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Above the Law
Hagerstown native and Food Network regular Justin Warner dishes on the hometown he grew up in, how he got where he is, and his new cook book.
By Leigh Cooper & photos by Daniel Krieger
You can hardly turn the television to the Food Network without stumbling across Justin Warner. He’s been on a plethora of its shows, including 24 Hour Restaurant Battle, Unique Eats, Guy’s Grocery Games, and Cutthroat Kitchen, just to name a few. And he took home the coveted victory for the eighth season of Food Network Star, winning him not only the admiration of millions of viewers but also of Alton Brown, his mentor on the show and a culinary virtuoso in his own right.
Guess where else you can see Justin? On the wall in Chic’s Seafood on Summit Avenue here in Hagerstown, where the owners put up his picture. If you’re a local you know the place. With a giant red crab on the roof, it’s practically a landmark. “I grew up near Chic’s,” says Justin. “I’ve been going there since I was zero.”
All of Justin’s passion and curiosity for food got its start right here, in a town he remembers most fondly for it joie do vivre. “Hagerstown has great people,” he says. “The people have a caliber of hospitality – a certain kind of genialness and courtesy – that you don’t see anywhere else. They possess a genuine enthusiasm for life. It doesn’t have to be foie gras, caviar, truffles – they don’t need to be impressed. People in Hagerstown are happy to be alive.”
In fact, Justin, 31, credits his success as a chef and restaurateur in part to the unbridled support he received from the people he first worked with in Hagerstown. “Everyone I worked for championed me and encouraged me to be me,” he says. “You can’t ask for a better beginning than that.”
He applied for a work permit when he was 15 so he could wash dishes at the now-closed Oliver’s Pub and Restaurant, where he deliberately failed at his job so he’d get put on busboy detail. Interacting with customers was much more exciting for Justin and he quickly got addicted to the hustle and bustle of service. From there, he branched out to making sandwiches for a coffee and bagel joint called Bentley’s and then began moonlighting at Roccoco’s, another local favorite that has since closed its doors.
“Roccoco’s was so exciting,” he says. “It was a crazy good restaurant, super fine. If I saw Roccoco’s in Brooklyn right now (where Justin currently lives), I would be like, ‘Wow, great, world class restaurant.’ Roccoco’s was doing things back then that I think are perfectly relevant today. Everything was so fancy. They had herbed butter; you know if a restaurant has herbed butter, it’s fancy,” he laughs. “The chef there – everybody called him Champagne Tony. I remember he used to make a grilled Caesar salad and I thought, ‘That is just nuts, grilling lettuce leaves,’ but you know what? It would up being the final thing I prepared on Food Network Star. The dish Tony was making in Hagerstown 15 years ago, I used to win a television show.”
He also learned that he enjoyed culinary experimentation. “Roccoco’s is where I began craving innovation and interesting flavors. I remember staying on after a staff party one night. The waiters smuggled me a Guinness – which I didn’t even know was a big beer, especially for your first! – and gave me kimchi. Then someone gave me sweetbreads. It was almost like a joke: ‘Here, busboy, try this bowl of guts.’ But it was amazing. The texture of sweetbreads is so weird, so fluffy. It sparked curiosity, not disgust. It just made me want to try more.”
And try more, he did. After graduating from South Hagerstown High School, Just took off for Fort Collins, Colo., where he worked in several different restaurants, using each one as a learning experience and a stepping-stone. Eventually he moved to New York and landed a job at The Modern, a restaurant owned by the legendary and influential restaurateur Danny Meyer.
It was while working at The Modern that Justin stumbled across an opportunity to answer a casting call for the Food Networks’ show 24 Hour Restaurant Battle. On the show, two teams, each consisting of just two people, build a restaurant – menu and all – in just 24 hours and compete against each other. Justin answered the casting call with a fellow waitress friend and got in. Their restaurant concept was a spin on a pancake house. And guess what? They won.
Justin admits to getting a little hooked (The duo won $10,000, by the way; who wouldn’t get hooked?). He rigged up a cart to create pancakes that won him the show and sold them on the streets in New York. They sold like hotcakes – pun fully intended – and gave Justin the nudge he needed to open a restaurant of his own with three of his friends.
“I live in an area called Bed-Stuy,” he says. “It’s trending right now but it was kind of rough when I first got here. The unofficial motto for the neighborhood is ‘do or die,’ meaning you either make it or you die trying. So we decided to make the name of the restaurant a spin-off of that, and called it Do or Dine.” New York Times food critic Ligaya Mishan paid their restaurant a visit and wrote a positive review, and the four friends were suddenly swamped with business.
The menu reflected Justin’s playful interest in food. Breadsticks were served in cigar boxes; foie gras was piped into doughnuts; the Caesar salad was half a head of charred romaine lettuce impaled on a steak knife and stabbed into a wooden plank. Meanwhile, the Food Network remained interested in Justin – a kid with “ a touch of Mozart, a kind of crazy genius,” as Alton puts it. He nabbed that Food Network Star win, and although it didn’t garner him a show of his own as it was supposed to, it did earn him a great deal of respect and attention.
Justin and his friends have since closed Do or Dine’s doors, but not because it wasn’t working for him. It’s just time to set his sights on new horizons. “Owning a restaurant was a beautiful thing,” he says. “But it can only seat so many people. I want to share my ideas on food with a much broader audience now.” And he’s doing exactly that.
His book, The Laws of Cooking (and How to Break Them), hit bookshelves this fall. Remember when cookbooks had only a handful of pictures? Not Justin’s book. It is a veritable feast for the eyes, as sumptuously delicious to look at as it is inspiring to cook from. He and photographer Daniel Krieger have made food look like something between adventure and fine art. You may find yourself smelling the very pages; just don’t let anyone catch you doing it.
Not too bad for a guy from a small town in Maryland. “Hagerstown was a great little place to grow up in,” Justin says. “It made me everything I am today. I didn’t go to college, you know. Everything I learned, I learned from Hagerstown, no least of which was common sense. And that was enough to get me published, to get me on television, to get me to New York.”
"Everyone I worked for championed me and encouraged me to be me. You can't ask for a better beginning than that."
—Justin Warner, Food Network Star