Food & Wine: Jonathan Justus

© Anna Petrow

Jonathan Justus

F&W Star Chef

Restaurants: Justus Drugstore, The Hillbilly Cook Shack (Smithville, MO)

Who taught you to cook? What is the most important thing you learned from them?
I am self-taught. I was a gallery painter for many years. I was a bicycle messenger for 13 years in San Francisco and ran a janky little kitchen called The Liberty at 22nd and Guerrero, but I wasn’t there that long. I didn’t start cooking until I was a week shy of my 33rd birthday, when I took my first cooking job, illegally, at Aix-en-Provence. My wife and I were living in Aix; we were hoping to stay longer but didn’t have any money, so I got an under-the-table job working in a good kitchen, not a great kitchen. They made everything pretty much from scratch, but the puff was frozen, that sort of thing. This is the first kitchen where we’ve done everything in house, so most of the stuff we’ve had to teach ourselves, like how to do sponges and autolyse for our breads. We’ve learned as we’ve gone.

How did you decide to open a restaurant in Smithville, Missouri?
Smithville is my hometown. When my wife, Camille Eklof, and I were living in San Francisco, we would come visit. Over the years, we would have great food here, from a down and dirty hole-in-the wall barbecue to great French. Back in San Francisco, people would ask me how the food was here. It always struck me that it was really good, but other than barbecue, no one was doing food that was about Kansas City.

In March 2006, Camille and I were returning from our second stint in France when the building that housed my family’s pharmacy became vacant. My father’s father built the building in 1955 to relocate his drugstore from around the corner where he had been since 1914. My mother was also a pharmacist, who took the store over until she retired at age 79 in 2001. The property has been in my family for 172 years. This is where I spent my entire life up to high school graduation.

We opened the first week of May 2007 with the idea of a nose-to-tail, farm-to-table, extreme-foraged menu.

What's a dish that defines your cooking style?
I’m trying to do what I call country food on steroids. I want my food to say something about where I live and who we are here. So I don’t do seafood, even though my background is in seafood. Chicken and pork were the most common proteins here. A typical chicken dish: We bone out chicken legs, then I make a forcemeat of hand-chopped, cured giblet sausage, livers and hearts, which I soak in milk. We add curing salts, and a chop of cippolinis and wild juniper berries, some ginger, some candied orange peel bits. We roll that up into the chicken and sous vide it, and then slice it on the plate with quinoa and mustard seed–roasted cauliflower with green onions. We have a sauce that I call triple black: black locust flowers I foraged, wild black berries we put up last year and black pepper. Then it’s got an over-the-top floral Torrontes.

What was the first dish you ever cooked yourself? And what is the best dish for a neophyte home cook to try?
This story has been told in my family a lot. There’s a 25-year span between my oldest and youngest siblings. I’m the second youngest. My second-oldest sister was home visiting from college. I was four years old, standing at a gas stove, cooking bacon and eggs on a Saturday morning. She freaked out. She whisked me off of the step stool and said, “Mom, I just found Jonathan making bacon and eggs!” My mom replied, “Oh yes, he does that every morning!” I had a very laissez-faire upbringing.

Favorite cookbook of all time?
The Joy of Cooking. It’s what I learned to cook out of. When we get young cooks in here, I give them a copy. If you’re going to make short doughs, or anything, in the beginning of each chapter it explains the entire process before you start a recipe. I’ve always been someone that wants to know why. Why does the butter need to be cold-cold-cold? Why does the meat need to be par-frozen before you do a grind? There’s a story I love that illustrates why this is important: A woman wants to make her family’s prime rib roast recipe for Christmas. She calls her mother, who says, “You get a prime rib roast and cut off the first four bones.” When she asks why, her mother says, “I don’t know, my mother did it that way!” She calls her grandmother, who says, “Well, I don’t know, that’s the way my mother did it.” So she calls her great-grandmother, who says, “Honey, back in those days, my oven was so small, the whole roast wouldn’t fit!” So I want to know why.

What is your current food obsession?
Everything! My OCD is pretty intense, and I get excited about all kinds of things. Like wild cultivars: There’s a trio of closely related greens: epazote, which is thought of in Mexican cooking, goosefoot, which is native here, and lamb’s quarters. Those are all three things that people around here don’t eat. Goosefoot, in particular, we would like to try to develop and grow our own goosefoot for quinoa production.

A dish that you would like to get better at?
All of them. When we opened, I had not quite six years of restaurant cooking experience, so my learning curve is still very steep and I don’t think it will flatten out for a while. I’m 48, but I’m not that experienced yet. I’ll probably run out of energy before I’ve gathered all the information I’d like. We just built an outdoor kitchen at home, a giant fireplace where we can roast whole animals. So it’s been fun; on weekends we generally work until dark, but around 2 p.m., I’ll start the oven, then around 5 p.m. start a fire. My rotisserie’s not quite ready, but in a couple of weeks we’ll start whole animals like suckling pig, and lamb, and kid.

What is the best bang-for-the-buck ingredient and how would you use it?
I like things that are flawed or overlooked. I love pig heart. It’s so delicious—it’s like steak. Or perfectly cooked fresh calamari. It’s not what you do with perfect ingredients that says anything about your mettle as a chef or cook. It’s not what you do with a lobster tail, but what do you do with a zucchini?

Favorite secret weapon ingredient?
Bacon is so cliché, and I try to restrain myself from putting it everywhere. But I really like our bacon. And pork in this area is the finest in the country, there’s no doubt about it. I’m five miles from Paradise Meats, who supply David Chang, April Bloomfield, Daniel Boulud, Chez Panisse. This restaurant wouldn’t exist without them. The alkalinity of their pork is high, so the meat’s really red. It has incredible marbling. They raise heritage breeds like Mangalitsa, Duroc, Red Wattles. I tend to make my bacons off of Duroc. I like Berkshire a lot, and if you’re doing lardo you’d use a Mangalitsa, but Duroc makes a great bacon; they have a good meat to fat ratio. Sometimes Berkshires have more fat than meat.

How do you like to use your bacon?
It’s great with vodka; it makes a great Bloody Mary. I’ve got a dessert that’s inspired by the classic combination of chocolate, popcorn and bacon. It’s a wild hickory nut chocolate cake with cocoa chantilly, honey chocolate paint, slated caramel, bacon brittle and popcorn ice cream.

Best new store-bought ingredient/product, and why?
I think the best local product might be Steven Pauwels’s Boulevard Brewing beers. He’s making some seriously good beer.

What's the best house wine?
Locally, Stone Hill Winery makes a white wine called Vidal Blanc that’s pretty great wine. I’d say it’s closest to a vinho verde from Spain. They also have a single-vineyard Norton that is just brilliant, and Norton is a very tough grape. It’s probably the best wine being made in Missouri right now.

What do you eat straight out of the fridge, standing up?
I’m a glutton! Everything! Leftover ribs are a favorite. We have two restaurants here; they’re in the same building, but we have a side restaurant called the Hillbilly Cook Shack. We do bar food and what I call very articulated barbecue. I don’t know anyone in this market doing source-verified barbecue. It’s a mixture of old-fashioned smoking, sous vide and a very articulated barbecue sauce that starts with ketchup—which starts with heirloom tomatoes that we can on our own property. We make the grinds, burger, ketchups, mustard and pickles from our own cucumbers, and our own relishes. All this to say, it wouldn’t be unusual for me to take some ribs home and eat them out of the refrigerator standing up. It’s a bad image! But it’s true.

Who's your chef idol and where would you take him or her to dinner?
Everyone’s going to say Bocuse, or Escoffier, or Keller. There’s a guy, I don’t even know his name, he was a freed slave who lived in Kansas City. At the opening of the Hannibal Bridge, on July 4, 1869, he fed 100,000 people barbecue. It’s considered the birth of Kansas City barbecue. This guy was considered the first pitmaster. So I think that if I wanted to take someone out to eat, it would have to be him. He’d probably slap me around for bastardizing everything he did, though I think he’d appreciate our barbecue sauce. It’s totally from scratch, layered and nuanced. I’d like to have him taste our beans, because we grow beans on the property and I buy beans locally. We put both our ribs and our briskets in the smoker at the same time, over the beans.

What is the most cherished souvenir you've brought back from a trip?
We were in the Czech Republic in 1996. Prague was already pretty overrun with tourists. Camille and I took the train down to Bohemia and went to these little towns like Telc, which is a Unesco heritage site. At the time, it had no infrastructure for tourists at all. No one spoke English or French or Italian or Spanish. Everyone spoke German or Czech. The signs aren’t even in our alphabet. We go to the mayor’s office and found a girl who could read and write English. But I couldn’t understand her. She guided us to someone’s house to stay. There were no cafés or restaurants; you ate in someone’s home. We knew there was a fairly famous crystal factory nearby. She brought us over to the tabac, the cigarette store, and the owner rented us his and his wife’s bicycles. We rode 15 miles to this factory and bought ten-inch tall crystal candlesticks. We brought them back by bicycle, then traveled down to visit friends in Firenze, then Rome, then back to Aix. We still have those candlesticks today and still cherish them.

If you could invent a restaurant for your next (imaginary) project, what would it be?
When we ran that kitchen in the South of France, on the Mediterranean, we talked about how when we got back to the States, we were going to find a major city and either buy a building or rent a cheap, railroad-style lunch counter with a very small storefront and just 15 seats. It’d be Camille and me, nobody else, no employees, doing over-the-top food. The drugstore interrupted all that, but I still think that would be fun.

Recipes by Jonathan Justus

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