As part of the series about the lessons from influential ‘TasteMakers’, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Justin Fields, Executive Chef of Bonefish Grill, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary in 2020.
Growing up in the Bronx, Justin Fields was influenced by the hustle and bustle of NYC. From a young age he had a very creative personality, getting involved in art classes, reading comic books and emulating artists of the time. The multi-cultural environment mixed with his love to eat would be the building blocks of his culinary journey.
Justin attended the Culinary Arts program at Bergen Technical High School where his appetite for culinary success began. Upon graduation in 2000, Justin enrolled into the Culinary Arts program at Johnson & Wales University (JWU) in Providence, RI. During his schooling he moved to Maui, Hawaii for an internship to work at Roy’s Kahana Bar and Grill. He left the mainland with nothing but a suitcase, a plane ticket and a desire to make it to the top. Taking his career even further, Justin decided to continue his education with JWU and received his BA in Restaurant Management. After finishing his BA, Roy’s Restaurant was the number one opportunity on his radar, and he landed a position as sous chef trainer in Philadelphia, ultimately becoming Chef Partner of Roy’s Sarasota in December of 2008.
As a result of his immense creativity and talent, he transitioned to Corporate Chef of Culinary Innovation for Bonefish Grill in 2013. Within four years he was promoted to Executive Chef/Director of Research and Development, playing an integral role in Bonefish Grill being recognized for many accomplishments, including being named “Americas Favorite Casual Dining Restaurant” by Marketforce in 2017, mention by TripAdvisor as one of the nation’s “Top 10 Large Chains” in 2018, and 2019 was a breakout year for Bonefish Grill’s new brunch menu which was curated by Justin, winning Nation’s Restaurant News “MenuMasters” Award for best Menu/Line Extension.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to ‘get to know’ you a bit. Can you share with our readers a story about what inspired you to become a restauranteur or chef?
Mypaternal grandfather, who was born in South Carolina, would cook very non-traditional southern dishes like fried rice. I was always curious about how he would even know how to do this, being a very southern kind of guy. Seeing my grandfather — as a man in the family — being so well versed and good at cooking influenced me to go in this direction. In high school, I was interested in art, painting and drawing, and culinary arts was a track that was also open to me. My male instructor pushed me to take it seriously. Between school and family role models, I received a lot of encouragement.
Do you have a specific type of food that you focus on? What was it that first drew you to cooking that type of food? Can you share a story about that with us?
I gravitate to Asian flavors and cooking styles. I think that started with growing up in New York City, where I would frequent local Chinese restaurants. In New York, you can walk down any city block and see Japanese, Korean and Chinese restaurants, and being amidst all those flavors was the first step in my gravitation to Asian cuisine. Complementing my initial attraction to Asian-inspired cooking, I spent the first ten years of my career at Roy’s Kahana Bar & Grill which has Japanese influence, as well as offering a melting pot of other Asian flavors and styles.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you became a chef or restauranteur? What was the lesson or take away you took out of that story?
While I was attending Johnson and Wales University in Rhode Island, I worked at a local Country Club, where I experienced a lot of career “firsts” in trying out recipes. I had watched the chef make biscuits from scratch, so one day, I made my own dough and rolled it really, really thin and laid it out on cheese cloth. I prepped it and left for the day and when I came for my next shift, I asked the chef how my biscuits turned out. He replied, “You mean those cracker’s you left?” It was a funny moment, and then he took the time to teach me how to do it right. That chef turned my embarrassment into a teaching moment which encouraged me to always take a stab at new things, and to look for teaching moments that will help my own staff learn and grow.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? How did you overcome this obstacle?
The biggest obstacle for me in achieving my goal of being an executive chef was convincing myself that I was ready to pursue it. In an industry where you never stop learning, and you never know everything, it was difficult for me to judge when I was ready for the step up to executive chef. Even when it was time for me to say yes to a position, I was terrified, but I overcame those feelings and pushed through the fear.
What helped me was leaning on some of the chefs and mentors that I’d seen take the same leap. I recall reaching out to a chef to whom I had given a hard time early in my career, because as a sous chef I didn’t realize how or why our relationship hadn’t been working. A light bulb went off in my head one day, and I texted him with an apology. You realize certain things when you’re on the other side as an executive and that understanding gave me a better appreciation of him as my mentor.
In your experience, what is the key to creating a dish that customers are crazy about?
As a creative chef, it can be very easy to impart your own personal likes and dislikes for certain flavors and styles, so you have to be cognizant of what the guest wants, even if they don’t actually say it directly. While I follow what is trending in general, I am constantly focused on guest expectations for a polished, casual seafood restaurant, nationwide. I always know which of my go-to dishes will be winners, because I rely on my memories and experiences to know what pleases them. Being in this specific “sandbox,” I decide what trends I should build out, but I also listen to our team that encompasses marketing, finance and multiple different avenues, so I can add their data regarding how customers react and their expectations. While I put my own spin on creating the menu, my team knows exactly where the consumer’s head is at.
Personally, what is the ‘perfect meal for you’?
My perfect meal changes depending on the time of year and my mood. I start with an excellent cut of meat or seafood and then I always like to do something extra to it, like putting it into a smoker or curing it for a few days to get a great product such as pastrami. What makes me happiest is to put in a nice amount of love through slow cooking. That’s how I prepare my perfect meal in my own home, because we couldn’t manage that slow process in the restaurant. However, I use the same inspiration and reach out to a vendor who handles the slow process and work with them directly, so we can serve a slow-cooked dish at Bonefish Grill translated into our signature style.
Where does your inspiration for creating come from? Is there something that you turn to for a daily creativity boost?
Inspiration strikes where you least expect it and it starts to snowball. At this point in my career, I’m inspired by aromas, especially those that take me back to a childhood memory that made an impression on me. Anytime I get to be in a city that has awesome food, I get inspired by actual restaurants as well. I used to be influenced by chefs on TV, but that just doesn’t do it for me anymore.
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? What impact do you think this will have?
Healthy food is infiltrating the industry and it’s exciting to bring that to Bonefish Grill. Whether it’s gluten free, keto, paleo or low-carb, offering guests healthy choices is part of what we do on a daily basis. The easiest way for us to incorporate the health trend is focusing on popular ingredients, for example, right now it’s cauliflower. My wife and I were on the keto diet together, so I was inspired by finding ways to incorporate that element in the menu. I infuse this healthful thinking into the menu at Bonefish Grill, but we also realize we can’t have it be our entire offering, because, for example, our guests love our butter sauce. But we are looking to incorporate more of the healthy side of the equation as well.
What advice would you give to other chefs or restauranteurs to thrive and avoid burnout?
I speak at a lot of vocational schools and tell a lot of chefs that although being a restaurant chef is cool, there are many other opportunities that are a lot less stressful and less demanding on one’s mental and physical health. When I went to culinary school from 2000–2004, cooking was all about Emeril Lagasse, so many kids went to culinary school because they had seen it on TV, but they didn’t know what goes into a culinary career. I also emphasize that if that’s your dream, and that’s what you want to do, then go for it. Even though people think it’s acceptable for chefs have crazy meltdowns, I tell them to have a level head and keep your cool because the days of screaming crazy chefs are over. That approach to working as a chef just breaks you down.
Thank you for all that. Now we are ready for the main question of the interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Started as a Restauranteur or Chef” and why? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Carve out time to take care of yourself. Go to get a massage, book a pedicure, see the doctor, and take time off.
- Read “Kitchen Confidential.” It’s important to be aware of vices that pervade the industry and to stay away from them.
- The culinary industry is changing. Every year other lanes open up for chefs that are less stressful.
- Know how to deal with difficult staff or team members, especially those who consistently push back. I recall times that I could have been more aggressive when I needed to, which meant I was taken advantage of. I wish there had been a crash course on how to put my foot down.
- Working in a restaurant means you won’t see your family a lot. You’ll miss Thanksgiving, Christmas and birthdays, because it will be almost impossible to spend those occasions together. You don’t know it until you miss it and there have been times when I questioned my career path because of it. In making this field my passion, I needed to understand the sacrifices.
What’s the one dish people have to try if they visit your establishment?
Bang Bang Shrimp! I used to wear my chef ‘s coat thru the airport and people would stop me and ask if I had Bang Bang Shrimp on me — it’s that amazing.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
Bring back balance and moderation. You’re either super healthy — keto, vegan, etc. — or the opposite. Remember the food pyramid? I think there should be a similar chart to encourage a balanced diet and exercise. You actually can have your cake and eat it too but also be healthy, as long as it is all within moderation.