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Justin Yu on Oxheart, Houston, and Distilling Influences

Justin Yu and his wife Karen Man opened the 31-seat Oxheart in Houston back in March. The couple had spent their early careers cooking in great kitchens, and they wanted to bring many of the ideas they picked up around the world back home with them. And so, they decided to offer tasting menus only and focus on vegetables. It seemed to some that the restaurant wouldn't succeed, but it did, and quickly. Most recently, it was named one of the country's ten best new restaurants by Bon Appétit. In the following interview, the 28-year-old Yu talks about his idea for the restaurant, his enthusiasm for Houston's dining scene, and how he can take his influences and make them his own.

Where were you before opening Oxheart?
Most recently, I did various stages in Europe. I was at In De Wulf, Geranium, AOC. Before that, I cooked at a pop-up restaurant, and before that, I was at Ubuntu, in Napa.

Did you always want to be a cook?
I've always known I wanted to cook. Right out of high school, I went to the Culinary Institute of America, then I cooked in Houston for a couple of years and did my externship at Green Zebra, in Chicago.

Tell me about the idea behind Oxheart.
My wife and I opened up Oxheart March 15th of this year. I had always wanted to open a restaurant of my own in Houston. I spent about eight months here without a job looking for a space. I was about two weeks away from leaving and giving up, but the right location suddenly came up in the Warehouse District, which is sort of a transitional area. It was small enough for us, and pretty much what we were looking for. It all, somehow, fell into place.

I just wanted to make sure we could do interesting food and the type of food I want to cook, which is vegetable-focused and lighter on the proteins. The other thing was the the tasting menu style, which allows you to create dishes that focus on the greater flow and not just packing everything into one dish. Of course, we try to cook as much as we can with local products. About 85 percent of our product is local.

And there's the kitchen counter, too.
I knew I wanted an open kitchen, but I didn't want a counter that would make the kitchen the main event. The kitchen isn't first in the restaurant. The guests are. It has to be a great experience for them. I wanted it to be U-shaped so you could talk to your guests and look at the kitchen if you wanted to do so. It seemed like a great transitional space between the kitchen and the dining room, especially in such a small space.

The other goal was to do away with the regular trappings of a high-end restaurant. You pour your own water, the utensils are in a drawer at the table. Not only does it save on costs for the tasting menu, but it sets the tone and sends the message that you want it to be a little more casual.

Did cooking in Copenhagen turn you onto the idea of a vegetable-focused style of cooking?
I never envisioned taking an interest in vegetables. It really started when I worked at Green Zebra, in Chicago. I was supposed to be interning at their sister restaurant Spring, but they had a position at Green Zebra, so I took that. That introduced me to the idea that vegetables can carry a dish. They don't have to surround a protein. Later on, when I cooked at Ubuntu, because they had their own garden, it convinced me that vegetables are so dynamic to cook with. Being able to make a vegetable delicious and creative isn't always easy, especially when people sometimes have preconceived notions about them.

Would you say you're the first tasting-menu-only place in Houston?
I don't know if we're the first restaurant to do that, but it's definitely a format that people aren't used to. I would say that Houston is much more than a meat and potatoes city, but it still has some of that. Then you come here and find that you only have three choices. It was definitely shocking to some people. When we opened, some people wondered if we could survive. That's why we're only 31 seats. We have to have that focus on every single dish, especially when we've gotten this much press.

What were some of the challenges early on with diners that might not have been familiar with the concept?
It was actually shocking to me to see people embrace it so much. Houston seemed to be stuck in a rut as far as dining was concerned, even though there was a lot of cooking going on. You could feasibly swap menus between a bunch of restaurants and there wouldn't be that much of a difference. I just wanted to do something a little different. Some doubted whether there would be a market for something like this, but there was.

The biggest challenge, though, was getting the purveyors on board. We don't have the structure that a city like San Francisco has. Now I have a structure down where I can talk to the purveyors and figure out where everything is at, as well as get regular deliveries.

I've read in several places about the the impact a meal at Relae, in Copenhagen, had on you, and just a few minutes ago, you talked about the fact that you have the utensils in a drawer, like Relae does. My question is, how do you process an influence that strong and manage to make something that you feel is yours?
I've always worried about that, since I admire what they do at Relae so much. My wife spent about month there staging, and we ate there before they went on their winter break. I basically said, "Damn it, this is the restaurant I want to have." They took the pretentiousness out of eating this type of food. I hate dressing up, I hate feeling hovered over, but I love having a good time.

To distill those influences and do something that is your own takes time. There were strong resemblances early after I left Ubuntu, too. You have to grow and find your own footing. Then, you figure out exactly what you want to do. I just turned 28, my wife is 27, and you just get older and wiser.

You just mentioned your age and before that, you mentioned the impressive list of stages. How do you make sure you're not one of those guys some chefs criticize as not putting in enough time and focusing more on just racking up marquee stages?
Even I get a lot of résumés that play up a person's role at a place like Noma, when it's obvious that they just picked some leaves for a few days. I never wanted to be that kind of guy. I mention the stages, but I always note that they were stages and not something else. I am really young and feel like I could have probably put in more time, but I think my experiences were really intense. I'm 28, yes, but I have been cooking for twelve years. Sure, other people have cooked longer than that, but I wanted to also make sure that our restaurant grew as we did.

I could see myself in the future thinking about having more people there for service to heighten the dining experience. The point is, as my preferences and interests change, so will the restaurant.

Anything else you want to get off your chest?
Houston is slowly — not even slowly, it's quickly — becoming a major dining destination. We get overlooked a lot for Dallas and Austin, which are cities we definitely admire, but we have such a great structure here for chefs to start their own business. I think people are starting to take notice.

· All Justin Yu Coverage on Eater [-E-]
· All Eater Interviews [-E-]

Oxheart

1302 Nance Street, Houston, Texas 77002

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