November 29, 2021
Wine & Dine

Meet Restaurant Botanic’s Justin James

Bringing his experience from fine diners in New York and Copenhagen, US-born executive chef Justin James has overseen a major renovation of the historic Botanic Gardens Restaurant to create an enhanced dining experience.

BEN What was it like growing up in Michigan?

JUSTIN I grew up on a farm an hour’s drive outside of Detroit where we had 145 acres and we’d catch turtles in the lake, go paintballing and it was just you and the wild.

It’s a great place to grow up because you get the proper four seasons.

The way I cook is affected by my experience of the seasons, the weather and my surroundings – it was ingrained from a very young age.

BEN What nudged you onto the path of becoming a chef?

JUSTIN My parents separated and I was in about grade five when my mum said, “You can make your own lunches.”

It instantly gave me a sense of freedom and I was in about grade six when I said I wanted to be a chef.

I started reading cookbooks and I was in grade seven when I started making Christmas and Thanksgiving dinners for my family.

I still remember grilling fish on the barbecue in the summer, my friends would come over, and I was like 12 years old!

BEN What was your first job?

JUSTIN There weren’t many great restaurants in Michigan at the time – Michigan’s known for Coney Island dogs which are a type of hot chilli dog.

I became the restaurant manager of a pizza shop, while I was going to uni and it really set me up.

My dad’s a mechanical engineer and wanted me to get a “real job” so I studied to be a civil engineer at Michigan State.

BEN How did you then become a chef?

JUSTIN While I was studying engineering, I became a sous chef at a Chinese restaurant and I felt that was what I wanted to do – the culture, the energy and the daily adrenaline just got me going.

So, I went to culinary school in Vermont. It was all about farm-to-table, it just made sense that you grow the product, pick it, cook it and serve it. It’s so simple and even in today’s world we still get it wrong.

BEN You went on to work in New York fine diners Blue Hill and Eleven Madison Park, how did you end up in Australia?

JUSTIN I ended up in Melbourne on a holiday visa working at Vue de Monde, where I eventually became the executive chef.

I learned a lot there and then I moved to Copenhagen to work at Noma, and I ultimately came back to Australia.

BEN What led you to Adelaide?

JUSTIN The Botanic Gardens Restaurant phoned me about the job, but I didn’t know about Adelaide.

I’ve always liked the bigger, flashier cities and I actually had a job lined up in Los Angeles.

I looked into Adelaide a bit more and I found an article that placed it in the top 25 foodie cities in the world. And then, the restaurant itself is beautiful.

There’s a lot of character and tradition, surrounded by these Botanic Gardens in which there’s some edible produce being grown.

BEN What are your aspirations for the refurbished restaurant?

JUSTIN The kitchen now protrudes into the dining room and it’s all open; we have a kitchen counter where guests can sit, enjoy their meal and have a little banter with me.

What’s important in a restaurant is having a buzz, and now we’re a part of that buzz.

We have a fermentation shed where we will make koji, misos, garums, and other preserved produce.

At the end of the day, I want the guests to have a three-hour holiday when they are at our restaurant.

I believe that one restaurant can change a city, like Noma did for Copenhagen, and I would like that to happen here; Adelaide is a beautiful city.

This story was first published in the July 2021 issue of SALIFE magazine.

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