Kristine M. Kierzek
As a chef and restaurateur, Justin Sutherland is constantly on the go. Known as a competitor on season 16 of “Top Chef” and a winner of “Iron Chef America,” he was working toward the release of his first cookbook and appearances on Food Network this fall.
Everything came to a screeching halt in July, when the Minnesota native fell off a boat and was injured by a propeller. The major accident forced him to slow down. He spent most of the summer recovering, and while still healing he’s ready to be out and about again.
In addition to a cookbook launch and television roles, this summer he opened a new breakfast sandwich restaurant, The Big E, in Portland, Oregon, and plans to expand that concept to other regions later this year.
The owner of southern restaurant Handsome Hog in St. Paul, Minn., has featured Ellsworth Creamery’s cheese curds on menus and created his own whiskey blend with Tattersall Distilling in Hudson. His former restaurant, Fire & Whiskey, in New Richmond, Wis., opened in 2019 and closed during the pandemic.
Now he’s sharing recipes in his first cookbook, “Northern Soul: Southern-Inspired Home Cooking in a Northern Kitchen,” which dips solidly into southern homestyle staples that have gotten Sutherland a following. Sutherland shares his take on everything from chicken dredge and no mayo coleslaw to Carolina barbecue, pork shoulder, braised oxtails, a green goddess dressing, even an easy banana peanut butter pudding that starts with instant mix.
Disparate yet seamless elements of his life influence his approach to cooking and menus, food being the connecting force at every turn. While his restaurants and roots start in Minnesota, Sutherland’s early kitchen influences lean heavily on his childhood in Apple Valley, Minn., his Japanese and southern grandmothers, and travel with his mother, who worked for an airline. He has family in Wausau as well. Moving to Atlanta for culinary school introduced even more to his repertoire.
Sutherland is currently the host of TruTV’s Fast Foodies, and will appear as a judge on Food Network’s Kitchen Crash this fall.
Question: Tell us about your food roots. What traditions and meals from your childhood influence your cooking today?
Answer: It started with a very multicultural background. I have a grandmother from Japan, a Norwegian grandfather, (a grandmother) from Mississippi. It was sushi, collard greens and lefse at the table growing up.
I spent a lot of time in the kitchen with my grandmothers. Food was their love language, that’s where it all started. They were both extremely different, and made very good food.
Growing up, family dinners and get-togethers were very important. All sides of the family came together for holidays and Sunday dinners.
Q: In July, you were involved in a pretty bad boating accident. What do you want people want to know? How has the accident affected your approach to things?
A: It shifted things drastically. I’m very, very lucky and blessed to be still here. The accident was pretty crazy, and a lot of people don’t walk away from those situations.
Some of the silver linings, it was definitely a forced slow-down. I had two TV shows we were about to start filming, a book tour, everything on all cylinders, and in a split second everything is put on pause. It gave me time to think and appreciate the things I have accomplished and the important things in my life. There is a lot of time to think and lay and reflect and be grateful and appreciative for the things I have and the path my life is on…
Q: How has it affected your cooking and daily meals?
A: Right now, I am the smoothie master. I’ve been on a pretty liquid and soft food diet ever since the accident. Not being able to eat has been one of the hardest things lately.
Q: What were your plans before becoming a chef?
A: I went to Minnesota State in Mankato, getting ready to go to law school. The culinary thing was a late in life decision. My entire life I was going to be a lawyer. That was all I wanted to do. I got a job selling mortgages right after college, sitting in a cubicle cold calling people. It was realizing six more years of school was ahead.
I remember calling my dad and saying this office life is not for me. He is the one that said you’ve always loved cooking and food, try culinary school. I picked (Le Cordon Bleu) Atlanta, because I wanted to get more immersed in southern food culture, and miss some winters.
Q: What were the things that you most wanted to put into your new cookbook, and what might surprise people?
A: It is twofold, it is meant to be a very approachable home cookbook. Everything in there everyone should be able to go to the store and pick up ingredients and make this at home. First and foremost, I wanted approachable. Sometimes you get cheffy books and you can’t make this food at home. This book is also equal part cookbook and storybook.
Q: You created a bourbon with Tattersall Distilling, which recently opened a new space in River Falls. Tell us about the collaboration.
A: There is always that Minnesota and northern Wisconsin connection. From Hudson, the border is 12 minutes away, and especially when liquor stores weren’t open on Sundays (in Minnesota) Wisconsin, we’re there. My stepmom was born in Wausau. I have family in Merrill. My entire side of the family still lives there. They’re Packers season ticket holders.
Tattersall, their old fashioned, the salty dog, a lot of those pre-batched cocktails, Tattersall was at the forefront of bringing that to the masses and they’ve been amazing to work with. They reached out to me knowing I had an affinity for bourbon and whiskey and said “Do you want to make your own?” You don’t really say no to that.
Related:‘Powered by the sun’: Eco-minded Tattersall Distilling repurposes former Shopko in River Falls
Q: In addition to Northern Soul and Handsome Hog in Minnesota, you’ve recently opened Big E restaurant in Portland, Oregon. Why start there?
A: The first location was always supposed to be Minneapolis, but timing the Portland space was ready first. So there’s one in Portland, and one coming in Oakland, Nashville and Brooklyn.
The Big E brings together my two favorite things: music, the play on words with Biggie, and I love egg sandwiches. I travel constantly and I always ask the bartender and concierge “Where am I going to get the best egg sandwich in town?”
Q: What do you want people to know about the Twin Cities dining scene?
A: The biggest misconception that I think is in people’s minds right now, people think of the Midwest and Twin Cities as this flyover and so much Scandinavian meat and potatoes kind of place.
The culture and food diversity here is incredible. We have the largest Hmong population, Somali population, we have huge Vietnamese and Native American influences. We have a very diverse palate of food to offer. It’s more than meat loaf and pot roast.
We do love our hot dish, and I will stand by that. That is really my number one memory as a kid, my mom’s tater tot hot dish. She’d make it every year for my birthday, and in college she’d send pans of it. That’s what I still request for my birthday.
Q: What’s the one kitchen tool you want from your grandmother’s kitchen?
A: Actually I’ve already acquired them. My grandmother’s brother was actually a chef in Tokyo. He retired and sold his restaurant. He mailed her all these knives, some hundreds of years old, Japanese steel. When she found out I was going to be a chef, she gifted them to me. That’s a very prized possession. They are knives I use in my daily cooking.
Q: Best advice you have received as a chef and business owner?
A: Life is short, it is not all about work. It is never too late to start reinventing yourself and change directions. Very rarely do you go to college and end up working and doing what you thought you would do in life. The ability to pivot and reflect is important. You can always start over.
Q: What’s next for you? I was hoping to see your grandmother’s dashi recipe in this book, any chance you’ll share that in the future?
A: The pressure was to get the southern recipes. Everyone has been asking for the Handsome Hog and southern recipes. Next, I think I can delve into some of the other stuff. We have a couple more shows I was starting pre-accident, and we’ll be back on those. So keep a lookout, I can’t talk too much now. I’m already thinking about the next book. … I’m just happy to get back out there.
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