Food Drink

Interview: Justin James, Botanic Gardens Restaurant

Executive Chef Justin James, Botanic Gardens Restaurant

Meet Justin James, the new Executive Chef at the Botanic Gardens Restaurant in Adelaide, taking cuisine to a new international level.

Nestled in a landscape of lush greenery beside the calming stillness of the Kainka Wirra Main Lake, a new season is blossoming in the Botanic Gardens Restaurant (BGR). It’s a season born from sustainability, local produce and an international palette to tantalise the senses.

Executive Chef Justin James is the new custodian of the BGR, bringing almost 20 years of experience and a clear vision of what makes for fine dining and an exceptional customer experience.

“When you’re cooking,” he says, “you can have blinders on. But it doesn’t matter how good the food is, if it’s the worst service, you’re not going back to that restaurant.”

For James, the customer experience is as important as the food, leading him to consider every aspect of restaurant, from booking systems to interior decoration.

“A restaurant is a team sport but the buck stops with me so I talk to the guests all the time. That personal attention is what helps make memories. When people come [to the restaurant], they’re trying to have a moment where they can forget about everything else in life.

“Everyone is different though,” James explains, “so it’s important to be able to make a judgement quickly. Do they want to know about the fish and wine? Or do they want to be left alone? I always recommend staff read a book called Blink by Malcolm Gladwell. It’s fascinating that in the blink of an eye you can make a judgement of something or somebody or a situation and how to react to that.”

James’ first job at 16 was in a kitchen, but he’s been making his own lunches since the age of 10.

“My mum was pretty good in the kitchen so we always had good food. I’m from metro Detroit. Not many good restaurants out there. There’s a lot of fast food. But I developed a good pallet early on and in grade 7, when I was asked, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ I said ‘Chef.

“Some of those kitchens early [in my career] were in really bad restaurants but they teach you the basics of how to cook pasta, rice, work a fryer or grill. You can learn a lot from Michelin Star restaurants too, but you miss out on those basic cooking techniques where you have to slam things out. But I’ve also worked with some really great world-class Chefs with some amazing palettes that have taught me things. You always observe where you want to go, so I’d watch them constantly. They’d pick up a spoon to taste a dish and know instantly [what it needs]. Then I’d go try it.”

From that history, James has developed a strong focus on sourcing produce to complement the customer experience he strives to deliver.

“You have to find the best produce. This is a whole conversation in itself because it’s not always about price. Sometimes the most expensive isn’t the best. Sometimes it is. It’s the tasting, the texture. It’s at the peak of its season and it’s grown or raised by someone who has the same philosophy that I do. You have pick a tomato at the right time because if the sun is too hot when it’s picked, the tomato will have a different texture. So if I’m told [by the grower] ‘No, I can’t pick that tomato for you right now’ then I’m just not going to use it on the menu that day.

“I’ve always had a sense of place, even early in my career. Long before the farm-to-table idea took off, some of the restaurants I worked in were just doing it because it made sense instead of travelling half way across the world to be on your plate.”

James describes the Botanic Gardens itself as “a living museum of plants and trees” that also provides a wealth of beautiful produce for the restaurant. It’s a relationship that he’s keen to nurture and explore.

“Having a world class restaurant that also helps the Gardens… I don’t think there are any others in the world. We can help each other out, like learning how to take things off the plants and trees the right way, and so when I am talking to farmers, I know more. There’s some premium restaurants in Adelaide but we’ve got something really unique here in the Botanic Gardens. This is a free-standing restaurant so I see an opportunity to come in and be the champion of a really unique cuisine that competes on an international level.”

The Gardens are also a large part of the overarching customer experience that James is striving for, blending his food with the environment for a lasting impression.

“I want each dish to excite you. Hang on to that last bite so when the next dish comes around, it’s still rolling around on your tongue. Then the last thing I serve you, a shiitake fudge, you’re walking out to the Gardens and the taste is still lingering on your tongue.

“Three or four years ago, I went vegan for nearly 2 years which helped me to write menus a lot better. Why do we need to put butter in everything? It makes things better. Cream? The same. It’s delicious, don’t get me wrong, but there are other ways to do it. You can create a menu that’s more dietary-friendly. It also creates a different flavour with the same texture and viscosity, but it’s different because everyone else is probably using butter.”

To find that uniqueness, James relies heavily on native ingredients including quandongs, desert limes, finger limes, lilly pilly, lemon myrtle, lemon aspen, bunya-bunya and buchu berries, but he insists it’s a showcase of what comes from the land; it is not a native menu, citing the respect he has for how these ingredients were traditionally cooked. His own cooking style will honour those traditions, but…

“There will be no gas. Most of the things will be cooked over fire or steam, but when I break it all down, I don’t want this known as a native Australian restaurant. It’s a restaurant serving some exceptional produce to give an exceptional time. That’s my end goal.”

Less meat, less seafood and seasonality are all important aspects of planning his menus, as are the drinks on offer, with a new temperance drinks menu in the planning.

“Sometimes the drinks can be overlooked. I’m going to have a beverage specialist on the team. I’ll empower him but what goes on the list and the drinks that we make will be dictated by me. On the wine front, we’ll be looking at all different kinds of tastes and include organic, biodynamic and those kinds of categories. If it’s good, it’s good but if it’s good and harming the environment, then it’s bad. Cocktails are about the classics, but then maybe we can add something, like a syrup we’ve made from something out of the Garden to make it a little different.”

Of the temperance menu, he immediately says: “Not mocktails! They are a bit of a copout that comes from a bartender mindset. I want to elevate the drinks, create a program where people come just to try these drinks because a bottle of wine, I can have at almost any other restaurant. What’s special about that?”

As James progressively evolves his vision for the Botanic Gardens Restaurant, he’s happy to report that so far, people have been embracing the changes.

“There’s inspiration all around us [for the presentation and texture of the food]: in leaves, the water, it might be a song, it might be a building. You can find beauty in everything. And in time, we’re going to do some renovations, bringing back some old hospitality, reduce the amount of guests so we can provide that personal experience.

“I’m building a rapport with local people who are coming back two, three times already since I’ve been here. That’s pretty awesome. And without any media release. Just word of mouth. That’s the most beautiful recognition.”

Interviewed by Rod Lewis

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