CHEF JUSTIN JAMES
A chef of daft and deft. New venture coming soon.
Justin's career took him around the globe and into the kitchens of some of the world’s most acclaimed restaurants, including one of his latest appointments as Executive Chef at Vue de Monde in Melbourne for five and half years. Before touching down in Melbourne, Justin worked in the kitchens of Noma, Eleven Madison Park, and Blue Hill at Stone Barns.
When it comes to the menu, Justin looks for the seasonally best produce grown by local farmers. Every part of the ingredient is analysed from the way he cuts, cooks, and seasons the ingredient to preserve its integrity and highlight the flavour of that ingredient. The product must be handled with the outright most respect and care. Justin's main focus is vegetables and the idea that we do not need to use animals and animal products as much as we do. He handles and thinks about an onion as he would for the finest caviar or wagyu. If anything he gets more excited about an onion than wagyu.
Throughout the years Justin realised food is a small part of what makes a great restaurant. He believes the total experience and the service is more important than food. Since that day he understood he needs to be a hospitality professional and not just a chef, he has had a large passion for being involved not only in the kitchen but the total restaurant experience, looking over every detail. From the first time the guests interact with the restaurant, to the greeting at the restaurant, to the first course, to the last course, to the next day. Justin takes pride in giving a total experience that aligns with his cuisine.
MORE THAN FINE DINING
Justin's background is fine dining but he has a vast experience running multiple restaurants simultaneously in his roles as group executive chef. Justin has experience executing many different types of restaurants, from QSR to bistros to cafes to FMCG to bakeries to fine dining. At the end of the day Justin loves food and believes you can always tone down fine dining but if you have never been there you don't know how to tone it up.
Most Australians will know James from his five and half year stint at Vue de Monde, where he served as Executive Chef. But, the young man’s deep-rooted talent was evident before he even turned ten. Determined to make an independent man of the boy, James' Mum insisted he makes his school lunches. Soon, he was cooking family dinner on the regular. His Dad bought him a copy of Paul Prudhomme’s Cajun classic, A Fork in the Road, and he cooked every recipe in the book.
Despite his Dad’s unhelpful insistence that being a chef ‘wasn’t a real job’, the kitchen bug had bitten hard. At seventeen, he was running a Michigan pizza joint; rostering staff, balancing the books, cashing out at the end of the day. It gave James the insight that a restaurant doesn't run solely on the ego of one chef – it's a delicate ecosystem of unique organisms, always on the brink of collapse.
An astute young man, James realised that his ambitions outstripped his qualifications. So, he signed himself up to the New England Culinary Institute in Vermont (the only American capital not to have a McDonalds, by the way). With only one chef to six students, the school was intensely focused on farm-to-table - an ethos that James has stuck with all his life.
With his toque now officially conferred, James began his run at some of the world’s most celebrated restaurants. First, it was Michael’s on the Hill in Vermont, with its James Beard awards and starched-white tablecloths. Then, it was a stint at Blue Hills Stone Barns, Dan Barbers visionary restaurant that re-imagines not only the dining experience but the entire food chain. It’s a vision that sticks in James’ head to this day.
A few months in, James was presented with an offer he couldn’t refuse: a place on the line at Eleven Madison Park. The New York restaurant was once Danny Meyer’s but was overhauled by Danny Humm to become (officially) the World’s Best. “When they released their cookbook – the beauty of the dishes, the flavour combinations, the precision on the plating – I just thought it was the most beautiful food at the time. I was like, ‘I have to work here!’” James remembers. “It was a great decision. That really to me polished everything off. I learned how to refine my palate, how to season, how to tighten up, how to work cleaner. And most importantly, I saw that you could achieve anything that you wanted to make. If you put your mind to it, you commit to it; you can do it. Those places didn’t just pop out of the sky. They take years to evolve. But if you have a firm vision, you can achieve it.”
James’ next move is better documented in the local press: searching for the furthest place from NYC, the chef settled on Melbourne. He took a position at Vue de Monde - and ended up running the joint (along with its suite of subsidiary venues) for over five years. “At that point, creating menus like that, running a big brigade, it felt like it took me from a young chef to a very mature chef very quickly,” he admits. “And I was ready for the challenge. I felt like all my training beforehand, all the places I worked set me up for that opportunity. I felt like, in rapid time, I made incredible progress where other people may or may not have succeeded.” During his time in Australia, he has achieved the highest standard in Australia restaurant awards including 3 hats in 2015 and 2017 for Vue de Monde. He opened up Iki Jime, where they were award 2 hats in the first year. Numerous 3 stars from gourmet traveller restaurant awards. He has been named a culinary prodigy by Gault Millau and nominated for chef of the year twice. His food has been described as some of the best in Australia.
The only interruption to James’ stewardship of the Vue Group was for a stint in Copenhagen, where he worked in the kitchen of perhaps a little-known Nordic restaurant, NOMA. But, ultimately, the Danish weather had nothing on Melbourne. And, more importantly, James realised it had come time to communicate his own vision as a chef.
“As a chef, you have to have your own cuisine. You have your own values, your beliefs, your theories,” he says. “And you have to tell it, not jam it down people's throats but you have to be ready to tell it. And especially in a degustation menu, you can't just do it dish by dish. The dish before and the dish after have to make sense. It has to be a transition journey; that's what I believe in.”