Eleven Madison Park. Noma. Vue de Monde. Restaurant Botanic. Justin James’s globe-trotting CV speaks for itself.

When he took the reins of the heritage-listed restaurant in Adelaide’s Botanic Garden, it was a real coup for the city. Over the last two years, the US-born chef has put his mark on the local food scene, becoming one of the state’s most highly respected chefs. His four-hour degustation menu has made Restaurant Botanic a true destination diner, with people flying in from across the country to try his foraged and fermented food.

Sitting down with Broadsheet, James reflects on his time in Adelaide, the future of fine dining, and how the local food scene stacks up to its international counterparts.

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You’ve worked at some of the world’s most renowned restaurants in the world, from Eleven Madison Park and Noma to Vue de Monde. How does the Adelaide food scene compare to New York, Copenhagen and Melbourne?
Adelaide’s food scene is much smaller than that of New York and Melbourne, for obvious reasons, and leans more into casual dining. However, while the quantity is not there, the quality is – and much of that has to do with the use of local produce, which is some of the best I have worked with in the world.

Sometimes you have to look a little harder to find your desired dining experience here in Adelaide, but that’s half the fun! In terms of “fine-dining” restaurants, the ratio is much smaller compared to New York and Copenhagen. There are a handful at best here in Adelaide … but there are chefs like Scott Huggins [Magill Estate Restaurant] and Fabian Lehmann (Maxwell Wines) doing some really cool things.

And how do you find the pace of living in Adelaide compared to life in those bigger cities?
Adelaide’s pace of living is much slower than that of the bigger cities, and sometimes I do miss the hustle and bustle of a busy city like New York. But Adelaide has a different kind of energy. I feel like it’s a city on the rise and one which presents a different kind of vibe. People are trying new things; the hospitality, arts and entertainment industries are growing. It’s yet to reach its peak. The little things are less stressful, and you get time to take in moments like driving down Plane Tree Drive to get to work. I don’t miss being stuck in traffic! It’s one less thing to worry about.

When you took over Restaurant Botanic, you got to play a part in designing the interior and the kitchen. What was it like to essentially have carte blanche to design your dream restaurant? Looking back, is there anything you’d do differently?
In any field, the opportunity to design your workplace is a dream. As a chef, the ability to create your own workflow by having a say in the way the kitchen is designed – the layout, the storage and the finishes – makes a massive difference to how you work and how your team operates.

For me, the design is an extension of our menu and the gardens which surround the restaurant. This is reflected in the smallest of design details – like the door handle, which is made out of an organic, untreated piece of driftwood. From the moment you walk through our doors your senses are heightened by touching the raw material.

The Restaurant Botanic sign which greets you at the entrance is made from 50 kilograms of compressed earth collected from the gardens, which has been hand-stamped with the restaurant logo. This sign was designed to be changed to reflect the seasons, so the next iteration will feature leaves and flowers. The small details are always changing and evolving … We are never finished.

Of course, when you look back you can pinpoint things you could have done differently, such as making the pass larger. Other than that, I would have loved to create more space in the kitchen, but we were limited by the building being heritage-listed.

Is there a lesson you learnt at Noma, Eleven Madison Park or Blue Hill that changed the way you work?
Along your career path you work with different teams who have different ideas. So I have learned many lessons and styles throughout my 21 years as a cook and chef.

The best lesson I learnt was looking at mistakes as good. When you make a mistake in a three-Michelin-starred restaurant, it’s a big deal – at that moment the dread is real. I have made plenty of mistakes, like dropping the bottle of expensive yuzu juice, overcooking the fish, undercooking the duck. In those moments, when I felt tired, stressed, had a terrible attitude and thought I wasn’t good enough, my mentor would say to me, “Good – now you have learnt what not to do. You didn’t get the promotion? Good. Now you can work harder. You had a rough service? Good. Learn from it and come back and do better tomorrow. You broke that yuzu juice? Good. Now you know how to be more aware of your surroundings.” I [think about] this every day in my life. When something doesn’t go my way, I say “Good”, and I learn from it.

Another lesson I learnt along the way is that controlled chaos is the happy spot. When things go too smoothly we become complacent, and that’s when we begin to make mistakes. So I like to switch things up and keep people on their toes – it creates good nervous energy. When we are anxious it means we care, and when we care we can do great things.

You grew up on a farm outside of Detroit. How did that influence the way you cook now?
Looking back, it had a big influence on my approach to produce. I grew up on a large property, [and] we were really connected to our environment as kids. We did a lot of exploring and would go canoeing, create cabins from driftwood and catch frogs. We also did a lot of hunting and fishing and exploring [throughout the] seasons, so it gave me an understanding of mother nature and the food cycle.

You have exclusive foraging rights in the Adelaide Botanic Garden. What’s something you’ve foraged that people wouldn’t find on many other menus?
Fruity sage leaves wrapped around tea-tree mousse. The sage and tea-tree both come from the garden. I never came across fruity sage until I walked through the Adelaide Botanic Garden. The dish tastes like the garden because it is the garden. It tastes like a tropical and floral mango-and-pineapple smoothie. Fruity sage leaves are very herbaceous … and have a very velvety and meaty texture.

Can you talk us through your fermentation program?
Our fermentation program has come a long way since we opened. When we first opened, we fermented everything possible, which takes time and resources. We now plan six to 12 months ahead of time and sometimes as far as two to three years out. That’s the beauty of having been in operation for two years – getting to know the garden better, knowing when things taste good and how long we should ferment them for. We know what we like and don’t like, and from there we can try new things. Instead of having 100 items fermenting, we now have around 25. We have two different kojis, about five misos, around eight garums and two fruits blackening. Wattleseed miso and kangaroo garum are on high rotation at the restaurant.

We do these all year long. Once in a while we will try a new miso or garum. The thing with it all is you need patience. Some of these items need nine months to get to the point where we can use them; others are at their best two years later. We will continue to grow our ideas and catalogue week by week. Outside of the longer ferments, we have our weekly sauce of lacto-fermented fruits and vegetables.

Four-hour sittings and 20-course menus are unique in the increasingly fast-paced Australian dining scene. What’s something you love about this style of fine dining?
This is my favourite way to dine and one of my favourite things to do in life. To sit back and relax, to drink great cocktails and wines while the chef does their thing is a privilege. For me, however, a tasting menu doesn’t suffice. It’s about the entire dining experience. What I learnt from my time in Michelin-starred restaurants, and in cities where tasting menus are still very much on trend, is that the experience goes beyond the menu. Just because you do a tasting menu of seven courses doesn’t make it fine dining; what makes it an experience is the whole package: the interiors, the cutlery, crockery, glassware – right down to the music. I love it when the chef is at the top of their game, using the best produce and techniques available. The ingredients are usually a mix of exotic, rare, expensive and humble. You have exceptional service. You don’t have to cook or clean. And with the senses you are seeing, tasting, smelling, touching and listening to the food and beverage – but also the space – with the restaurant team and the other guests.

What would you say to interstate or global readers who have never considered Adelaide’s food scene?
Adelaide’s hospitality scene is thriving. It’s not the biggest or busiest city, but what we have is quality and a vast variety of dining options. With wineries in all directions, you can have a week-long trip with great food and beverages any day, at any time.

@chefjustinjames
@restaurantbotanic_adl