WHO WE ARE
JUSTIN, CO-OWNER/EXECUTIVE CHEF
Before we were lucky enough to have Justin in the kitchen, he was starting his culinary career as a dishwasher at a small breakfast restaurant in his hometown of Dodgeville, Wisconsin. He soon moved up the ladder and became a saute cook and the Sunday pancake master. Although he was comfortable in the pancake life, he knew there was more out there. He moved on to a local bar and grill called Dinos.
In Justin’s own words:
“Dino’s is where it all started for me. I couldn’t help but fall in love with the grill and the prime rib. After a few years of manning the helm at Dino’s I packed my bags and took old Dean’s advice and boarded a plane for New Zealand. There was just something about New Zealand that started a fire in my culinary desire that has yet to burn out.”
Back fresh and energized from New Zealand, Justin enrolled in culinary school.
“I packed my knife kit and headed to culinary school in Minneapolis. Although culinary school was a great experience, I yearned to return to the cooking line. I worked at some small places in Minneapolis and then to Chicago. I got an apprentice position at Copperblue Restaurant. It was there that I learned the importance of quality local ingredients and discovered new culinary techniques.”
From there Justin headed back to Wisconsin to the great culinary scene of Madison. There he worked in a bakery, Lâ’toile and at Harvest one of America’s best farm to table restaurants.
“I was offered a job as Executive Chef at Sontes here in Rochester. I loaded up the car and never looked back. I was the Chef at Sontes for a little over four years before I ended up working for Jerry and LeeAnn at ZZest.”
Working in Napa CA was at the 3 star Michelin restaurant At Meadowwood. Each time he came back more enthusiastic to bring Rochester all he had learned.
I practically grew up in restaurants my entire life. At nine years old, I was running food and bussing tables (behind the scenes, I was also told to do dishes, in which I flat out refused due to the hot temperature of the water, but also because I didn’t feel like it.) Like most child actors, I took a break from the fast-paced and bustling world of the restaurant biz, only to return six years later. You name the job, I probably worked it. Hostess? Check. Server? Check. Bar back? Check. Manager? Check. Backwaiter? Check. And now, thanks to Porch and Cellar, I can check off “owner” on that list. Well, part owner, at least.
Although, as a child, I had always pined to grow up to be an actress, a shopper lady, or a cat—I know, I had big ambitions— today, I work better doing behind the scenes type of things. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still dramatic and loud and fluent in movie quotes, but I also am organized and OCD and take care of the day to day business of the restaurants. I like to think of myself as a type A and type B person— an AB person, if you will (and I will.)
I’m the lemon in your water. Let me explain; say you go out to a restaurant and ask me for a lemon wedge for your water. I leave, and moments later, come back producing a plate of lemons. Easy enough, right? Not exactly. The second I leave, I have to go all the way to the kitchen, dig through the coolers to find a lemon, grab a cutting board, steal a knife, create a work space, cut the lemon, put the wedges on a plate, put the rest of the cut lemon into a container, date and label the remaining lemons, put in a cooler, and then bring out the wedges to your table. Most of the work I do, no one sees. I may not be the one to cook your fantastic meal or create a wonderful cocktail or even be the smiling face to take your order— don’t worry, if I do end up taking your order, I might have some RBF working not so much in my favor. (And RBF is resting bitc—well… you know…) Even though I may not be prominent, I like being the one to turn the wheels. I’m basically Mark Zuckerberg (he’s the CEO of Facebook) I’m nerdy with a computer, do a lot of my office work in a hoodie, and went to Harvard. I’ll let you decide which one of those is made up….
I’m extremely excited to begin this new venture, and have my very own office! I know, I know, I did say I was a nerd. I actually really love bringing great food and drink to our city and I hope everyone can be as enthusiastic about this enterprise as I am. Can I also address the elephant in the room by announcing my infliction—my veganism. Yes, yes it’s true, I don’t eat meat or diary or eggs, but that makes me even more excited to show people that anyone— and really almost anyone— can eat at our establishment, even me!
Batman and I have a lot in common, probably because we both are so irresistible. And, like my winged friend, if you flash the special bat signal (in my case, it would be a Quicken signal,) I’ll be there. I’ll constantly be jumping from Porch to ZZest Cafe to ZZest Market to ZZest Lunch Counter, back to Porch, then to the Apache Mall, then back to ZZest, and so on. If you don’t see me lurking in the office at ZZest, I’ll probably be at Porch and vice versa—and I mean “lurking” in the best possible way.)
Anyway, enough of my rambling, eat some great food already!
I was born and raised in Rochester MN. My Dad worked at IBM, and my Mom was a nurse at St Mary’s. We had supper (not dinner) at 5 pm, and the option was usually hamburger in casserole or loaf form. Half of the year venison burger was switched for the beef, as my Dad was a big hunter. I didn’t give food much thought. Supper was something to get through fast, so there would be time for one last game of kick the can before bedtime.
About age 10, my Mom brought home some recipe cards. The nurses were finding new things to do with hamburger, something that did not have cream of mushroom soup as a main ingredient. I was assigned the task to help get supper started. I tackled Pizza Burgers. (yeah I know, but it was a new thing for us!) They were an instant hit and became my specialty. Watch out, Bobby Flay.
One of my first jobs was at Madonna Towers. I was hired as a waitress, but I sometimes I helped in the kitchen, and I loved that job. Every week when the schedule was posted on the employee bulletin board, I scanned across looking for the word PANTRY. I couldn’t wait to get in the kitchen. I eventually did pantry every Saturday and Sunday from 10-6:30. I followed recipes and was required to make two appetizers. (these were almost always juice). I needed to prepare two different salads, and bake cookies, plus an evening dessert. I mastered rhubarb crisp and wedge salads, but tomato aspic got away from me, my celery always floated to the top. At Madonna Towers, we all ate dinner together and there I had new dishes and vegetables I had never tried before. I found out I loved mushrooms and asparagus but, liver and onions… not so much.
As much as I loved that job, I soon found out waiting tables meant instant cash at the end of the night. So when the Ground Round opened in Rochester, I left my pantry position. The burgers got a little fancy there, and my favorite one was the Ground Round with Class. It was stuffed with olives and cheese. That was pretty forward for 1977. Oddly, it was the Ground Round that got my head moving towards gourmet items.
The Bank Restaurant opened in 1978 and was considered fine dining. I was more than interested. I had the opportunity to learn about wine and eat even better food. The Bank Restaurant was known for a giant all you could eat shrimp bowl and prime rib, but my favorite thing on the menu was Red Snapper with Sauce Mousseline. Oh! And the cute cook in the kitchen. I was once again stoked about cooking. I ordered Bon Appetit that year and started following the recipes, mostly for that cute guy in the kitchen. It turns out he owned the place! Now that didn’t mean he had any money, but he did like talking about food.
I kept the love affair with food going and married into the restaurant business five years later. Jerry was that cute cook. We did restaurants for the next 30 years. Mostly him, I stayed home with three kids. Though when needed I was available and helped with menu items and the decor.
The kids grew up, and I had to come to terms that I really would have an empty nest soon. I got to thinking and planning. I decided I had been the “owners wife” for enough years, and it was time to make Jerry the owners husband. I wanted to open a specialty food shop. I wanted at my fingertips, all the things you read about in Bon Appetit, but couldn’t find in a regular grocery store. Rochester lacked a cheese counter with artisan and imported selections. So, I began to research cheese. Also (and this was just 11 years ago) not one store in Rochester used the word Charcuterie. So I knew what I wanted to do. Specialty food with a focus on cheese and charcuterie.
My first little shop was called Culinary Market, and it was all mine, I did every bit of it myself. The reality though was it was only limping along. So, I dragged my husband out of retirement and right back into the soup. What made sense to us was to add a cafe to the market. Jerry knew restaurants. And we could highlight all the fantastic ingredients from the market. My little shop moved to a more prominent and sizable location, and we opened ZZest Market and Cafe in 2009. During that time, The American Cheese Society announced the plan to certify people that worked with cheese, like sommeliers. It was a pretty big deal. I decided although studying is not my strong suit I should become a Certified Cheese Professional. I printed out the Body of Knowledge and opened up as many books and articles I could find. It was a daunting task. It wasn’t just about how cheese tasted or looked or where it came from It was the science behind it the importing of it and more! I shed some tears thinking it was impossible to know it all. In Aug of 2012, I flew to Raleigh NC and took the cheese certification test.I don’t know what it’s like to take board exams, but this seems like was pretty serious stuff. I waited anxiously for two months to learn the results. Finally, the names of the first 121 Certified Cheese Professionals (in the world, I might add) were posted, At at the end of the list, (because I was a Z or maybe I had the lowest score!) was my name! WOO HOO!
So, ZZest Market made way for ZZest Cafe a few years later and downsized and moved downtown. Next thing you know the kids were interested in the business. We helped them open Porch and Cellar. ZZest Cafe closed up after an 8-year run and made room for the hip new burger bar. Hot Chip. At this point in my story even I am wondering, does she have any other hobbies other than food? A couple. I do enjoy art and design and love hunting for antiques and collectibles. Traveling is always good especially if it revolves around food and it does. I love a good book, and that’s where food may come in second. Thrillers and mystery are my first choice, and the same applies to movies. And, I do really like Halloween!
By far my favorite pass time is sitting around the table with my family. We always have great food and even better wine, plus fantastic conversation. Nowadays kick the can is not calling just an occasional round of Balderdash. As Julia Child said “Find something you’re passionate about and keep tremendously interested in it.” Seems like that worked for me.
I started washing dishes when I was 15 years old, in Rochester’s Perkins Restaurant. Today, I have mastered many of the toughest dishwashing techniques. In a quest to be promoted to line cook, I left my dishwashing job at age 16, and started to cook at the, now defunct, Embers restaurant. It was there that I was taught by my manager, Mike Currie, all phases of restaurant operation, including line cooking; waiting tables; hosting; cashiering; inventories; food ordering; menu costing; sanitation; personnel hiring, training, and scheduling; and restaurant management. I also regularly cooked breakfast, alone, for over 150 people a day. That was the deal I made with Mike to earn $4 an hour wages — double the going rate.
It was not much training towards culinary expertise, but, I am now able to organize myself and do twelve things all at once. I also further honed my skills at dishwashing. My manager, Mike, and I eventually decided that we could run restaurants better than our employers, so, we ventured off onto our own.
In 1978, after dropping out of college with promises to my father that I’d finish “some day” and talking my father out of a lot of money (as well as his IBM retirement), we started our first restaurant, The Bank, in downtown Rochester. We soon realized how much we really did not know about running restaurants, and we also found out that hundred-hour work weeks could make up for a fair amount of ignorance. The Bank fit the 1970’s style of restaurants as a supper-club-in-an-unusual-environment, aka, “themed” restaurant. It was in the day when people ate the same steak & potatoes as they always had, but, in a “train” or an “airport” or a “cave” or a “gold mine” or some other more clever venue. The Bank was a suit & tie, classy place, that ended up falling into the category of an occasional dining spot — i.e. birthday and anniversary only. The most frequent comment was I ate there once and I really loved it! Emphasis was on “loved it” but I only heard “once.”
In 1980 we transformed our dying upstairs lounge into a burger and beer restaurant called Newts. Originally, we sold tap beer for 75, mixed drinks for $1.25, and half-pound burgers for $2. In our 70 seat bar we could sell 1000 beers a night. We sold a few burgers too. Eventually, The Bank gave way to Henry Wellington, a name we made up, with many of the food elements of The Bank (prime rib, steaks, sirloins, etc) and some bar elements like nachos and onion rings, in a much more casual setting, complete with 2-for-1 drinks in both the afternoon and late night. It was a cross between the then thriving (but not yet in Rochester) Bennigan’s and TGI Friday’s. The success of both Newts and Henry Wellingtons was huge.
We then continued with other business pursuits, some successful and some not, like Emerald Coast Ocean Products, a wholesale/retail seafood market; Henry Wellington of Battle Lake, a smaller version in a northern Minnesota town; Broadstreet Cafe and Redwood Room a very high end restaurant with a more casual cousin; Jerry’s Diner what the name would imply; Henry Wellington of Bloomington, a huge restaurant and also my biggest business failure; JP Zubay’s City Market, still a thriving Rochester deli; City Cafe, a modernized version of the outdated Henry Wellington in Rochester; and 300 First which replaced the aging Broadstreet Cafe.
During that time I was also a paid consultant for several operations but most notably Walt Disney World, in Orlando, after I submitted to them a 17 page letter of complaint/job application, regarding their food service operations. In my two year stint there I saw the Illuminations fireworks and laser show in EPCOT about a hundred times, and I think I cried every time. I also gained a special appreciation for Dilbert cartoons because I now personally know each character.
It was also at The Bank that I met my wife, LeeAnn, one of the first waitresses and probably the best. Mike warned me not to fool around with the help, but, I refused to listen. She shared and nurtured my passion for all things food and restaurant, and she gained a huge insight into the culinary world while I focused my efforts on restaurant management and operations. When I’d come home and ask her “what’s for dinner?” she would have to consult Bon Appetite and Gourmet magazines, Epicurious.com, and then scan through the last episode of Iron Chef (still the Japanese version) before she could answer.
She taught me appreciation for the world of food beyond Kraft, Heinz, and Sysco, and also taught me the need to respect food trends, so we would not become the leisure suit of the culinary world. She served a long time as Consulting Chef doing menu research and recipe development for our restaurants, as well as scouting out hard to find ingredients. She also stayed home to raise our three kids, a feat much more difficult than restaurant operations. And did it, for the most part, single handedly, while I focused on food costs and training, in our restaurants.
After I sold my restaurant interests to Mike’s kids, I successfully retired for the better part of two weeks. LeeAnn then insisted on following her dream to find the finest in culinary ingredients as well as a cafe to showcase the effective use of the best products on the planet. When a local restaurant failed the landlord contacted us and he made us an offer we could not refuse. It is today that I spend my life now having more fun than I ever did, selling products I cannot pronounce but that I can savor and enjoy, with a wife and staff that I love and respect for their passion and drive to become the ultimate foodies. And, I still get to wash dishes every day. What could be better?! Eventually, I did pay back my father, but, I have not finished college. Not yet a broken promise because I hope to have a few more “some days.” And I dedicate my dreams and successes to my father, Ken, who died in March 2010, always my biggest fan, biggest supporter, and biggest critic, and my mother, Mary, who followed him six months later.