Justin Yu at Meadowood
Acclaimed chef is first Houstonian chosen to cook at prestigious international event
Every December, the eyes of the culinary world turn to The Restaurant at Meadowood in St. Helena, California. That's when the ultra-prestigious three star Michelin restaurant hosts "The 12 Days of Christmas," a series of dinners during which some of the world's best chefs cook alongside Meadowood's Christopher Kostow and his team.
The list of participants includes chefs from two other three star restaurants, New York City's Eleven Madison Park and San Francisco's Saison, as well as restaurants on the World's 50 Best List like Mexico City's Quintonil (35), Copenhagen's Relæ (45, 1 star) and The Clove Club in London (55, 1 star). Passionate diners from all over the world attend these meals and eagerly pay $495 or more per person (a portion of which benefits two local charities) for the opportunity to sample the culinary fireworks.
Oxheart's Justin Yu will be the first Houston chef to join this prestigious group. On Friday, Yu, along with baker Karen Man and cook Samuel Chang, will serve courses that blend some of Oxheart's cuisine with vegetables from Meadowood's garden. Among other dishes, Yu will serve a version of Oxheart's signature stew topped with foraged mushrooms, while Chang has been perfecting dim sum-style crystal dumplings filled with braised greens. Mann will contribute a carrot layer cake with Angelica gelee and a dacquoise base.
“I met Justin at an event a couple of years ago and was very taken by his cooking," Meadowood chef Christopher Kostow writes in an email. "He was also a great joy to work with. His take on vegetable cooking specifically, and the creativity exhibited in general, made his invite to this year’s event a no brainer. I have been looking forward to his dinner for some time.”
Yu is already a three-time James Beard Award finalist and a Food & WineBest New Chef; the opportunity to join such esteemed company only furthers his reputation as one of Texas's most innovative chefs. Although he maintains a relatively low media profile, Yu agreed to an interview to talk about the opportunity and the preparations he, Man and Chang have undertaken for the dinner.
CultureMap: How did you becomes involved with the 12 Days of Meadowood?
Justin Yu: A couple of years ago when I was at another dinner over on Lummi Island, it’s called the First Harvest Dinner, I met chef Costow. I think we generally hit it off pretty well. I’d worked in Napa before, and he was friends with a couple of chefs I’d worked with.
I think we have the same type of a bit snarky, a bit dry sense of humor. Generally (we) like to be a little goofy in the kitchen but also enjoy being serious. At least him being a three Michelin star chef, I think one of the things he saw in me is our intentions of trying to maximize the flavor no matter how the plate looks.
I’d been following 12 days of Christmas at Meadowood for years now. Even more so now that they have a high profile blogger-writer, Bonjwing Lee, the ulterior epicure. I’ve been reading his blog for years, and he takes fantastic pictures . . . Only really great chefs get invited to this event.
CM: Do you feel like this represents another phase in your career?
JY: As far as career goals, this was one of them. When you start your career and you get to the point where you start thinking about being the chef of your own restaurant, you always have these kind of pie in the sky, possible goals. Food & Wine, James Beard, Lummi Island was a big one for me.
CM: Did chef Kostow give you any instructions in terms of what to cook or the number of courses?
JY: We have course guidelines. He said no more than four plus two canapés, just because of the style of service they have. They’re a complete three star Michelin restaurant through and through. The service is amazing.
I had the pleasure of eating there about two years ago. Everything about that resort and everything about the restaurant is top notch. They welcome you at the door. The captains are synchronized and very nice but also very technically precise just like the kitchen.
He gave us a list of what’s probably in season coming from their gardens, which I was super excited about. I haven’t worked with California produce since I was at Ubuntu, and there’s a lot of things I miss about it. We’re going to incorporate a couple of different things there. Basically, he said, 'Throw at us your best. We’ll try to match the tone of what you’re trying to do.'
For us, I think we’re finally coming into our own. For anyone who hasn’t been to the restaurant in the past couple of years, the change is almost night and day.
I think we’re finally gaining our own voice now. It’s kind of Asian, kind of Southern, a little quirky, not too much tweezing anymore — some, but always attention to details as far as techniques go. A lot of attention to details as far as how things are placed onto the plate, as far as how the dish is going to be eaten instead of how the dish is going to look.
CM: At Oxheart, the menu costs $75, but 12 days is $500. Do you feel any pressure to make things fancier given the higher price point?
JY: I think we’re going to do more polished versions of what we do here. We’re not really fancying up anything. It was a goal of Karen, Sam and I to present what we do here and maybe focus on the tinier details, because we want to match the precise techniques they’re going to use already.
It is expensive. It takes a lot of manpower to do what they do up there. I think people understand that you have to pay the staff what it deserves to be paid, and there’s also a charity component.
CM: I know Karen isn’t involved in the restaurant day to day anymore. What are her current responsibilities at Oxheart, and what will she be contributing to Friday’s dinner?
JY: She is in more of a consulting role. She’s still in charge of all the desserts. We have Peter and Jason executing the desserts for her. We make sure that she’s OK with the dessert that’s currently on the menu. The bread recipes are always hers. She’s in to make sure the bread is right, and they’ve taken on a really nice role of making sure that it is up to her standards.
What she’ll be doing is something we did in the beginning, but I’m not sure how many people remember it. We did a carrot cake, but it was a layered cake with carrot mousse on top. The very bottom layer is a dacquoise, so it’s a French-style cake. At the time there was cilantro gelee, and we served it with candied carrots and things like that.
We’re going to serve it with their carrots, which are very high in that anise flavor, very vegetal. She’s going to do an angelica gelee with a dacquoise. Again, angelica very high in that anise flavor; it’s in the same carrot family. Still very vegetable forward, very much in her style. Representative of the restaurant and also something she’s really good at it.
CM: What is Sam's role in the preparations?
JY: It makes me super proud to bring someone like him with us. Sam started off as our dishwasher. He was in finance before the restaurant opened. He came to me when I was doing pop-ups and asked how he could get into the cooking business. I told him not to. He didn’t listen to me.
When he announced we were open, he said he wanted to join our staff. I told him I needed someone with a lot of experience for our opening staff, and he said, 'I’d wash dishes.' Three or four months after that, a position opened up and he was able to go into that. He stayed with us for nearly a year, left and was at Underbelly for a few months then Qui for a year. He’s been back with us for a year-and-a-half now.
Right now he’s actually back in finance trying to see if it’s something (that) would be good for the long term or (if he) wants to be in the kitchen. I think it’s good for him. He’s here three days a week, really helping us out a lot...making sure all our newer cooks are in line with what we want to do. If you want to say sous chef, he’s sous chef-esque.
CM: What are the dumplings he’s making?
JY: If you follow him on Instagram, he’s been obsessed with dumplings for the last six months. He’s got the same personality as my old sous chef Mark Clayton where, if they want to do something, they’ll obsess about it until they really, really get it done right. It’s something I saw and have always wanted to do it, but I’m not very good at it. I’m going to take credit for his work, as a good chef does.
I think we’ve come up with a really great dish that’s going to wind up on the menu at Oxheart. It’s a dumpling with crystal dumpling skins. It has wheat starch but there’s no gluten in it. It’s the same skin you find on hai gao in dim sum cuisine. It’s lighter, kind of sticky but doesn’t have the same chew. It’s a nice, clean pop.
We’re going to stuff it with braised greens. We’re going to use the fava leaves, which is actually a cover crop in Napa. You get that nice vegetal flavor. Some oka, which is a very crispy root used a lot in Chinese cuisine. Then serve it with a kohlrabi broth and probably some citrus rind oil. I picked up 10 pounds of oranges from the market today. I’m going to dry the skins and make an oil out of it to serve with it.
CM: Two years ago, you told me you liked the size of Oxheart because it allows you to touch every plate. Do you still feel that way?
JY: I think it’s the right size for this restaurant. I would never trade in the personal attention we’re able to give every guest for a larger restaurant. Obviously, as I’m getting older — I’m 31 now as opposed to 27 when we opened — the size of this restaurant definitely wears on your body. Something as similar as putting away vegetables or breaking down chickens or pork is like three times as big of a mess just because we have nowhere to put it.
CM: Do you see any appeal in a restaurant like Qui that has a tasting menu area and a more casual section?
JY: I think if I were to do that it would be a different restaurant. Personally, I like self-contained restaurants. As much as I love both The Pass and Provisions, I think having the one chef for the one restaurant gains a personality on its own.
Everyone always asks me if I’m going to open something next. It’s always in the cards. It’s never one of those things where I’m going to chain myself to this stove at this space at this restaurant for the rest of my life. This is a great restaurant for me to still be the chef at.
I think more importantly than anything is being able to have people like Sam Chang. People who have been with us for at least a year now. Brandy used to be at Triniti; she’s been with us for a year now and her growth has been amazing. Ian came to us from culinary school, and the growth has been amazing. My hope is they stay with us for a longer period of time.
Ideally, I can be papa chef to all these great cooks that will hopefully one day go out and learn a lot more than I can offer them and maybe bring it back to Houston. I think I got that from Ryan Pera. He’s always been so happy to go out and see his cooks do so much. If you look at the roster of people who’ve worked with him, one of them is the executive sous chef at Canlis, one is the executive chef at Karbach, one of them is the corporate chef for all the Kitchen Cafes in Boulder and Denver. Rebecca (Masson of Fluff Bake Bar) came with them.
I think I’d be a happy person if I could say look at Mark and look at Jason, Sam. Look at them doing all these things. Plus I’d have more restaurant to eat at.
Portions of this interview have been edited for length and clarity.