Justin Yu Was Tired of Cooking Unusual Food Just to Be Unusual

The James Beard Award–winning chef closed his acclaimed restaurant, Oxheart, at its peak and explains why he’s back with Theodore Rex.

It came as a bit of a surprise. Not long after chef Justin Yu of Houston took home the James Beard Award for Best Chef: Southwest, he announced he’d be closing Oxheart, the restaurant that had taken him to the promised land. On March 15 of this year, Oxheart’s fifth birthday, he served one last tasting menu and closed the restaurant’s doors.

Oxheart had been at the vanguard of a rising Houston food scene, and Yu was a leader in a new generation of chefs across the country stripping away the trappings of luxury fine dining—from the linens to the caviar—but never skimping on the inventiveness, care, and deliciousness of the food. His local, vegetable-driven fare was crafted with techniques acquired during stints from Napa to Northern Europe and was served with a naturalistic aesthetic. But he’d had enough.

Before he served that meal, he wrote a blog post explaining why it was time to close. He knew that tasting-menu restaurants had a life span, and he didn’t want Oxheart to overstay its welcome. He also acknowledged that there’s a degree of narcissism to the style of restaurant he was running. “I know at times, regardless of what I convinced myself, I cooked food out of the ordinary for the sake of being out of the ordinary,” he wrote.

Now Yu has returned with Theodore Rex, a restaurant inside the same space that Oxheart occupied. But he has cast off the restrictions of doing a tasting menu every night for an à la carte approach that gives him more freedom to mix up the menu and not rely on the tweezers so much.

We caught up with Yu to discuss closing the old restaurant, opening a new one, and how he fits into a Houston food scene that’s becoming one of the most exciting in the country.

Theodore Rex in Houston  Photo: courtesy Jenn Duncan

What did you mean when you said you “cooked food out of the ordinary for the sake of being out of the ordinary?”
Things that I would do kind of like out of the ordinary is I would bring back an older sauce and kind of try to update it a little bit just for the sake of maybe making sure that people knew the type of thought and work that got put into it. There are little twigs of garnishes and things standing up, and we’d work a lot on our garnish work as opposed to the heart of the cooking matter. While I still love that in a certain way, I think that the space didn’t quite fit it anymore.

Why not?
I was concerned about the well-being of the restaurant. I know tasting-menu restaurants do have a life span to them, and if we didn’t continue to move forward as a restaurant, we would probably get left behind. My feeling towards it is we started ending up doing things like making powders with zucchini and powdering a whole bunch of things that would end up generally tasting pretty similar, like powdered collard greens and powdered skins of cucumbers. In the context of a tasting menu where you have all these little tiny bits and pieces of flavors, it generally gets lost in the mix, especially if you don’t have a very distinct set of products to choose from. It kind of gets muddy.

The heart of the cooking is what I enjoyed the most, and I wanted to focus more on that, and I wasn’t being able to do that—mostly because there’s a $79 tasting menu for six portions plus bread. In the grand scheme of things, it’s not very expensive throughout the country, but for Houstonians, asking anyone to drop $80 just on food just by walking into the door is tough, and I didn’t really want to do that anymore. It was kind of one of those things where I wanted to open up a restaurant that I wanted to go to every single week, and I’m hoping that’s one of those places.

What’s your ambition now with Theodore Rex?
I’d love to be able to serve special items that I have a lot of interest in cooking, like fish collars. And I like those vegetables that are only in season for a short time in Houston. In a tasting-menu restaurant, you to give everybody the same cut; otherwise, you look at the table next to you, and if it’s not the same dish, then you kind of get mad.

I want to be able to serve food that people can approach every day and be like, “This is interesting, yes, but more than anything, it’s delicious.” And the feeling of being in the restaurant is like a big, warm hug, and it’s one of those places where I’m not creating memories just only on special occasions but memories by being together. I think I wanted it to be more about the people that you’re with as opposed to the restaurant that you’re in.

How would you describe your style of cooking?
Very vegetable-forward, obviously. It’s kind of lighter and very European-influenced. It’s weird; I think I just figured it out. Because I am of Asian descent, people call it more Japanese because it’s all kind of austere. I mean, sometimes it is, and very simple. But I relate more to Italian cooking where you’re focusing very much on singular ingredients and try to bring out either<CE: This “either” supposed to be here?> singular flavors. There’s two different things I like to do—it’s either showcase products that have almost nothing done to them or products that we really, really try to intensify the most interesting qualities of it. That’s a very Italian way of thinking.

Had tasting menus run its course with you personally? Or do you think the dining public is less interested in them than they used to be?
I feel that I’m part of the dining public, as well, so I’d say both. There are lot of tasting-menu restaurants now that are just not really amazing. I hope I’m good at cooking, but I don’t think I’m so much more of a special cook than somebody else that I have something else better to say. I think I have good standards, sourcing, and technique, and I have a pretty distinct point of view, but those little small bites and pieces felt like they didn’t sing to me anymore.

And then, too, I think people are getting tired of tasting menus. I love going to them—I went to Momofuku Ko and Per Se a couple of weeks ago on a business trip, and I love both of those experiences—but I’m just not one to sit down and eat for 2½ hours. I like getting in, getting some really delicious food and a bottle of wine, leaving in like 45 minutes to an hour and a half. Those are the restaurants I remember the most, unless I’m in a very special place in the world.

There’s like one tasting-menu place I would want to go back to in the States at least; it’s Willows Inn. Part of that is not just because of how good the food is—and the food is amazing—because it’s in such a distinct part of the world or it’s hard to get to and has a very distinct point of view. The food is delicious, but you remember the experience overall.

Did you find yourself cooking for your peers as much as for customers—to be seen by them as a great chef?
It was a matter of both. Customers have a certain amount of demand of wanting it to be more interesting than any other meal that you can get. Cooking for peers is a good catalyst for that. Especially in the Instagram age, it’s hard to be special out in the world. Part of being a chef, honestly, is being able to do these things now, to be a good social-media person, be a good personality, not just be a good cook—which is odd because this is a generally new phenomenon and even odder because chefs are some of the most awkward people in the world. I wish I could say that cooking now is just being a good chef or just be a good cook, but being a good chef overall means being a good leader for everybody in your company. And people want that accessibility to know the person who’s cooking their food. I didn’t really realize that it’s a pretty natural progression, people starting to want to know what the cuisine was behind the food. Then they started to want to know who’s growing their food, and now it’s kind of like they want to know who’s cooking their food also.

My grandfather was a chef, and back then people didn’t want to know the Navy vets and ex-cons in the back making their food.
It’s not that way anymore. It’s a cherished position nowadays. It’s odd. We as an industry are just kind of changing overall into what’s actually required of us, and professionalism first and foremost is something that hasn’t been requested of us our entire career, and that’s not the case now.

Why has Houston become such a great city for food? Has this been happening awhile and people outside just noticed? Or have things really changed on the ground?
In the last 6 years, it has moved very fast. The food scene has always been really amazing. But higher-end restaurants in the past stuck to maybe a more classic version of restaurants that you could get in a lot of other cities. It was the restaurants that we all went to on our days off—like Himalaya, which is my favorite Pakistani restaurant, [and] Shanghai Restaurant, which is actually a Cantonese restaurant. Some of the best Vietnamese food and Korean food you can get outside their respective countries is here in town. That was what was the most exciting part of Houston, but that’s not really a sexy thing to write about.

What happened, I’d say about 6 years ago, is that a slew of new restaurants opened up at the same time with people that had been from Houston or moved back to Houston, myself included, and the cluster of it was shocking for national media. They came to town and saw us being affected by the fact that we were so culturally diverse. There was a level of luck involved; media was looking for a new city to kind of trumpet as a new destination. It was kind of like a little bit of a perfect storm, and the quality of food has only gotten higher since then.

There’s a lot more competition now, too. It’s almost like our second generation of sous chefs that have worked for chefs that first opened up this wave of restaurants 5 and 6 years ago are now opening up their own restaurants. The ability to be unique restaurants will become harder. That being said, it only will make the quality of restaurants even higher. I’m excited to see what happens the next couple of years. Our actual difference from a lot of cities is our base is not high-end restaurants; our foundation is the little restaurants, honestly. It’s the ones that you can get like a $2 banh mi or a $6 bowl of pho or like a $12 plate of biriyani that’ll feed you for 3 days. Those are the ones that I think we harken back to on a regular basis, and I think it shows in the way that we cook.

Is it hard to compete against those spots?
It is harder for people to see value in higher-quality products that have subtle differences. Because everything tastes really good and you can get it for 10 bucks, there is that comparison, and it’s hard to distinguish like, “Okay, well, that was also a good meal, but I could go to my local Chinese restaurant and get a really authentic Cantonese meal or go to Din Tai Fung and spend $25 and be completely full. Why did I just spend $25 on just an appetizer?” Trying to figure out ways to create value in the restaurants is harder, especially for a place like Houston. It’s a little bit easier in places that are not quite as culturally diverse. But that also pushes you to maybe think outside the box a little bit.

How so?
I don’t like making an exact replica of a dish with just some better ingredients. I don’t think that helps anybody really at all. That’s being unimaginative.

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