Food & Wine: Russ Johnson and Jonathon Stranger

Russ Johnson and Jonathon Stranger

F&W Star Chef

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

Restaurant: Ludivine (Oklahoma City, Oklahoma)

Who taught you to cook? What is the most important thing you learned from them?
JS: I’ve worked so many places, from Jean Georges in New York to Oregon, and I’m still learning. If I had to pick one individual who taught me the most, it’s probably chef Paul Wade. I worked with him twice: at the Four Seasons Houston and the Columbia River Gorge Hotel in Hood River, Oregon. He taught me about work ethic more than anything.

RJ: I’ve kind of always cooked, but I’m mostly self-taught. As a pretty small kid, I was always in a kitchen, sifting through the fridge and spice cabinets and putting stuff together. I started cooking professionally as soon as I was legally able at 16, and that’s all I’ve ever done. But if I had to point to the most key learning situations, probably the first one was my externship at the Hotel Jerome in Aspen under Paul Slosberg. That introduced me to fine dining, the demands that come along with producing food in that environment. The hours, the technique, everything that comes with that high level of cooking. After that, the chef who helped me the most in terms of our approach today was at Z Cuisine, a small French bistro in Denver. Patrick Dupays was the owner. That was my first experience dealing one-on-one with farmers on a daily basis, getting product in multiple times a week, changing the menu every day.

What was the first dish you ever cooked yourself?
JS: I was a little kid, and it was late at night. I got some store-bought pasta, and then butter, and whatever fresh herbs I had in the fridge at the time, and then a bunch of chile flakes and paprika. I melted the butter in the microwave and poured it over the noodles. I still make that pasta late at night the exact same way. It’s that 3 a.m. deliciousness.

RJ: I don’t remember, but I do have this Polaroid somewhere of me holding up this bowl of salad. I couldn't have been more than 4 years old. It’s a fuzzy picture, and a supersimple salad, but I can make out mushrooms. I think I wrote “Russ’s Chef’s Salad” with pencil on the bottom white part of the Polaroid.

What is the best dish for a neophyte home cook to try?
RJ: Roast chicken is a good one. Everyone talks about that being standard. But chickens are inexpensive, versatile, tasty, and it’s a good way to get technique down. You’ll learn to roast properly, learn to truss, season, and it’s a good staple to have in your repertoire. You can build so much onto it. And another is fresh, from-scratch pasta. It’s easy, the ingredients are cheap, it’s versatile, but it’s a good exercise, and again something you can build upon in infinite ways. That’s a fun one to do with kids. They can get their hands in it, and make the dough, roll it out— all that. Both of those will help you learn techniques that will be valuable all your life.

Favorite cookbook of all time?
RJ: Ma Gastronomie, by Fernand Point. He’s also just my favorite chef. I love old-school classical French food. I love his wit and the stories about him, like the one about him getting a shave, going through a magnum of Champagne. Every morning he’d get into his restaurant at 5 a.m. and light the stoves. A barber would come and shave him on the restaurant terrace. While he was being shaved, Point would drink a magnum or two of Champagne. I love all that. He was just totally uncompromising. I also love his recipes. They’re written more as a narrative. Rather than “use a cup of this,” he talks about how he makes something. It’s probably not the best book for home cooks, but for pros, that’s one of the best ways to read a recipe.

JS: Twain’s Feast by Mark Twain. It’s a compilation of all his writings on food, from his travels all over the country. There aren’t a lot of cookbooks about this region, especially about what people have cooked here in the past. We’re trying to define a cuisine of the plains. A lot of that comes from Native Americans, but that oral history is almost gone, so it’s fun to be able to read about what life was like here 70 or 80 years ago. Plus. I’m a huge Mark Twain fan.

What's a dish that defines your cooking style?
JS: Probably our beef brisket with braised greens and a smoked cheddar and smoked garlic cornmeal mush. Our food is flavor-forward, and everything we get is so fresh, we don’t meddle with it too much. In Oklahoma City, a lot of our diners aren’t into all that modern stuff, which is fine with us, because we aren’t, either. We love roasting and braising other more traditional ways of cooking—but really nailing them and incorporating things that people aren’t used to.

RJ: Another example I go back to a lot, we do a cassoulet in winter. It’s not an original dish by any means, but it’s 100 percent local and people have no idea the amount of labor that goes into it. We start out with a whole pig. We cure the belly, then smoke it into bacon, braise it with tomatoes, and cut some up and sauté it to get the crispy bits. Then we get the shoulder from the same pig, grind it up, season it, make sausage links and let those dry out for a few days. Then we shell local black-eyed peas or crowder peas and cook those for a little while. Then we confit fresh garlic, puree it, mix it with white wine, take that broth and mix it with some of the tomatoes that we braise the bacon in. Then we get whole ducks, break those down and confit legs, put confited duck legs on top. Sometimes we’ll add confit gizzards, along with the bacon and sausage. It’s this incredibly labor-intensive, entirely farm-to-table, simple, humble country dish.

What is your current food obsession?
JS: Izakaya, Japanese pub food. My sister’s husband is Japanese. I started asking him about it and he was like, “You don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.” So we visited them in LA, and he took me to all these little izakaya spots. I ordered a whole bunch of books, too, though most of them are useless. I’m obsessed because it’s refined country cooking, like what we do. One of their biggest things is chicken tongue confit, and fried chicken. We’ve done it at the restaurant: They just take boneless chicken thighs and marinate them in mirin, dashi and soy. Then we dust them in potato flour and fry them in a pan. It’s just like Southern fried chicken, with a few variations.

RJ: Lamb hearts. I’ve done a bunch of things with them lately: tartare, and a lamb-heart merguez. I love lamb, and the heart is the ultimate cut. It has a little more gaminess than normal lamb, but it’s also clean, it’s hard to describe. It’s lamb but more iron-y, more intense. There’s a lot of knife work involved, a lot of trimming because it’s got so much membrane and connective tissue. But it’s perfect for sausage because that all gets ground up. The ratio of fat to meat is almost that of a shoulder.

Name one secret-weapon ingredient.
RJ: Smoked elephant garlic. We get it from a local source. It has this amazing smoky, sweet, earthy, superumami flavor to it. You can use it so many ways: slice it, puree it, put it into sauces—

JS: You can put it in anything and it’s just so much better. Where you’d add garlic to a sauté or aromatics, this adds that umami, almost like you’ve added garlic smoked in porcini powder. It’s so potent.

RJ: It’s got some sweetness, too. Because elephant garlic is so much milder than regular garlic, depending on how you use it, sometimes you don’t even pick up the garlic. People can’t figure out what it is. It’s almost like vegetarian bacon.

JS: Even the texture. It’s weird. It’s very luscious. It holds its shape, but you can easily move a butter knife through it.

RJ: It’s kind of meaty. It doesn't have quite the bite or toothsomeness of raw garlic, but not nearly as soft as roasted garlic. It’s more like raw summer squash, or a cooked mushroom.

If you were facing an emergency and could only take one backpack of supplies, what would you bring, what would you make and why?
JS: I would take a big chunk of lardo. We have a lot of Mangalitsa lardo right now. I would take a chunk of that and my buck knife.

RJ: I’m thinking more survivalist mentality, like seeds. We do a lot of foraging, so we’d be fine with a lighter and a knife, so long as it wasn’t winter, and there weren’t any zombies. I’d take a good fat, like lard, olive oil or butter, then some garlic, shallots or onions and salt. You start with that, it almost doesn’t matter what else you bring. Whatever else you catch or forage will meld.

If you were going to meet your chef idol, who would it be and where would you take him or her to dinner?
RJ: I’d take Fernand Point to St. John in London. Pretty much any chef is going to dig it, but he also loved simplicity.

JS: I’d take Juan Mari Arzak to Tobago. My wife and I recently went there on vacation. We found this one little place on the beach; I don’t remember if it had a name. This woman made goat roti and roti out of game from the jungle. She sold roti, blue crab dumplings, then beer out of her cooler. You ate on the beach. The food was so good. Everything was in perfect harmony—the atmosphere, the food. I think Arzak would like it. We got to meet him, and he’s like your sweet grandfather who also happens to be a culinary genius. He’s the nicest guy in the world.

If you could invent a restaurant for your next (imaginary) project, what would it be?
JS: We’ve talked about opening a bar that serves simple classics from brisket to country-fried steak and catfish. It’d be great to do it with some sort of fresh water lake near by. If we could get fresh seafood every day, that would be awesome.

RS: I’ve had another idea for a long time. Oklahoma City has a lot of these tiny one-man operations, burger places, usually onion burgers. You walk in, there’s one guy back there. I’ve always liked the idea of opening something like that with higher-end food. Have it be charcuterie-heavy, or the kind of food Jonathan was talking about, with a simple wine list, just one or two bottles. Very stripped down, bare-bones, with low overhead. Then you’d have to do late night. Maybe it wouldn’t open until midnight. A one-man operation isn’t particularly feasible because that one man would have to be either Jonathan or myself! But I love the idea of it.

The Dish
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