Tuesday, January 21, 2014
Driftwood sous chef talks ramen
Justin Holt says he'd love to have an izakaya and make noodles more regularly.
Yes, there are the noodles. It’s a strange thing, in fact, that he’s recognized for them after initially serving them at a restaurant where he doesn’t even work. It was a lark, really – a chance to give some drinkers at a restaurant down the street a taste of what he’d been working on. But they were a hit. A big hit. And Justin Holt eventually brought the dish to Driftwood, where he works as sous chef and where Chef Omar Flores found this ramen to be worthy of appearances on the menu.
But the thing is, it’s not just the ramen. Far from it, actually. It is Holt's role at one of Dallas’ most acclaimed seafood restaurants – with one of its star chefs – and with sea creatures from lion fish to octopi, scallops and sea bass that takes up Justin’s time. Indeed, from New Hampshire to Nana with a stop at Lucia in between there and Driftwood, Holt’s experience extends well beyond Japanese noodles. We sat down with Holt to talk about his role at Driftwood, crazy-looking sea creatures and what it’s like working with Flores.
And yes, we’ll even talk about ramen a little, too.
Thanks for taking the time to chat with us, Justin. You’ve worked with some pretty recognized chefs on your way here – what was the road to Driftwood like?
Well, I went to New Hampshire for school at Le Cordon Bleu at a private college that’s now closed – of course, like they all are, and I worked in a fish restaurant there, and moved to Arizona after a year, where I spent two years at a spa resort. That was a great experience, I got to do so many different things. There are so many facets that go into it, it’s crazy. After that, I moved to Dallas six years ago and started at Nana, which is now Ser. But working under Anthony Bombaci was completely transformative. The man is a beast and everything, at that time he was completely devoted to the craft. Everybody that remained there, it completely changed them for the better. If you could weather the storm, you’d be better off from it. He was a pretty intense guy. He wanted things a very specific way and if you couldn’t give it to him that way, he would let you know.
That to say, after four years I transitioned to Lucia. I needed a change and I found it with Dave [Uygur, chef at Lucia]. I had never worked for him before, I had never dined at Lola but after I staged for two days, I got a really good feeling about all of the people. Everybody was so warm and the kitchen was relatively new, all the people were new – it was terrifying to leave benefits and food and work that I had been so comfortable with and go into traditional Italian food that I had never done, but the situation was great.
That was also my first venture into Oak Cliff; I had never been down for anything other than dining. But after being at Lucia the first six months I felt like I had been there for years. Everything was compressed, I met so many people down here, the community was really open - I wouldn’t trade that experience working with Dave for anything, that guy is amazing. He’s an amazing person to work for, learn from, as a mentor, he’s great.
What was the process of becoming sous chef here after Lucia?
I got here because I had spent I guess more or less two years at Lucia and I felt like for where I was at as a cook I didn’t need to move laterally anymore, like I had to make the leap. I heard through the community that there would be an opening here and so I approached Omar, and he was like, “Yeah, come on in and we’ll chat about it.” We did, and here I am.
How did it feel taking on the role here?
I was just terrified mostly. Completely overwhelmed. Sometimes when you’re the new guy, people might resent you for being that guy that walked in and didn’t really like work his way up through the ranks. That’s something that was always really important to me – that people understand where you come from and you build their respect by working hard for them, and with them, and cooking with them. And since I’d never worked with them, I didn’t know if they’d know that I had put in that work.
Was it a tense situation?
No, it wasn’t really tense. It’s probably more me just being a weirdo (laughs). But if I’m going to earn someone’s respect, I want to feel like I come by it in the right way – not just like a supervisor overlord; I want people to cook like I do and I want us all to do a great job.
What’s it been like working with Omar?
It’s been awesome! Omar is super, super creative. Just like sitting down and putting pen to paper – way that ideas roll of of him is really neat – I’m not there yet, like I can’t just manifest a menu, it really takes me some time and energy. And then watching him cook, its always really cool to watch somebody cook thats completely golden, you know, they feel good, they’re confident, they can see the outcome before they even reach the stove and then you watch them and it’s great.
What’s the most out-there item you’ve put on the menu here – one that you created?
When I first started here I tried to run this veg dish which was horribly received – nobody wanted it (laughs). But it was, the flavors worked really well, it was kimchi and kabocha squash, a sous vide egg and rye. It sounds weird, but when you eat it, it they work well together and then you get the whole thing, it was good. Plus, I’m down with basically anything fermented. So anything that has that depth and that character and that funk, I’m all about it.
So if you started your own place someday, would you continue the seafood practice?
Well, obviously I would love to be doing noodles. Hands down. I would love to have an izakaya and I would love to do noodles, lunch and dinner, pub food, pickles, something transporting a concept from Japan, but not completely Japanese food. It can still be like southern and approachable but utilizing Japanese technique, which I think is amazing.
And it seems like people are catching on to the whole Justin Holt Ramen Experience?
(Laughs) I never knew that it would take off as much as it has. The first two events where I did it at Tradewinds and then Ten Bells opened my eyes. It blew my mind. A lot of people reached out to me and were telling me that they liked it at Tradewinds, that they appreciated what I was doing, and then when it continued with Ten Bells I definitely started to feel like a cool kid a little bit. It’s weird when people turn to you, when some stranger is like, “Hey is that – you’re the white noodle guy!” (Laughs) And then branching out into lower Greenville at the Libertine for the whiskey dinner was really cool because I had never been out of Oak Cliff with my noodles, and to see a lot of the familiar faces from down here come up there, drink some awesome whiskey and eat some noodles, it just feels really good to be a part of something like that. You know, I’m selling my stuff, which I feel good about, but to be part of packing a bar out and somebody come up to you and says, “Hey, thank you! We had the best night that we’ve had in a long time,” that’s killer! You’re contributing, you know? It feels good to be a part of something big like that.
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