chef, Justin Gaines, chatting fabulously, interview, eating fabulously

Fabulous Eaters, I read an article a couple months back that still, till this day hasn't sat well with me. The article from  (<- click to read the article) asked the question of "Where Are The Black Chefs"  After reading the article and clearly mad, I was like wait... I can name 4+ black chefs off the top of my head right now that I know personally! I reached out to one of my fellow CIA alumi and friend Chef Justin Gaines to see if I could interview him and get another opinion on this article, and of course to see what chef has been up to after the CIA days are long over. Im glad Justin agreed and after the interview, I was wowed by his smooth flow and the honesty in his answers.  Thanks Justin! 

CS ~ Where did you get your education and gain your experience from?
chef, Justin gaines, interview, eating fabulously,
Chef Justin Gaines

Chef Justin Gaines- My culinary education comes from The Culinary Institute of America, in Hyde Park New York, where I earned an Associates Degree in Culinary Arts and a Bachelors Degree in Hospitality & Business Management.  My professional restaurant experience comes way of restaurant stints in New Jersey, New York, Fine Dining, Bistro, Fast Casual, French American and Gastro-Pub.  My restaurant upbringing involved training with Italian Chefs and Mediterranean Cuisine, also having taken part in a food culture & wine tour of Italy.  I also had the opportunity to train in New Orleans for almost a year learning Creole & Cajun Cuisines, and there is no better place to learn about that cuisine in its truest essence than New Orleans.  

CS ~What is your current job status?

JG- My current job status is Chef De Partie, in training for Sous Chef for a High End Restaurant Group out of Moscow, and Paris, Pushkin Brasserie. I also act as a distant Restaurant Consultant to a Burger Restaurant in Albertson, LI and an Italian Restaurant Concept, Sa Za Serious Italian, with Locations in Montgomery, AL, and Newnan, Ga. Im also doing some work in Boston right now as well.

CS ~How does life influence your cooking style?

JG - Life is journey. If you are constantly reading, cooking, eating, dining out, and traveling when you can, your cooking style will naturally progress. My approach to food these days is almost dramatically different in only 1 ½ years time.  I was living in Alabama, a very passive and stagnate food culture, consulting and running a restaurant, preparing for the 2nd launching and I decided to move to NYC and fully embrace an aggressive food scene working and staging for Michelin Star Chefs and brigades.  I also have to take consideration the state of the economy and focused on the opening of an economic friendly Burger Bar after a successful restaurant consultation for a client in Long Island.

CS ~Have you ever felt race was a issue for you in the kitchen?

JG - I think race is just an issue period in any setting.  You read about it and see it on a daily basis.  Through the years, I ve encountered it from different cultures in the work place.  While in NJ, most of my issues with kitchen personal came way of the Mexican cooks and porters.  For years I have always excelled from cook or Chef De Partie to Sous Chef.  I have found that many Latinos did not like taking direction from me, as an immediate superior, to them under Caucasian (often Italian) executive chefs.  In Alabama, known for its historical racial divide, I remember being confronted in an open kitchen by obnoxious guests, on a busy Friday nite at the chefs counter and being asked, "let me speak to your superior! I want to talk to the person who owns and runs this restaurant!" .  And when I ve replied: "you’re talking to the Restaurant Operator and Chef De Cuisine".... I received the look of, YOU ARE?!  When I was younger, I often felt race played a roll in the kitchens I ve worked in, but then I learned just to keep my mouth shut and OUT WORK EVERYONE AROUND ME AND OVER ME.  I don’t try to be the fastest anymore, I try to be consistent and do it better than I did yesterday.  If opportunities presented themselves to advance and I didn’t receive a fair chance too, then I examined the environment around me. (Race included, but only as a last resort)

CS ~Do you feel black chefs get little to no exposure?
snapper, mussels, butter, pepper, relish, rice, dinner, eating fabulously, Justin Gaines
Pan Seared Snapper x New Zealand Green Mussel Butter x Bell Peper Relish

JG - I definitely feel that black Chefs get little to no exposure.  We don’t have many leaders of color to look up to in our industry.  It has a lot to do with food politics and European lineage to American kitchen brigades.  What I mean by that is, many of todays leading American born chefs trained in Europe, France in particular, which becomes almost a right of passage in American Fine Dining.  One of the most famous Black Chefs in American history, Patrick Clark, trained in France, but his mission when he returned to America was to bring more awareness to minority chefs.

CS ~Do you think black male chefs and black female chefs get treated differently?

JG - I think female chefs, in general, get treated differently.  For what ever reason women are perceived as weaker cooks, and belong in a bakery or pastry shop.  I have never understood this nor felt this way.  I mean, most chefs recall childhood memories of watching or cooking with their mother, grandmothers or aunts. I have had the opportunity to work under or alongside many female chefs and really appreciated the opportunity working with them as I did male chefs.  Honestly, it’s really about the food and the dining patrons, not the gender of the chef cooking your meal.

CS ~Where are the black chefs? (male and female) 

JG - African American chefs and leaders in our industry are out here, but lack the representation and definitely the exposure.  There are so many chefs, unheard of, who posses all the same skills and talents of today’s Super Chefs, whether on TV or not, but are just not sought after for whatever the reason may be. Take Chef Robert Gadsby, who boast an impressive resume as a black chef, from Europe, working under Thomas Keller and has been all over the world owns two restaurants and has competed on Iron Chef yet, very few people know who this man is. Chefs like Jeff Henderson, and Marvin Woods have had TV shows in small and big markets and excel as leaders for our industry. Black chefs just need the proper exposure.

CS ~Do you get tired of the "Soul food/ BBQ" stigma automatically placed on black chefs? 

JG- Do I get tired of the “Soul Food/BBQ” stigma automatically placed on black chefs?  Yes & No.  Ask a French man does he get tired of the classical cuisine stigma associated with chefs of his or her culture?  Ask an Italian chef does he get tired of the automatic reference to pasta and red sauce? The shoe actually fits on both feet if you ask me.  It just so happens that African American cuisine is classified as soul food and BBQ.  It happens to be our cuisine.  But, that doesn’t mean that’s all we can do or the only cuisine we understand.  Soul food is simple flavorful food.  Isnt Italian cuisine the same thing? Lets take Italian vs French.  Its known that French food reins supreme because of technique. And while Italian cuisine has always been mainstream it never stands on the same plateau with the French, as many don’t, because its too rustic as they say.  Translation=simple.  However, Italian food sure gets a lot of press.  I happen to love it and excel at preparing the cuisine.  All I ask is find me a chef that doesn’t enjoy soul food or BBQ?  For example, working for Thomas Keller, whos famous for his fried chicken and some BBQ accents in his casual restaurants and cookbooks, when I would make family meal for staff and I introduced my BBQ sauce, I was asked at a minimum 5X to make my sauce and the recipe for it by almost everyone in the kitchen.  Thomas Keller opens Bouchon Bistro Restaurants (American Bistro Pioneered By Chef Patrick Clark), scaled down French inspired American cuisine, affordable, and they do well.  Why not soul food or BBQ? You can put technique to any cuisine out there I feel. But, all food has some form of technique.  Can you say smoking?

CS ~Do you think food media is killing the essence of cooking and what it means to be a chef?

JG - The media attention Chefs get now is great and bad.  Now everyone wants to be a chef.  No one wants to put in dues anymore.  Kids think when they leave culinary school they are Master Chefs now, and they belong on TV, even before they run their own restaurant. I shake my head at this.  I saw it in school.  And I say, man, these kids wont last nor do they have a clue.  It takes years to understand, grasp the roll and become a professional chef.  So many people think Gordon Ramsay is famous because of the foul mouth and kitchen bravado.  Real chefs and students of culinary KNOW WHO RAMSAY IS.  This man comes from a long historical line of Michelin Star Chefs. Hes trained under Marco Pierre White, Albert Roux, Guy Savoy (Thomas Keller as well) and Joel Robuchon.  Those are all masters.  Chef Gordon Ramsay, a master himself, PUT IN THE DUES.  Here is the flip side though; media gives exposure to a not so glamorous career path.  So many chefs before us, were great, men and women, but lacked the exposure, as only in the last 20 yrs has wanting to be a professional chef become a sought after and respected career choice.  Top Chef used to be the #1 rated show on cable TV.  Now, its not just the Food Network, culinary shows are on almost every mainstream channel.

CS ~Do you think that female chefs will ever sit comfortably at the boys table?

JG - I believe for female chefs to sit comfortably at the table with their male counter parts it needs to start with women receiving equality in every profession across the globe.  It’s a trickle down effect.   

CS ~Whats next for you?

JG - Whats next for ChefJus?  After the success of the burger consultation on Long Island, I have 2 potential investors for my hometown in NJ and Manhattan.  I have developed a following in Montgomery, AL and my business plan has been given the thumbs up for a bistro downtown, but Im having a change of heart, as I love NJ/NYC all over again since moving back. Im being groomed from a Chef De Partie to a Sous Chef with the High End Pushkin Restaurant Group as they plan to open at least 5 properties throughout NYC over the next couple of years.  The economy is still awful; Im only 30 and I have no kids, just student loans. Im going to be a restaurateur in the very near future, but Im not in a rush at the moment as there is still a lot more to learn cooking wise in NYC.  Honestly, I see a few more stages in Michelin star brigades along the way to being a restaurant owner.

A HUGE thank you to Justin for all of his culinary knowledge!

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