy a slow braise when I have the time. I usually serve my meals with homemade bread and a simple dessert.

YSTD: How does living in St. Louis influence your cuisine?

JJ: Well I have to say there’s a lot of meat out here, so amazing produce can fly under the radar. As a chef, it’s fun to cycle through produce as the seasons and menus change. In terms of cuisine, St. Louis has a surprising variety. We have great neighborhoods with awesome Vietnamese and Thai restaurants. We have a big Italian district (where I work) which covers the culinary spectrum of north to south Italy pretty damn well. The pizza and eggs in the south; the cured meats of Tuscany; the risotto of the north – all in St. Louis.

YSTD: Where/how do you source the best produce/ingredients?

JJ: Whenever I get the chance, I love to get down to the farmer’s markets and actually meet the growers. These guys will tell you everything about how they grow their produce, but only if you ask. You can really tell some of these guys have a passion for it too. My favorite farm market is next to a great micro-brewery, and one of the guys with the best veggies you’ve ever seen will sit on the back of his truck gnawing on a raw chunk of bok choy. No supermarket can deliver that.

YSTD: What do you think when diners request meat-free versions of menu items? Does it piss you off?

JJ: Not especially, unless they ask me to create a dish that isn’t up to standards in terms of flavor. Nothing worse than being in a busy kitchen and someone orders a dish with no salt, pepper, butter, meat, fish, cream or oil. I have had this request many times over the years. Simple tips for special diners: don’t make up your own dish when ordering, and don’t order something at my restaurant that you’ve had somewhere else. These are things that make us chefs angry. As chefs we know how to make something good. We can deal with health and allergy issues, but be reasonable.

YSTD: What do you think of the vegan diet? How about “raw” food?

JJ: I don’t disapprove of a vegan diet, but personally I love cooking my proteins too much. I can’t think of what I would do if I couldn’t hear the sear of a good scallop or a portion of fresh tuna. Raw food? My job would be pretty useless once people learn how to cut their own veggies…

YSTD: What’s “macro-biotic” food? Give us an example.

JJ: Macro is all about simple grains and local fruits and vegetables. That’s it. This could be a simple quinoa pilaf with local leeks and some lightly dressed greens. Lentils, beans and tofu are the main sources of protein, but they’re used sparingly.

YSTD: Can vegetarians really know good food? How about vegans?

JJ: I think anyone can know good food if they are open to learning about it. Being open to trying new flavors, styles, and cooking techniques will really pave the road for anyone who wants to get into good food. I also recommend gardening for anyone who wants to know their food better. It’s a great way to see what goes into the growth process and you’ll have pride of ownership. Plus, it saves a bunch of money at the store.

YSTD: What’s your most popular meat-free entrée?

JJ: At work, it’s a whole wheat pasta with sautéed veggies (zucchini, squash, broccoli, roasted cauliflower, and tomato) cooked with olive oil and lots of garlic, topped with fresh herbs and toasted pine nuts. At home, no one can beat my vegetable ragout. Whatever I have on hand I turn into a fragrant stew to serve over my famous fluffy mashed potatoes.

YSTD: Which chefs do you like?

JJ: I’m a big Tony Bourdain fan. His books paint a great picture of the industry culture and of the different people that wander in and out of the kitchen. I also like Jacques Pepin. I enjoy how he really tries to impart the value of his years of apprenticeship.

YSTD: Most memorable meal?

JJ: There is an amazing restaurant in Maui that will blow any food lover’s mind. It’s called Mama’s Fish House. It’s a model for using the freshest, most authentic ingredients, like day boat fish. Add to that the most impeccable service I have ever had, plus a gorgeous view of the Pacific Ocean – nothing’s better.

Justin Johnson is a classically trained chef, specializing in Italian cusine and expert seafood preparation. While working as a Sous Chef at a popular Italian restaurant in St. Louis, Justin also teaches cooking workshops and is developing a private clientele. His mother, wife and best friend continue to nag him to open his own food truck.


5 Comments on “How to Piss Off a Chef”

  1. Matt says:

    Great interview. Too often, people think that the waitstaff is so vitally important to the restaurant experience, and they are important to an extent but no one can make or break a night out like the chef and the cooks in the kitchen.

    The controversy in this interview is bound to be the chef drawing a line in the sand about how he won’t serve a dish that compromises quality just to accommodate a patron. Some people will fall in the “customer is always right” bucket and some will agree with the chef. Personally, I agree with Justin. We all have jobs to do; if my client asks me to do something that I know is wrong, I can’t in good conscience do it. You can’t ask people to turn out subpar work on purpose.

    The best cooks, amateur or professional, are ones with open minds. A vegan chef can share grilling tips with an omnivore chef, and shouldn’t be bothered when the omnivore uses the vegan’s tips to grill a steak. And omnivore chefs in restaurant kitchens should know how to make good food that doesn’t have meat in it (note to chefs: you don’t have to hide chicken stock in everything).

    I guess the bottom line is we need more chefs like Justin!

  2. keishua says:

    I agree with his philosophy, i would not want to send something out that I did not think represented me well. Your food as a chef is a representation of you. There are some dishes that people have a hard time substituting flavors for. Personally, i made so vegan alfredo once and i promise you I would never serve that to anyone.

  3. Val says:

    Just have to say… loved this post. Thoroughly enjoyed reading it and very interesting to hear Justin’s perspective.

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