Dan Catinella: What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Justin Smillie: I started in 1996, and at first it was the adrenaline and pure energy of the kitchen.
DC: What advice do you have for young cooks just getting started?
JS: Take and choose jobs that ultimately are going to get you where you want to go professionally. Take your time learning the basics, which is what will carry you through your career, and focus on details. Learn to be good at policing yourself, and set goals daily. I do hire cooks with no culinary school training. Often passion and drive are just as valuable.
DC: Who are some of your mentors? What have you learned from them?
JS: Jonathan Waxman taught me how to approach food from the ingredient-first perspective. And my time with Dan Silverman taught me how to organize and streamline my thoughts.
DC: In which kitchens have you staged? Which experiences were the most influential?
JS: My favorite stage was in Tokyo at Aux Elices de Hongo for Toshiharu Nishimura. I learned the discipline of the kitchen, and the way the Japanese eye worked within the medium of the French kitchen.
DC: What question gives you the most insight to a cook when you’re interviewing them for a position in your kitchen?
JS: What do you read, and what do you like to cook for yourself on your day off? Both give me a sense of what the goals in food are.
DC: Which ingredient do you feel is underappreciated or under utilized?
JS: Colatura di alici, which is basically Italian fish sauce. It adds a beautiful salinity and umami characteristic.
DC: What are a few of your favorite flavor combinations?
JS: Juniper and game birds; anchovies, and tomato; avocado and preserved lemon; colatura and horseradish; cucumber and green apple; black garlic and kaffir lime.
DC: Define “American” cuisine. What does it mean to you?
JS: The idea of American cuisine to me is that of a melting pot. It’s ever redefining and open to new things, respecting the old with a wandering eye on the future.
DC: Where do you like to go for culinary travel? Why?
JS: Japan and Spain. Both countries to me exemplify the respect for the old while searching. The quality of the fish, game, produce and how they separately choose to use them get me excited.
DC: What trends do you see emerging in the restaurant industry now?
JS: I think Mexican and South American could be a reemerging force. That and live-fire cooking.
DC: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
JS: Great ingredients and attentive technique are at the forefront. But within that thought, simplicity and balance are to me what lead to a great meal and dining experience.
DC: Which person in history would you most like to cook for? What would you serve? Who would you most like to cook for you?
JS: Juan Mari Arzak. I’d make him roasted suckling pig with ember-roasted vegetables. I would love to eat Victor Arguinzoniz of Etxebarri’s food.
DC: If you weren’t a chef what do you think you’d be doing?
JS: Something in jazz
DC: What does success mean for you? What will it look like for you?
JS: Success right now and in the future is all about putting out the best food I can. In the future, leaving my children with a legacy of good food raised well and cooked well.