Chef wows with artistic food creations

Monday, August 4, 2008

ST. JOSEPH, Mo. -- It was 6:15 on a Monday evening as Karen Foley took the stage. The auditorium at the Albrecht-Kemper Museum of Art was filled to capacity with people standing outside the door and along the walls.

"Who ever heard of announcing an event and never sending out invitations?" Foley asked the group.

It would be an unlikely situation, she said, but that's exactly what happened for the evening's museum fundraiser -- a three-course, $100-a-plate dinner called "A Culinary Dining Experience." The invitations never went out because it sold out before they could get them to the printer.

The attraction? Jonathan Justus, owner and executive chef at Justus Drugstore: A Restaurant in Smithville, Mo. He was the guest chef this evening, along with his wife and partner, Camile Eklof, and their "chef de cuisine" Jeffrey Scott.

The restaurant opened last year in a former drug store building that has been in the Justus family since 1842, and it's already received praises from food critics for its innovative menu in Food and Wine magazine, USA Today and an upcoming edition of Bon Appetit. The food is all prepared from scratch, with most of it raised by local farm producers.

"He's known nationally," said Jeff Keyasko, one of the dinner guests and a chef at the J.C.Wyatt House in St. Joseph. "I have a friend in New York ask me if I had heard about him."

Coolness and precision

Just 45 minutes before Foley introduced the couple to the group to speak about their background and cooking philosophy, they had been unloading all the pans, bags, boxes and jugs of ingredients for the dinner into the small museum kitchen with the help of an army of volunteers.

Some of it was cooked a few hours earlier at the restaurant, but there was still much to do. With coolness and precision, they donned white chef's coats and Justus Drugstore ballcaps and got to work filling molds with Shatto butter (a local dairy), tearing greens from their own garden and those of local farmers and chopping pecans with a knife for the salad. (Justus prefers a knife to a food processor so that each piece will be more uniform).

"This is technically a difficult thing for us," Justus admits.

They are accustomed to cooking each meal to order in a large, theater-style kitchen at their 60-seat restaurant. Each course and each plate is put together like a work of art. In fact, Justus was a designer and gallery artist in San Francisco before he switched careers and became a chef in France.

"I think of it like a color wheel," he said. "Flavors are hues, and the strength of them are saturations. Blending yellow and red getting orange is like blending sweet and sour."

For this dinner, there also was a theme -- the soda fountain drugstore. The challenge was to incorporate the theme and use the same care and design he is known for at his restaurant, but this time, for 156 people -- all at once.

Root beer main course

The meal started off with what Justus calls the amuse-bouche, a savory snack to inspire a good appetite. It consisted of pulled pork on tiny rounds of cornbread topped with smoked fig sauce. The next course was a salad made with mixed greens topped with candied pecans, dried cherries, local goat cheese wrapped in Berkshire maple bacon and served with cherry limeade vinaigrette. Although he developed the dressing for the dinner, it turned out so well that he plans to add it to the restaurant's menu.

The main course was all about root beer. He braised Akaushi beef (a Bos Taurus type of cattle originally from Japan he got from Paradise Locker in Trimble, Mo.) in his own homemade root beer broth, and served it with watercress, sorrel and wild arugula dressed in a honey sassafras mustard vinaigrette. For dessert, it was a banana split terrine, a concoction made with dark chocolate cake, banana custard, strawberry mousse and caramelized bananas.

"It's a deconstructed banana split," Justus said, "but not like one anybody has ever had."

Dinner guest Ralph Fillipelli, chef and owner of Luna's in St. Joseph, was impressed.

"It was wonderful," he said. "I like the way he thinks like an artist."

Another guest, Sharon Kosek, agreed. She felt the dinner plates were like canvases.

"There was a variety of colors, shapes and textures with each presentation, with the delivery of each course," she said. "The guests at the Albrecht-Kemper were in great anticipation about what would be next. They savored every bite and cheered them with a standing ovation after the last course."

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