Interview with New Orleans Rising Star Restaurateur Justin Devillier

by Caroline Hatchett
February 2016

Caroline Hatchett: How did you get your start in the industry?
Justin Devillier:
I started cooking in 1999 in California and got here in 2002. I had worked in five places. That wasn’t the vision that I thought I would take. La Petite started in 2004, and after Katrina I took over as sous chef. It was my only option, and I worked there until 2007. When the chef left, ownership offered me the chef job, and I took it reluctantly. The managing partner was in control of day-to-day operations. If he wanted the restaurant to have a certain feel or cater to a certain clientele, it happened. It allowed me to get my foot out onto the floor, the way bartenders and hostesses acted, the way we presented the whole restaurant. I worked as chef until 2009, when the partners offered to liquidate their shares and finance me to buy theirs. I acquired 65 percent of the shares. We had talked about profit sharing, but, when they got together, they all thought it would be better if they all got out. I have one other partner, totally silent. Since 2010, it’s been myself and my wife. We really turned the corner after we took over. 

CH: How did the restaurant change? 
JD:
It evolved. That period was great from 2007 to 2010. I was learning a lot about business, labor and food. The two-year period before I took over was like a paid internship with a team of accountants and business people. The biggest thing we did was opened the restaurant up to everybody. We were in a neighborhood, and we made a conscious effort to make it a neighborhood place, become friends with the community, take drapes off windows, change the uniforms. We made a huge effort to focus on hospitality—people eat out a lot here, and we worked to make the place more accessible. Our staff know people by first names, they know their drinks, and laugh with them. 

CH: How did you come to open Balise?
JD:
I wasn’t itching to open another spot but knew I wanted to. This building caught my eye, and I saw it and said this would be awesome for the concept. I was able to get the money together and staff to do it. 

CH: How did you approach structure for this?
JD:
It’s a little different. My wife and I are only constant. The building is so old and got grandfathered in with lots of things. It started slow and took 14 weeks for the build out. We put together a good group who understands the restaurant business and business in general. They understand that if it were easy everyone would be doing it.

CH: How did you staff up for the new project?
JD: 
We’ve been lucky with finding the staff and finding good fits. When we opened, I was blown away by how solid the staff was and still is. Our CDC, Paul [DiMaria] worked for Susan Spicer. Jesse [Carr] came our way in a search. He hit everything. His flavors and ratios. His bar manner is good. During the tasting, he never seemed like he was cocky or fronting. He said early on, he’s looking for a place that feels like a family. Paul’s the same way. I gave him a lot, worked with him a lot on menus, and he’s proving himself to me. I have to think back to when I was a younger chef, my first opportunity, you’re going to make mistakes. It’s my job to guide him through them. 

CH: What’s your five year plan?
JD:
I want to do something else. I look around the kitchen and see three people who could run restaurants. That's good for the staff and growth. They see someone they work with get promoted. It’s also fun to do.