Gourmet on the Go
Justin Thompson’s "Trial & Error" book is meant to help home chefs achieve the taste they hope to ace when they cook their favorite restaurant dishes in their own oven.
What do you do with your time after you’ve opened multiple restaurants and decide to take a little well-earned time off to do something for yourself? If you’re Tulsa chef and restaurateur Justin Thompson of the JTR Group, you create a cookbook — Trial & Error: Recipes and Lessons Learned by a Chef and Restaurateur.
Of course, Thompson wasn’t exactly planning to write his cookbook (which is now on sale) when he first decided to take a month off work. He genuinely planned to relax — or so he thought.
“It was in February of this year, and I was sitting in Tavolo with my sister having a late lunch when I decided I was going to take a month off work and relax,” he says cheerfully, recalling the start of his project. “The past few years have been crazy.” Crazy in this context includes opening and overseeing five restaurants, along with being a single dad.
“I’m not the kind of person who can sit still for long without doing anything,” says Thompson. “So I decided to work on the cookbook.” He gathered his team around him, including Evan Wei-Hass [coordination and promotion], Valerie Grant [photography], and Jeremy Luther [layouts]. And then he set to work.
If you’ve never thought about how a cookbook is made, it starts — of course — with cooking, testing out recipes and perfecting them. For a chef like Thompson, who has worked in kitchens for many years, it involved not just digging up old and new dishes he’s made, it also meant adapting past recipes to his current style and philosophy of cooking. And it also required thinking about how to make the recipes accessible to the average home cook.
In other words, Thompson didn’t just sit around while taking that month “off.” But he loved the process of putting into long-lasting print a set of recipes and stories from his life that he’s been sharing with fellow Tulsans for years.
“Each recipe has a paragraph or so about its origin, or where I was when I made it up, or my experience of the restaurant at the time,” Thompson explains. “The introduction talks about the start of my career, restaurants I’ve opened. There’s quite a bit of personal recollections, and 45 or so recipes for the entire thing — recipes that I spent the entire month cooking tons of times over my career. But I made sure they were executable in your home kitchen.”
What kind of recipes can you expect to find in the cookbook? For starters, fans of any of the restaurants Thompson has been a chef at (like the Brasserie) or the JTR Group of restaurants he runs (MixCo, PRHYME, Juniper, 624 Kitchen & Catering and Tavolo) can expect to see some of their favorites in print and spelled out for making at home. There’s the sweet carrot soup, for example — a highly popular dish at Juniper. And of course, there’s a version of the famous chocolate pie available at all the JTR Group restaurants. (Tip: try a piece sometime, because it is amazing.)
“I picked recipes that were kind of highlights of my career at different restaurants. At the same time, they’re not the same exact recipes,” he explains. “My cooking has grown and my recipes have changed over time, so the current recipes are evolutions.” The recipes mix genres of cuisine to reflect Thompson’s full career, “some Italian, some French, some New American, Southern cuisine,” he says.
Beyond sharing his favorite recipes, Thompson also had to put himself into the headspace of home chefs, who usually don’t have the equipment or experience of professional restaurant chefs. But that was part of the challenge, says Thompson, and he enjoyed the process. “I took the recipes and pared them down to manageable sizes for the home cook, making sure that I was using techniques the average home, cook could feel they could do.”
Take cooking a steak at home — an endeavor most people perform on the grill because it’s all they know how to do. But there are other options, totally doable in your kitchen, if you understand not just what good steak tastes like, but the steps that lead to a good steak, like choosing the right cut and preparing it properly. Thompson’s cookbook hits those topics — like what seasoning goes well with what type of meat, and how to create a restaurant steak in your kitchen.
In this sense, Trial & Error is educational, meant to help home chefs achieve the taste they hope to ace when they cook their favorite restaurant dishes in their own oven. But it’s also a look at how food impacts our lives. And in that vein, Thompson shares comfortably about his experiences in the kitchen over the years, which taught him a lot about relationships and about life, as well as about food.
“I talk a lot about how I started cooking with my dad when I was 14,” he explains, calling it “a good catalyst” for strengthening their bond. “I built Juniper with my dad, physically. Food can be a foundation for building relationships. Food is always there when we’re celebrating. Food can either enhance your experience with those milestones or detract from it.”
And of course, Thompson shared his many stories from years in the restaurant business — which are entertaining, and highlight his enterprising nature. There’s the time he got himself a job in the kitchen by building it. That’s how he ended up at Ciao — he helped with the construction first.
And then there’s his story about learning to cook French dishes at The Brasserie. “I had no clue how to cook French cuisine,” he says, “so I realized I had to start learning as much as I could. I spent months just nonstop learning, cooking, and perfecting techniques.”
To promote the book, Thompson will do a signing at Magic City, most likely between Thanksgiving and Christmas (the date is still being nailed down). And there’s a release party Nov. 8 at 624 Kitchen & Catering. “Come buy a book, have some hors d’oeuvre, chat, and get your book signed,” he says. “It makes a great gift for the holidays — available at all our restaurants for purchase, at Magic City, and online,”
Thanksgiving Dinner, Thompson Style
If you’re craving all the comforts of a Thanksgiving dinner, but you don’t want to cook, not to worry. You can place an order for a traditional turkey feast served up by the pro team over at 624 Kitchen & Catering. The meal needs to be preordered for pickup, and it contains just about everything you can dream of to celebrate your Thanksgiving in style — salad, turkey, ham, stuffing, veggies, rolls, pies, you name it. Place your order at 624 Kitchen’s website (624catering.com).
And if you’re wanting to treat yourself and loved ones to an elegant holiday dinner out, consider the harvest dinner at Juniper. “It’s usually a five-course dinner that highlights local spirits and wines,” Thompson says. It’s taking place Nov. 11, and it’s for charity. “For each ticket we sell, we donate a whole turkey to Iron Gate, and the supplier matches our donations,” he says.
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