Justin Warner says his first visit to the South has him “a little bit starry eyed.” He’s a Brooklynite, chef/owner of Do or Dine and winner of the reality TV show, Food Network Star. He’s visiting Asheville to film a new program for the Food Network (the name is confidential). Over a pint of French Broad 13 Rebels, he offered Xpress an impromptu interview. He discussed his thoughts on Asheville’s food scene, reality TV, Japanese mayonnaise and his restaurant.
Mountain Xpress: So now that we’ve met each other at a bar, what should we talk about?
Justin Warner: What am I doing here?
MX: What are you doing here?
JW: Well, since winning Food Network Star, I was tasked with making a show, and I think that Asheville is one of the most — how do I say? — I think that people in Asheville know that this is a happening food town, but I don’t think that all of America knows that. I think they kind of keep it to themselves, and I’m sorry to kind of blow it up and expose it.
Are you really sorry?
A little because I’ve had favorite spots ruined by people, but I’ll tell you: Nothing is better than being a small-business owner and having an influx of business.
What are some of your spots that have been ruined?
Well, a place called David’s Brisket House — and I shot a video there — it’s in Brooklyn, David’s Brisket House. It used to be a very, very local place, but now? Now, you can tell that people come there as a destination. And even my own restaurant — I won’t say by any means was ruined. I don’t like that word, ruined. But um, it got really busy with a different kind of clientele after I won Food Network Star, and it got some exposure.
Does that mean more money, or does it mean less integrity, or both?
Ultimately, it means that it’s a new hurdle for the business person involved, and I think that’s a good thing. Of course, the wind shifted. But I’ll tell you: It means that you’re dealing with an influx of business and also of clientele, and it’s a new challenge to you as to how to accommodate and to live up to a different reputation.
So you said you think that the rest of the country should know about Asheville?
Oh, absolutely … it’s a good thing. I mean, take a look around. It’s a friendly place. People are friendly. These people at Blind Pig [Supper Club] are doing crazy stuff. There’s not a whole heck of a lot of — what do you call it? — the creed, you know. The idea of a place like The Admiral, it’s not very different from a lot of places in Brooklyn, you know what I mean? And if people can come here in the summer and have a good time, fill some coffers, and then, we can get some new crosswalks, whatever.
How much time have you spent in the South?
None? This is your first time?
This is my first time, so maybe I’m a little bit starry eyed, you know? Maybe it’s like prom night or something. …
I have a worry that something’s going to get lost now that we’re up-and-coming on the national scene, and food is the first wave to hit the rest of the country. Do you think there’s any truth in that, like you were saying with your restaurant clientele changing? Do you think Southern food will change?
Myself, personally, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with forced innovation. And when forced innovation happens, things that are classical become storied. When things change and something defies a trend, that’s when it becomes an Old Faithful, a standby, a legend, a classic. And when it shutters, people cry. You can open a new, hip restaurant here that’s on the edge of everything; it can close six months later, and nobody cries. They say, “Wow, that was good, but it was good.” But when a place holds true to itself while innovation happens around it, and it’s still valuable and still good, that’s awesome, you know what I mean? And I think that makes diversity, and I think that diversity is awesome, and I think the more diversity there is in any given place at any given time, the better it is.
Would you ever live down here?
Actually, when I rolled up down here, I’ll be frank. I went to this ice cream place called Ultimate. Do you know it?
I went there, and the flavors were so off the wall, and there was some subtle attitude to it. It was homey, lovely, familial. It was like your neighborhood ice cream shop. And they have this Cesspool of Cinnamon flavor that was kind of a single digit to whoever said that “cesspool of sin” thing, and I was like, “You know what man, I like this all right.” There also seems to be a lot of tattoo shops around here, which I think is always a good sign. …
Is your show officially Justin’s Excellent Adventure, or is that just a working title at this point?
I can’t comment on that. … I think that that’s a good title, but I don’t think necessarily that there is anything set in stone about this. … There’s a little bit of mad scientist in me, but I can promise you that that’s all naturally derived. If anything, I have a disturbing amount of curiosity. You could say that I O.D. on curiosity. …
What do you think about reality TV?
I think there’s a right way to do it and a wrong way to do it.
Which way did you do it?
What, for Food Network Star? … That was an accurate way to do it. The things that transpired in Food Network Star were all entirely accurate. If I was in charge, would I have done it that way? Probably not. I loved the set-up. I loved the people that I worked with. And ultimately, it was a very rewarding experience. I think for the majority of the people that were involved in it, they left stronger. I will tell you that there is no difference between going on a reality TV show and going on a weekend retreat. You don’t sign up for this unless you’re looking to change, so I experienced a tremendous amount of personal growth during it. …
Do you think the fame that reality TV affords is fleeting?
Fleeting? Not for me.
That’s what you have to say. That’s optimism, right?
No, I think it can be, but I think that 15 minutes, as they’ve called it since forever, can really change people for the better. Someone with, say, low morale and low self-esteem can do a great job. They don’t have to be a winner, but they can say, “I made it X, Y, Z far, and I love myself now.”
So you’re not worried about it?
No, I’m not worried about it because I work. I’ll be frank: I thought my life was complete when I opened a restaurant and had a sweet girlfriend and a puppy, so everything else is gravy to me.
That’s a good attitude.
Well thanks. I’m extremely fortunate and blessed. My only hope for this fleeting time on reality TV and whatnot is that anything good that comes from it, I can share with the people and demographics that I care about. I live in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn. I would love to make fun in Bed-Stuy.
Speaking of making fun, did you do any research before coming South? Watch any reality TV?
I try and keep myself very pristine.
No Honey Boo Boo for you?
No. I’ll tell you why. When I was on Food Network Star, we would get a challenge, and we would have X, Y, Z amount of time to brainstorm. And I would say that 80 percent of the time, I wouldn’t do it because it’s when you get in the weeds that you really start to think you’re most creatively. That’s when you start getting MacGyver and that’s because you only have a fire extinguisher, one bottle of water and an ice pick, you know?
That’s a good quote.
Thanks. It’s when you’re in the weeds that you really start to think that way. … My vehicle that I was driving in the other day got stuck in the mud, and it wasn’t just regular mud. It was Tennessee mud. I’ve seen mud before. This was not mud; this was almost alive.
Tennessee mud is just a few miles north of Mississippi mud.
Serious mud. That’s mud with two ‘D’‘s. This was Mud, capitalized. We would address it as Him with a capital ‘H.’ Serious mud. It got stuck in there, and I had to get guerrilla. I had to look around and find stuff to shove under it. The first thing I said was “newspaper.” Obviously, that doesn’t work. I had to raid an abandon house to find scraps of wood to make planks to get this thing in there. It was so deep in the mud that I had to find a giant log to make a hammer to wedge the planks under there. I don’t think about that on a daily basis. That’s why I don’t like to watch TV: I don’t like to be informed; I like to think quickly. …
What’s your dog’s name?
My dog’s name is Kewpie. … It’s a Japanese mayonnaise. I’m really into that, Japanese mayo. … My dad was born in 1927, and he used to tell me tales about Kewpie dolls that he used to get them in World War II, and I think those things migrated to Japan. Then, Kewpie Mayonnaise was set up, and that was their logo: the Kewpie doll. Later in my life, my father passed away. I saw this mayonnaise, and I said, “Wow, Kewpie, like the doll my dad was telling me about.” And I’d never physically seen the image, but then I saw it on that logo, and I kind of fell in love with the mayo in all honesty. And Japan’s culture and cuisine. So I said to myself, “This is like a spirit icon,” you know what I mean? [He has a tattoo on his forearm of the Kewpie Mayonnaise logo.]
One last thing we should talk about: … your restaurant.
My restaurant in Brooklyn [Do or Dine], we designed it to be a neighborhood place that did interesting things for interesting people. And we underestimated, I think, the amount of interesting people in New York. …
Do you believe in New York City?
We go hard. I believe in Brooklyn.
That’s a different thing than believing in New York City.
Yeah, I think there are a lot of things that are awesome about the thing as a whole, but I spend 95 percent of my life in Brooklyn, and I don’t cross bridges unless I’m getting paid to do so. Or if there’s great pho. I go to great pho in Chinatown. …