In this ongoing series, Leesburg Today talks with some of the area’s finest chefs to learn more about their methods and passion for food. First on deck is Justin Garrison, executive chef of The Wine Kitchen’s Leesburg—and soon, Purcellville—location.
The tiny South King Street restaurant has rapidly built a reputation for offering fresh, farm-to-table food made alarmingly delicious by Garrison’s talented hand. The 35-year-old Round Hill resident is self-taught, picking up his skills observationally and by working “every possible position you could think of” in kitchens across the area. Garrison certainly has settled in nicely at the helm of one of downtown Leesburg’s hottest dinner spots, but his hunger to learn more about his trade is as voracious as ever.
Leesburg Today: Tell us a bit about your background.
Chef Garrison: I actually grew up a Loudoun County native—I worked at various restaurants when I was younger and while going to college. I actually have a degree in business administration. In the back of my mind many years ago, I thought if I wanted to get out of the restaurant business or try something else [I’d have that to fall back on]. But [my passion for cooking] hasn’t worn off yet, and so here I am.
After finishing up school, I realized I was going to [pursue becoming a chef]. I worked for a couple of other chefs—I was a sous chef out at the Ashby Inn at one time many moons ago…I always had a knack for putting flavors together. I was told chefs who could do that were hard to come by, especially young people informally trained. So I was really blessed to get a couple of good positions starting out…
In 2002 I started traveling Europe. I spent some time in Spain, Italy, just kind of studying, talking to chefs, eating, researching food and trying to find my niche of [how I cook] and to apply it over here. I studied other chefs’ food and took my own approach… I was really just eating and studying roughly from 2002 to 2005, back and forth—I had an executive chef job out in Middleburg…I was traveling, eating applying, reading and learning. Just taking every approach I could to be a better chef.
In 2005 I moved to Charlestown, SC and opened my own restaurant called Barefoot Bistro…we had a successful business, and when our lease was running out—my wife and I had a child and the priorities kind of changed at that time…We didn’t want to renew the lease, we didn’t have any family down there and we just wanted to come back home. You know, home is always home.
We moved back [to Loudoun] I guess in 2009 or 2010 I believe, because this July will be my third year as chef at The Wine Kitchen.
LT: Describe your style of cooking.
CG: [My skills are] all self-taught, so to speak. I like lots of chefs, lots of cookbooks, lots of reading, experimentation—I’ll humbly say I’ve always had a knack of just putting fresh flavors together. I’ve never really followed recipes, I’ve just had that touch to make things taste good and so far it’s worked.
But you learn and you know what works. I think that’s what’s helped me with Wine Kitchen—we’re the farm-to-table restaurant. So we get these ingredients, and as long as you keep the ingredients pure and simple, you’re going to come out with a good product.
I say [my style is] Euro/American—I think I maybe pioneered that! Euro/American with a southern flair. [laughs] …If you come to the restaurant you’ll see we have all sorts of fusion—that’s all we do is fuse flavors together.
LT: Who works alongside you in the kitchen?
CG: I have a sous chef who has been under me for about a year and a half: Jeremy Thrasher. He comes from the French Hound in Middleburg.
For a typical dinner service we have an expediter who is reading tickets, wiping plates, garnishing, making sure nothing is forgotten—they’re the last eyes [on the dish before it goes to the customer]. We have someone on garnish who does the desserts, charcuterie, cheese, salad, kind of adding the finesse…then we have somebody on the hot side, doing sautéing, grilling and all that, and we have our bottle washer as well. On a typical night we run four people in the kitchen.
(On the small size of The Wine Kitchen’s kitchen…)
People who are in the business look at what we do [in this space] and are shocked. Even we kid around every now and then—because I say don’t make excuses, we can do it. It makes me almost angry when I go out to other restaurants that are bigger and have this new equipment—if we can [make excellent food] with what we have, there’s no reason they can’t do it.
It does get tight [in the kitchen] especially on Saturdays. Over shift change, when we’re having people leave and come in between 3 and 4 p.m. there’s an extra person per position. This past Saturday we had eight people in a tiny, tiny kitchen, so communication is key...At the end of the week all kind of look at each other—we know what we’re doing is good. People wait hours for tables! It’s a little shocking to me.
LT: What do you think sets your restaurant apart from others in the area?
CG: I think we’re striving to be the best and we’re not going to rest on what we did last week. There’d be nothing worse than 10 years going by and people stop calling to write you up, people aren’t beating the door down…
It comes down to customer service and what can we do better. I think when you stop trying to better yourself is kind of when you’ve thrown in the towel. Nothing is ever good enough. I love the guys who work for me, but they’ll tell me when we’re in that kitchen it’s pretty intense, but it’s all for the love of food. If we stop caring then we’re all unemployed! [laughs]
The toughest thing is being your own boss. Sure, you get some responsibility, you might be able to take a couple short cuts, but when you say, I can do better than that, without somebody hulking over you or forcing you into that situation, you know your standards are higher.
LT: The Wine Kitchen sources a number of ingredients locally throughout the year. Talk about why that is important and what it takes to facilitate that process.
CG: I started getting into the farm movement in the south—it’s very prominent down there…when I first moved up here I’d heard about Northern Virginia becoming a new restaurant scene with a lot of new places popping up doing the farm-to-table movement. Of course I thought well why didn’t we think of this 10 years ago? But it was good to see Jason [Miller] and Mike [Mercer], the owners, take their knowledge of wine and want to bring the food aspect to it.
Once I saw what they’re about—it’s not all about he dollar for them. It’s not always about squeezing every penny out of the business. It’s about supporting the community—that’s what’s important to me, too.
Growing up in this area I have some grandparents who were farmers, and lots of old-school farming goes on here. Farming is becoming lost; it’s becoming expensive—if we can support the community by supporting farming that’s helping us, that’s helping everybody out.
As a chef it’s very challenging because you’re not going to come in our restaurant and see corn or tomatoes or avocado right now…last week, one of my last farmers, Kevin Grove at Quarter Branch Farm in Lovettsville…said, "listen, these next couple of weeks are going to be hard because everything is coming to an end off [the winter season] and spring has not sprung yet…"
We use a co-op as well out of Pennsylvania…they get mushroom forgers, they can still get us our carrots, turnips—our menu is pretty heavy right now because it’s the middle of winter. You see cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and kale, turnips and carrots, beets, butternut squash—we have to incorporate all these things.
When the spring comes you’ll start seeing sweet peas, asparagus, fiddleheads, ramps and all sorts of beautiful spring lettuces and spinach. It gives us that shot of passion that we need, because we’re now on to a new season, creating new menus, so it’s really exciting.
(On The Wine Kitchen’s preference to make almost everything from scratch)
[Everything is] pretty much from scratch, period. If we do a salad with blue cheese dressing we’re making the blue cheese dressing, or the ranch or our crème fraiche—we make our own bacon, we cure and smoke our pork bellies…Right now we’ve got some duck prosciutto that’s taken us two months to finally get ready—we’ve cured it, hung it, dried it—I mean these things take time.
It takes a long time to get the food production part done because we’re so busy, but once that’s done all we have to do is piece it together…a lot of love goes into the food, and you have to do it right.
LT: What is most important to you as a chef?
CG: My day off! [laughs] I think all chefs would appreciate that!
Perfection, I think. Something that rarely ever happens…but you keep trying and trying and trying, and some nights you do have that perfect night, but others you’ll have one little mistake. Strive for excellence to achieve perfection.
And for me personally, church is really big. God has been really good to me, and I have a lot to be thankful for.
LT: Who/what inspired you to become a chef?
CG: On a personal level, I walk around with heavy shoulders. I wish I could take things with a grain of salt—working under these other chefs and was told I was good…That’s something that, for me, really made me want to be better. So I was working my tail off to get to the top.
Once I was at the top, I was like, now what? My first chef job wasn’t at a big restaurant or a fancy hotel—but for me that was the top. That was back in the day when we were using the big companies [like Sysco and US Food] getting pre-fab stuff. Yes, I was a chef, but we weren’t making things from scratch. So the question became, how do I get to the next level?
So I said, let’s make our own demis, make our own fish fume, and I was constantly getting better. Hopefully I haven’t quite hit my peak yet—I’m always learning, and that’s the key...working smarter, not harder.
LT: Which chefs inspire you now?
CG: Anybody better than me, and that’s the truth. I get caught up in the Food Network stuff—like any professional you know if people are straight up more talented than you, but that doesn’t mean I stop trying to be better…
Personally I don’t try to get involved with what other chefs do—I concentrate on what I’m doing and make it my own way.
[Everybody knows] who the good chefs are: Michael Symon, Jose Andres out of [Washington] DC, [Masaharu] Morimoto…the classics like Julia Child, James Beard…I’m an equal opportunist. I don’t have that one [chef who makes me say] wow, I want to be like them, but that goes back to not having definitive cooking approach or style…
LT: What advice can you give to home cooks, aspiring chefs, etc.?
CG: My recommendation to home cooks…I really can’t say. Maybe that there’s something to be said for grandma’s cooking—you don’t mess with grandma’s cooking…
Keep doing what you’re doing—there’s a place for home cooks and it’s hard cooking at your house! It’s harder cooking at my house than it is at my restaurant. I don’t have a pantry, or somebody cutting my ginger—it’s hard! [laughs]
LT: What is your favorite dish to make at home?
CG: Being a chef, there’s not a lot of cooking I do unless it’s dinner parties. If I have a choice I like to do the slow and low-tech pork, braised lamb shank…
A lot of times it’s just that dinners have got to be ready, the kid has to go to school…My wife does these Asian pork wraps with water chestnuts—ground pork, water chestnuts, hoisin sauce, some ginger, garlic and as a kind of healthy alternative to tortilla or bread we get some nice Bibb lettuce and wrap it up—that’s one of my favorite things to eat.