Houston chef Justin Yu dishes on reopening his downtown restaurant

Houston chef Justin Yu dishes on reopening his downtown restaurant

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One particular of Houston’s greatest restaurants returns to company this weekend. Theodore Rex will when once again welcome diners beginning this Sunday, May 23.

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The cafe has been on hiatus since February, when chef-owner Justin Yu stepped apart to enable Theodore Rex chef de cuisine Kaitlin Steets to get heart phase with her Littlefoot pop-up. Steets, a 2020 James Beard Award semifinalist in the Mounting Star Chef of the Yr group, acquired raves for her French-impressed menu that centered on classic culinary procedures.

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Reopening Theodore Rex delivers a good prospect to capture up with Yu. During a phone simply call, the chef, who gained a James Beard Most effective Chef: Southwest award in 2016 for his do the job at Oxheart, touched on a assortment of topics, like the improvements he’s designed to each the restaurant’s area and its menu ahead of the reopening, what he thought about Littlefoot, and why Theodore Rex charges $27 for a plate of dumplings.

CultureMap: Justin, many thanks for speaking with me. Let’s commence with the modifications you’re earning to Theodore Rex’s inside.

Justin Yu: We had Brittany Turcotte of Larder Lover [update the interior] when it was Littlefoot. I was definitely psyched about the variations she manufactured.

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We’re using components of that and continuing that on. Just one thing that Theodore Rex was, specially when we have been initially opening, we preferred to be much more playful and colorful. What we have discovered around the four years we’ve been open up is some persons want to use us for that but most men and women overlook the great touches Oxheat had. I’m making an attempt to discover the stability among the two

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The space is considerably less colourful. We’ve usually experienced extremely tailor made furnishings for the sizing and space necessities of how small it is in there. We’re focusing on the perform the household furniture makers do. There will be far more textures on the partitions but less color. The lights are spotted on the tables instead of colors and various artwork everywhere.

CM: What changes are you building to the menu?

JY: The big matter as much as the menu goes that we refused to do when we ended up opening up Theordore Rex was to increase any elements. Points were extremely overt with substances. You could see that a whole lot at Oxheart, I assume it’s a element of my individuality. When I cook dinner I obviously gravitate towards that. I slice it out of the foods to test to make extra of a bistro sense. I’m reintroducing it.

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Two years back, I went on a journey to Japan with Bobby [Heugel], Terry [Williams], and Peter [Jahnke]. Each style and design wise and foodstuff smart, that was really useful to me. It was really inspiring as properly. Absolutely nothing is overtly Japanese or Chinese, but stylistically it is fairly a little bit additional Asian and fairly a little bit much more of my persona.

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As Theodore Rex retained shifting on, there were being dishes that have been encompassing two diverse plates. That will carry on in this article. To me, which is a very Japanese detail with the condiments. That’s going to go on. We could possibly even extend to three plates, who knows?

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The food will be quite rigorous on singular goods. You will not see that considerably on the plate, but there will be a good deal of function in just about every solitary just one.

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Like the dumplings I posted not long ago on Instagram, we hand make all the dough wrappers, we grind all of our own stuffing, we measure out the meat and celery ratio and hand stuff each and every single one of them. There’s not heading to be an ornate sauce all over the plate. There will be a sauce that builds off the factors that are presently in the dumpling.

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I feel that takes a whole lot of restraint not to include any extraneous garnishes or extras that we don’t feel the dish desires. I believe it will be less Instagrammable, but it will be a lot far more delightful.

CM: When you introduce a dish like dumplings to your menu, do you think about other dining places that serve dumplings like Nancy’s Hustle or UB Preserv?

JY: I normally test to preserve an eye out for persons who are deemed friends and competitiveness, but we’re just attempting to make the best dish probable. I imagine the emotion is diverse. Nick [Wong, executive chef of UB Preserv] is a excellent good friend of mine. Do I consider I could make just as very good as that fashion of stuffed dumpling? I really do not feel I can. He’s an amazing chef.

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When I do a dish like that, I have to be aware of how people understand it. My dumplings are heading to be $27. Why are my dumplings $27 when anyone else’s are $12? I assume it is the total of operate and consideration to depth that goes into just about every single one particular of them.

CM: You described previously that you and Kaitlin share a common ethos. How would you describe that ethos?

JY: I feel both equally us of really like to construct on the bare bones basics of cooking, like a well-cooked piece of fish, a effectively-roasted fowl. I assume which is carried more than from Oxheart where by we usually commence with ingredients initially and then build the dish all around it.

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I consider that ethos is we try to make an expression of what it suggests to be in Houston at this time. I imagine that hasn’t changed in almost the 10 many years considering the fact that we opened Oxheart.

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I imagine those people points haven’t transformed for the better aspect of a ten years. Stylistically, we’ve transformed rather a little bit from not informal to casual to acquiring an outlet for informal issues like the spaghetti sandwich at Superior Luck Tomorrow. I assume individuals things are currently being fulfilled in other places. That’s why my target has been to refine the things we were carrying out at T. Rex.

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We’re at a bizarre spot in our business. For me, I want to be pushing forward, but I feel a big issue for us has been high quality of lifetime for our employees.

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I assume it goes hand-in-hand with what is the correct thing to demand to make certain the compact items in lifetime are taken care of. I would say a decent salary, healthcare, paid time off. Things that for some rationale is a layup in other industries, is type of a presented, that we have for some motive neglected about restaurant personnel for.

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I imagine it is truly vital, and we have often tried using to thrust for at T. Rex and the areas we’ve opened. That’s been an crucial element of wanting to do anything a minor different at T. Rex.

CM: Do you feel that consumers will answer favorably to the selling prices you’re charging for the food stuff you’re serving?

JY: It seems like T. Rex is extra of a particular event location. If I glimpse at it compared to my favored cafe, Nancy’s Hustle, I believe there is some sticker shock, but for the sum of funds that I spend at other places to eat that I feel of as relaxed: I go to Houston’s — I refuse to connect with it Hillstone — it’s not a cheap restaurant.

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It will be a a lot more elevated selling price stage for us. I never imagine you will spend $200 for every man or woman, but I bet including wine you get $75, $80 per human being. I think that is indicative of the high-quality of services and food items and the high quality of life for the team. I imagine which is why we keep so considerably team.

CM: What did you think about the function Kaitlin did at Littlefoot?

JY: I thought it was delectable, really indicative of a chef that warrants her individual cafe at some place in time.

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It was a excellent opening volley, and I hope she grows it from there. I liked the area. I loved the provider. I hope men and women loved it. I imagine they did. We have been comprehensive just about each night time.

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Each and every praise she obtained she deserved. I be expecting her to do significant things in the foreseeable future. It allows me to be pretty certain the kitchen that I’m related with is in great fingers, and she won’t allow factors I wouldn’t want to hit the plate go out into the eating space.

CM: Previous question: Are you bringing back the tomato toast?

JY: There will be some kind of tomato toast. I think what individuals affiliate our menu with is tomato toast, the butter cake, and the rice and beans. The tomato toast and the butter cake are receiving a small little bit of a remake, ideally to be additional delectable, and the rice and beans will not.

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I’m psyched for it. You ought to go.

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Parts of this interview have been edited for duration and clarity.

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