You Can Go Home Again: Chef Jonathan Justus On Cooking In Smithville

Mar 11, 2016

The morning after his high school graduation, Jonathan Justus packed his car and moved to California. He didn't even wait a day, and he didn't leave with fantasies of coming back any time soon. 

When he was a kid, Justus felt suffocated by the sense that everyone in Smithville knew and kept an eye on everyone else. His mom received hate mail when she took over the family pharmacy, criticizing her for working outside the home rather than staying home with her kids. Rumors had started spreading about Justus starting when he was just in high school, he says.

"The one time I tried to skip school, there was this old woman that knitted in her kitchen window that overlooked the school and I'm leaving the parking lot and she calls my mom at the drugstore and says, 'Ann, I just saw Jonathan leaving the parking lot, does he have a doctor's appointment?'"

And so he headed west in search of anonymity.

Paintings by Jonathan Justus reflect his interest in color and composition.
Credit Paul Andrews / paulandrewsphotography.com

You might say the jobs he worked in California were unconventional. He was a repo-man, which he describes as "hours of boredom and research and stakeouts punctuated with extreme adrenaline." Then he spent 15 years working as a bike messenger. At the same time, he was a studio painter, working in an abstract style.

Also, dabbling in cocaine use.

That last item got him and his wife thinking it might be a good idea to get away and hit a reset button on their lives. They ended up in southern France.

It was there that he worked his first kitchen job.

"Something happened when I first got into a kitchen, there was this social camaraderie going on and my life up to that point, spending hours and hours in my studio painting and working as a bike messenger and as a repo, these are disciplines of solitary confinement. When I got into a kitchen, I suddenly realized, wow I don't like myself enough to spend that much time alone."

He also had the realization that cooking had all the creative challenges of painting.

"As Americans ... you kind of build your own thing. In France, these are compositions and very specific things go with each other, and the classic dishes of course have stood the test of time and I started thinking of a plate of food and then a meal as a composition much more complicated than painting, and that was something I could spend a life's work working on."

Composition on a plate, for Justus, is as conceptual as composition on a canvas.
Credit Paul Andrews / paulandrewsphotography.com

He sees colors as flavors. In painting, you've got five color categories: red, yellow, blue, black and white. In flavor, you've got salty, sweet, sour, bitter and umami, which is a savory, protein-y taste (think nuts or mushrooms). When you compose with color or flavor, he says, everything is relative. How a color looks depends on what color is beside it. How a flavor tastes is the same way. Same with texture, like crunchiness. It's all relative.

He'd grown up in a prominent family of pharmacists, who'd run the Justus Drugstore in town since April of 1840.

When the opportunity presented itself to return and open a restaurant in the building that housed the pharmacy, he initially had what he calls "a very strong anti reaction" to the whole idea. It was more serendipity than anything else that brought him back.

He and his wife were living in San Francisco. And the old pharmacy building, still owned by his family, was standing empty; his mother had sold the business five years earlier.

During a visit home, his mom and sister floated the idea of Justus opening a restaurant in the drug store. 

"My response really isn't fit for radio," he says.

But he eventually warmed to the idea. His wife pointed out that there was interesting stuff going on with nearby farms. That the location was smack dab in the middle of an agricultural region, with a metropolis close enough to support it.

The bearded chef is up for a prestigious James Beard award.
Credit Paul Andrews / paulandrewsphotography.com

Nowadays, Justus forages in Missouri for wild edibles to include on his menus, and tries to ensure that every new dish he creates says something about the culture and the food of this region. People drive long distances for dishes like house-made rabbit sausage with warm tarragon vinaigrette and duck yolk with shaved cauliflower. 

The locals, by and large, still prefer burgers. Although Justus Drugstore has a patio that serves burgers made from fresh-ground local beef with house-made ketchup, mustard and pickles, it still feels fancy for Smithville, and the old-timers in town don't stop by very often.

But they do know he's put Smithville on the culinary map, and they're proud that he's a semi-finalist for a James Beard award. The winners will be announced March 15.

In honor of the occasion, a local hairdresser has even offered to shave Justus' beard. For free.

Portrait sessions are intimate conversations with some of the most interesting people in Kansas City. Each conversational portrait is paired with photographic portraits by Paul Andrews.

Gina Kaufmann is the host of KCUR's Central Standard. You can reach her on Twitter: @GinaKCUR.