Soul Chef Justin Beckett

The Chef: Justin Beckett
The Restaurants: Beckett’s Table and Southern Rail
By: Laura Stoddard
Photo credits: Food & Lifestyles and Laura Stoddard

You’d never know it today, when dining at one of his restaurants, but according to Chef Justin Beckett, his meals were once “awful” and “gross”. Granted, he was a teenager at the time, helping his mom in their kitchen to feed a family of seven. Well, the understatement of the century is to say that he’s come a long way since then.

Justin and his family moved around a lot in his youth, his parents being something of nomads. He was born in San Francisco, but by the time he was in high school he’d lived in about five or six towns in the Bay area alone, then on to Canada, Washington, Hawaii, Arizona, and even Guatemala for a time. “I’ve been a little bit of everywhere,” he says. His fathered worked, and as aforementioned, with five children in the house (him being the oldest) his mother asked him to help out. One of the ways he did that was by taking on the kitchen. Even though it was a learning curve, and he says he made an awful mess, cooking for his family was actually a turning point. “I think what struck me as cool, that I didn’t know then, but that I know now, is that [when cooking] you’re creating something. You’re preparing with your hands something that nurtures other people. There’s something romantic and cool about that.” He really took to being the home chef (and an added bonus was that if you cooked the meal, you didn’t have to wash the dishes).

In eighth grade he got his first job making sandwiches in a deli, which he really enjoyed. Dish detail did catch up to him at his next job, however, where he was a dish washer at a nightclub. The kitchen staff took to him, and he showed an interest in the cooking, so little by little they started to teach him how to make things. First it was fresh pasta, then salads, then they let him peel shrimp. It was an exciting and enlightening experience for Justin at that nightclub. Men and women dressed up. Cute cocktail servers coming back to flirt. Elvis Costello playing in the background. And him, getting an unofficial, but very useful introduction to the workings of a professional kitchen. “I was kind of hooked. It was glamorous to me in a weird way, even though I was washing dishes and being dirty. That’s when it latched on, and the bug really hit me.”

Justin really enjoyed those first jobs in the industry, and he did end up going to culinary school, but the reason he actually ended up there is pretty amusing. He was in the latter part of high school and it was time to start studying for the SATs. However, it cost several hundred dollars to take the preparatory classes and guess what?—he didn’t want to spend his hard-earned money on a test. He wanted to spend it on his girlfriend! High school. Priorities. Come on. With their anniversary on the horizon, he thought that cash would be much better spent on a grand, romantic gesture for his lady love. “I got twenty to thirty dozen flowers and filled up her entire room. And made her a mixed tape, of course.”

Well, college fast approached, and Justin found himself talking to his friends about their plans. Every time one mentioned where he or she was planning to go, Justin would ask if their prospective institution required SAT scores. The stark reality was that yes, most colleges did require scores from that all-important test. But he wasn’t deterred (and he didn’t regret spending that money on his girlfriend).

Even though he didn’t know what his educational or career path looked liked, his friends actually did. In high school, Justin naturally took the lead on anything food-related. “I would do the fundraisers, and I would do spaghetti dinners for people, and on our class trips I would be the one organizing the meals. So they asked me if I’d ever thought about culinary school.” It made sense, he knew he loved cooking, and the best part was, culinary school didn’t require SAT scores. “Four days after high school I was in culinary school, and I’ve never wanted to do anything else.”

Culinary school ended up being everything Justin expected and more. He enrolled in the 18-month program at the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco. It was an extremely thorough and intense educational experience. “We’d spend eight weeks talking about health and safety; eight weeks on sanitation and nutrition; then your next block was butchery for eight weeks, for eight hours a day, and so on. It was more of a full education than some of the schools now.”

After graduation Justin decided to join his friend at The Inn at Spanish Bay near Carmel, with the intent of working at the Inn’s much-lauded restaurant, Roy’s at Pebble Beach. At first he was only hired by the Inn to do room service, but he happily accepted, glad to have a foot in the door. It wasn’t long before Justin made his way into the kitchen at Roy’s and things really started to take off. “It was a gorgeous part of the world,” he recalls, “and it was a great job.” He excelled quickly, and was soon promoted to lead. He was a great chef, a great team player, and showed exceptional drive, so after fourteen months at the Inn, he was asked to move to Arizona to open up more Roy’s restaurants.

1997 found him in Phoenix, and it turned out that Justin was a natural at launching new restaurants, and he still loves it. “That rush you get,” he says, “Getting everything organized and ready, making the recipes, making sure the menu reads well.” In the kitchen of the new Phoenix Roy’s he moved up the ranks quickly, becoming a sous chef. “I think that Roy’s really opened my eyes. I got to play with a lot of different things.” Of particular note, sauces. “My passion and my love for sauces—for properly executing mother sauces and base recipes, all kind of started there, because it was very involved. It was an elaborate concept.”

After years of cooking at other people’s restaurants, and opening other people’s restaurants, Justin thought it might be pretty awesome to cook at and open his own restaurant. So about eight years ago, he sat down with good friend (now business partner) Scott Stephens, over a burger and a beer and they had a candid conversation about taking that step. They considered a lot of questions: “Should we? Where are you at in life? What do you think? Do you want to?” And the answer for both was a resounding yes. Soon, Justin’s dream of opening his own restaurant became a reality, and Beckett’s Table—still consistently one of Arcadia’s most popular dining establishments—came into being. Three years ago, Justin and Scott decided to ratchet things up a notch and launched their second restaurant in Midtown, called Southern Rail (the name an homage to both the southern-influenced cuisine, and the building’s proximity to the Phoenix Light Rail. Amazingly, Southern Rail is the eighteenth restaurant Justin has opened, either as the chef or the sous chef. “Beckett’s and Southern Rail are the only two I’ve opened as an owner,” he says. “But I think that’s one of the reasons that I’ve gotten good jobs and moved up; because I treated everyone else’s money like it was my own. And they recognized that.”

Managing two restaurants is no easy task. “I use the analogy that I’m a firefighter, and I go where the closest fire is. So whatever’s the biggest issue, that’s what I’m going to get on first. And on the few days when there aren’t issues, those are the days that I have the most fun; where we dissect a dish and see if we can make it better, or go, ‘Hey, this guy’s been a rock star—let’s pull him aside to show him a few extra things’. I did not sign up to do paperwork, and learn how to repair an AC unit, and fix a clogged drain.” He laughs. “I signed up to play with food. Leading a team and running a business, those things come up, but I really like to plate food, and I’m never going to be the guy who wants to sit back and watch someone else do it. I want to plate the food.”

I asked Justin what types of cuisine he’s most drawn to. “I love strong flavors. I love to cook things that have time to grow and develop, like stews and things that take a long time. For example, our gumbo here [at Southern Rail] is a six-hour process of layering flavors. Our short ribs, braised meats, smoked meats, anything that really takes time and care and passion, I really like to let that develop and watch it grow.” On the adverse side, I asked him if there are any foods that he tries to stay away from. His response was immediate and hilarious: “I can not be in the same room as a banana. We do banana pudding here, and I tell them they have to make that when I’m not here.” I probed further, wondering what, about this glorious superfood, so repulses him. He shuddered, “It’s just the whole thing. I just can’t. And if they’ve gone ripe and I see them…I’m ready to kill people. I just can’t be in a room with that banana.”

Being a chef isn’t all Justin is, of course. He’s a father, a husband (he and his lovely bride Michelle are coming up on their twelve-year anniversary), an outdoorsman, and a great lover of movies. One of his greatest guilty pleasures is being able to sit in the dark, coolness of a movie theater, turn off his phone, and let the world of make-believe transport him away. “And a lot of times I don’t even care what it is; I just don’t want to think about everything.” However, when he does come back to reality, he fully realizes and revels in where life has taken him, and how rewarding it all is. “I think work-wise, one of the ooey-gooey things that I get is that we’re helping families with their lives. We’re providing an establishment where there are a hundred employees or more that are making money, not because of me, but because of the loans we’ve taken, and the chances we’ve taken, and the concept we’ve come up with. So I think it’s really cool that I’m helping people in the economy to live their lives.”

It seemed ludicrous to ask what his future plans are, considering how busy Justin already is, but…I did anyway. “Well,” he said, taking a deep breath, “this is a lot of work. You know how people say when you go from one kid to two, it’s easy, because they can play together? Not so with restaurants. So I think that we’re in a little bit of a holding pattern, and just watching to see how things shape up. I mean, we can never stop making restaurants—it’s what we do. We just need to figure out what the next logical step is, and where.” And for people who are thinking about getting into this business, he says, “They need to understand that this is not a part-time gig. You need to immerse yourself in it. If you want to be a chef, you need to read every book you can get your hands on, you need to look at every picture online, you need to travel and taste everything you can, because it’s a lifestyle, not a job.”

I truly enjoyed my time interviewing this singularly talented, generous and genuine man. Chef Beckett, thank you for your time and for being so friendly and forthcoming. Much respect for all that you’ve accomplished and your contributions to, and integrity in this business. I’ll be back soon. However, you never should’ve told me about the banana. Watch your back. wink

eat | drink | share | and no bananas

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