The CultureMap Interview
Houston star chef Justin Yu dishes on reopening his downtown restaurant, his talented protege, and more
One of Houston’s best restaurants returns to service this weekend. Theodore Rex will once again welcome diners beginning this Sunday, May 23.
The restaurant has been on hiatus since February, when chef-owner Justin Yu stepped aside to allow Theodore Rex chef de cuisine Kaitlin Steets to take center stage with her Littlefoot pop-up. Steets, a 2020 James Beard Award semifinalist in the Rising Star Chef of the Year category, earned raves for her French-inspired menu that focused on classic culinary techniques.
Reopening Theodore Rex provides a good opportunity to catch up with Yu. During a phone call, the chef, who won a James Beard Best Chef: Southwest award in 2016 for his work at Oxheart, touched on a range of topics, including the changes he’s made to both the restaurant’s space and its menu ahead of the reopening, what he thought about Littlefoot, and why Theodore Rex charges $27 for a plate of dumplings.
CultureMap: Justin, thanks for speaking with me. Let’s start with the changes you’re making to Theodore Rex’s interior.
Justin Yu: We had Brittany Turcotte of Larder Lover [update the interior] when it was Littlefoot. I was really excited about the changes she made.
We’re taking components of that and continuing that on. One thing that Theodore Rex was, especially when we were first opening, we wanted to be more playful and colorful. What we’ve found over the four years we’ve been open is some people want to use us for that but most people miss the fine touches Oxheat had. I’m trying to find the balance between the two
The space is less colorful. We’ve always had very custom furniture for the size and space requirements of how small it is in there. We’re focusing on the work the furniture makers do. There will be more textures on the walls but less color. The lights are spotted on the tables instead of colors and different artwork everywhere.
CM: What changes are you making to the menu?
JY: The major thing as far as the menu goes that we refused to do when we were opening up Theordore Rex was to add any components. Things were very overt with ingredients. You could see that a lot at Oxheart, I think it’s a part of my personality. When I cook I naturally gravitate towards that. I cut it out of the food to try to make more of a bistro feel. I’m reintroducing it.
Two years ago, I went on a trip to Japan with Bobby [Heugel], Terry [Williams], and Peter [Jahnke]. Both design wise and food wise, that was very informative to me. It was really inspiring as well. Nothing is overtly Japanese or Chinese, but stylistically it’s quite a bit more Asian and quite a bit more of my personality.
As Theodore Rex kept moving on, there were dishes that were encompassing two different plates. That will continue here. To me, that’s a very Japanese thing with the condiments. That’s going to continue. We might even expand to three plates, who knows?
The food will be very intense on singular items. You won’t see that much on the plate, but there will be a lot of work in every single one.
Like the dumplings I posted recently on Instagram, we hand make all the dough wrappers, we grind all of our own stuffing, we measure out the meat and celery ratio and hand stuff every single one of them. There’s not going to be an ornate sauce around the plate. There will be a sauce that builds off the components that are already in the dumpling.
I think that takes a lot of restraint not to add any extraneous garnishes or extras that we don’t think the dish needs. I think it will be less Instagrammable, but it will be much more delicious.
CM: When you introduce a dish like dumplings to your menu, do you think about other restaurants that serve dumplings like Nancy’s Hustle or UB Preserv?
JY: I always try to keep an eye out for people who are considered peers and competition, but we’re just trying to make the best dish possible. I think the feeling is different. Nick [Wong, executive chef of UB Preserv] is a good friend of mine. Do I think I could make just as good as that style of stuffed dumpling? I don’t think I can. He’s an amazing chef.
When I do a dish like that, I have to be aware of how people perceive it. My dumplings are going to be $27. Why are my dumplings $27 when someone else’s are $12? I think it’s the amount of work and attention to detail that goes into every single one of them.
CM: You mentioned earlier that you and Kaitlin share a common ethos. How would you describe that ethos?
JY: I think both us of love to build on the bare bones basics of cooking, like a well-cooked piece of fish, a well-roasted bird. I think that’s carried over from Oxheart where we always start with ingredients first and then build the dish around it.
I think that ethos is we try to make an expression of what it means to be in Houston at this time. I think that hasn’t changed in almost the 10 years since we opened Oxheart.
I think those things haven’t changed for the better part of a decade. Stylistically, we’ve changed quite a bit from not casual to casual to having an outlet for casual things like the spaghetti sandwich at Better Luck Tomorrow. I think those things are being fulfilled elsewhere. That’s why my goal has been to refine the things we were doing at T. Rex.
We’re at a weird spot in our industry. For me, I want to be pushing forward, but I think a big thing for us has been quality of life for our staff.
I think it goes hand-in-hand with what is the right thing to charge to make sure the small things in life are taken care of. I would say a decent salary, healthcare, paid time off. Things that for some reason is a layup in other industries, is kind of a given, that we’ve for some reason forgotten about restaurant workers for.
I think it’s really important, and we’ve always tried to push for at T. Rex and the places we’ve opened. That’s been an important part of wanting to do something a little different at T. Rex.
CM: Do you feel that customers will respond favorably to the prices you’re charging for the food you’re serving?
JY: It seems like T. Rex is more of a special occasion place. If I look at it compared to my favorite restaurant, Nancy’s Hustle, I think there’s some sticker shock, but for the amount of money that I spend at other restaurants that I think of as casual: I go to Houston’s — I refuse to call it Hillstone — it’s not a cheap restaurant.
It will be a more elevated price point for us. I don’t think you’ll spend $200 per person, but I bet including wine you get $75, $80 per person. I think that is indicative of the quality of service and food and the quality of life for the staff. I think that’s why we keep so much staff.
CM: What did you think about the work Kaitlin did at Littlefoot?
JY: I thought it was delicious, very indicative of a chef that deserves her own restaurant at some point in time.
It was a great opening volley, and I hope she grows it from there. I loved the room. I loved the service. I hope people enjoyed it. I think they did. We were full almost every night.
Every praise she got she deserved. I expect her to do big things in the future. It allows me to be very assured the kitchen that I’m associated with is in good hands, and she won’t let things I wouldn’t want to hit the plate go out into the dining room.
CM: Last question: Are you bringing back the tomato toast?
JY: There will be some sort of tomato toast. I think what people associate our menu with is tomato toast, the butter cake, and the rice and beans. The tomato toast and the butter cake are getting a little bit of a remake, hopefully to be more delicious, and the rice and beans will not.
I’m excited for it. You should go.
Portions of this interview have been edited for length and clarity.