Come October 13, self-taught chef Justin Warner will have released his first cookbook, The Laws of Cooking: And How To Break Them, an achievement coming after Warner rose to fame by winning on the TV show Food Network Star in 2012. But what most people don’t realize as they watch this quirky, experimental cook is that he got started in the food world while living in Colorado. Warner moved from Maryland as a teen and lived with his uncle in Estes Park, where he got a job bussing tables at the Dunraven Inn. Later, Warner moved to Fort Collins and became a server at Sushi JeJu, a place that forever changed how he looked at food.
"That job is pretty much what turned me in to the foodie-monster I am today," says Warner. "The staff was 'Murican, Mexican, Korean, and Japanese, so our parties and family meals were epic and delicious."
From there he moved to Boulder and worked at the high-end sushi joint Sushi Tora. The next big move was New York and waiting tables at more restaurants, famously Danny Meyer's The Modern. We chatted with the New York resident to find out more about his book and how the Centennial State affected his career.
Linnea Covington: When you were busy busing tables at the Dunraven Inn did you ever think you would be where you are today?
Justin Warner: I knew I wouldn't bus tables forever, but I also knew if I did it would be okay. I loved that job. If it weren't for their baked ziti and Alfredo I wouldn't have made it out of puberty.
When you lived in Colorado, why did you gravitate toward sushi restaurants?
I rolled up to Fort Collins with minimal experience and the first job that called me was Sushi JeJu. I had had sushi before, and liked it, but it wasn't my jam of all jams. Masa and the team there gave me the Kool-Aid and I still can't stop drinking it. I'd work in sushi tomorrow if I could.
Let's talk about your upcoming book. Instead of the usual ingredient list, your book is organized by laws of flavor combinations. For example the Law of Bagel and Lox (smoke meets acid and fat) and the Law of Pesto (herb meets fat). Why did you decide to present recipes this way?
Until I met with the publishers, I didn't really know how to fit all of the "crazy" in to a book with a theme. If you look at any other facet of my life, it's pretty disorganized and fire-from-the-hip. We figured out that my book should simply answer the question that people ask most, which is how do I come up with these flavor combinations.
Well, when I was a waiter serving fancy modern food to fancy antique people, I would have to find the quickest and clearest way to articulate the chef's menu to the guests. Lobster in chamomile broth sounds bonkers until you realize that lobster goes with butter, which is soft and round, just like chamomile. So, let me explain the dish as "lobster with butter." When you can distill something complex and maybe a little alien into something that is simple and familiar, you have a better chance of getting people to take the plunge into the unknown. As a cook, the unknown is something I'm very into, but most eaters are not. Having the chapters based on simple food like peanut butter and jelly makes the idea of making a foie gras and jelly doughnut feel a lot less scary to the home cook.
That latter item is one of the most popular dishes you did at Do or Dine [Warner's now-closed Brooklyn restaurant]. why do you think that is?
It lives in the sweet spot of fancy meets convenience store. That's a very fun place to be, and it inspires a lot of curiosity. When it turns out to be a delicious thing, the word spreads.
Are any of the recipes in your book inspired by your time in Colorado?
Oh man, so many. A ton are from one guy named German Ruiz who works at Sushi JeJu in Fort Collins. He and another chef there, Masakazu Suzuki, pretty much changed my life. German taught me about real Mexican cuisine, and Masa got me amped about new flavors. Once they made me a collaborative dinner for my birthday, beef liver sashimi with negitoro don on the front end and a ridiculous tres leches cake for dessert. Colorado gave me all the right programming to get where I am today and I think back to it so fondly.
What was the best part about winning Food Network Star?
It gave me the credentials to help people on a bigger scale. Now instead of helping someone navigate a menu, I can help the nation navigate its pantries.
What do you like to eat in your down time?
Sushi, noodles, and barbecue. I like pizza too. Barbecue is the only one of those I make for myself on the regular though. When I cook for myself I make pedestrian stuff like dippy eggs and toast.
If you came back to Colorado is there any place you would like to eat at?
All of the places really. I had an extended layover in Denver last time I was en route to South Dakota and I Ubered to Sushi Sasa and back to the airport in time to pick up my flight. I gotta hit up Frasca, can't believe I haven't been there yet, and then I'd just start texting my friends about what's good. I'd probably pound a few brews at City O'City and Park Tavern. I used to haunt the hell out of there.
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After the closing of your Brooklyn restaurant Do or Dine, do you have plans to open something new?
Do or Dine opened with the right people at the right time in the right place with the right attitude. We didn't open with the right funds. When I can get all those criteria to make a sweet Venn diagram, I will strike. Until then, I'm going to work on being a good husband, dog-dad, author, and sometimes TV guy.
Any new show concepts in the works?
Perpetually. The first thing you learn about TV is that it's just like making a restaurant but you add in a lot more circles. It'll happen, but it might be a bit. When it does happen, just like this book, and just like Do or Dine, it'll be a big fun thing that people really like, or not. Who knows?