The Lone Star State’s Rising Culinary Star
Houston’s critical darling and crowd-favorite Oxheart has a progressive perspective on regional cuisine. Its co-owner and executive chef, Justin Yu, was recently named Best Chef: Southwest by the prestigious James Beard Foundation and has now been recognized on a national scale for delicately delicious dishes. Here we speak with the host of our inaugural Houston Feast on October 6 and one of H-Town's culinary celebrities:
LUCKYRICE: How does the restaurant's name reflect the mantra behind Oxheart
Justin Yu: Oxheart refers to two things: an Ox's heart, of course, as we aim to use whole animals when we do cook proteins, and it is also a variety of carrot, cabbage, and tomato. It's a fun way of saying we like to cook both things equally.
LUCKYRICE: Does your Chinese background influence the menu?
Justin: More and more, the food seems to be a vague reflection of my heritage. I think that being Chinese has always affected my tastes and the way we season food at the restaurant: with a lot of umami, high acidity, and high herbaceous flavors. However, as I've gotten more comfortable in my own skin, I've let my Chinese background come out more in the food.
LUCKYRICE: How has your time in Belgium and Denmark shaped your perspective on cooking?
Justin: The Nordic way of cooking is very intense. It's either very intently coerced with a lot of technique and hyper attention to detail, or left completely raw and naked. There's very little middle ground. I think, by applying these ideas, it really lets our food fit into the type of tasting menu format we choose to be in.
LUCKYRICE: And why did you decide on a tasting menu format, along with offering a vegetables-only option?
Justin: At the time, I really just wanted to make a point. Tasting menus allow me the freedom to go after the type of cooking I'm interested in and to take chances I can’t take with an à la carte menu. You really have to be more thoughtful when you create dishes for à la carte meals but there were times I felt the best thing I could do for an ingredient was to let the dish be more austere. It seems to have worked out.
I love cooking vegetables. It feels very dynamic and is always a tricky thing. I love the challenge it imposes, not only because many guests aren't used to just eating vegetables, but how variable vegetables can get as the season goes on.
LUCKYRICE: What sets Houston's dining scene apart from your close neighbors Austin and Dallas?
Justin: Houston's gigantic diversity and the influence of so many cultures on its dining scene - from affordable to the most expensive and progressive restaurants - sets it apart. There are so many different types of people from all walks of life that really affect the way we eat and is more apparent in the way Houstonians cook food.
LUCKYRICE: Favorite late-night snack?
Justin: I'm a sucker for Whataburger. I get a potato, egg, and cheese taquito with grilled jalapenos and a sausage BoB. If I'm feeling frisky, I'll spring for an order of onion rings.