After six years with Paul Baker at the helm, Botanic Gardens Restaurant (BGR) has entered a new era. Its latest evolution is the appointment of new executive chef Justin James, who was executive chef at Melbourne’s celebrated fine diner Vue de Monde for five and a half years. Before that, he did stints in the kitchens of Noma, Dan Barber’s Blue Hill at Stone Barns and Eleven Madison Park, which earned the number one position in the 2017 World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards). It’s an enviable CV, to say the least.
His arrival at BGR is a coup for the restaurant, and Adelaide’s hospitality scene at large. It’s also an exciting new chapter for James, a chef driven by the pursuit of “exceptional ingredients” now with a 51-hectare garden as his culinary playground. With a bounty of produce at his doorstep – from bower spinach to warrigal greens – he’s in good company. The garden-grown finger limes add a burst of tart tang to line-caught and dry-aged coral trout with koji, Brussels sprouts and wasabi leaf, while just-plucked lemon myrtle lifts marron tail with corn and fermented chilli.
The US-born chef recently took five with Broadsheet to chat about his new role, what it means to have the sprawling garden at his fingertips, and what he has planned for the fine-dining stalwart (including a renovation of the kitchen and dining room).
What is your new job title?
Executive chef at the Botanic Gardens Restaurant.
What drew you to BGR?
First is definitely the location. I love the historical building and the surrounding Botanic Garden. They not only deliver a great dining experience with different views in each season to all the restaurant guests, but also provide me with lots of unique ingredients for us to work with in the kitchen. Also, I love the opportunity to run a whole restaurant business so I can lead both the kitchen and the front of house team to create the exceptional experience I strive to deliver to all the guests who walk into our restaurant. Last but not the least, I understand it is a rare chance for anyone to be able to design the interior and kitchen of a restaurant from scratch and lead the renovation.
What is it like having that bountiful kitchen garden at your fingertips?
It is like a chef’s dream! Ideally it should be how every good restaurant operates, but in reality, it’s a luxury to be able to walk through and see and taste all the plants every day and experience the life cycle of the plants. It helps us to understand how they taste and what they look like in each season and share that with our guests through the menu. Also, it is very convenient for our kitchen team to have that access to our ingredients! We want to make sure our ingredients are truly exceptional, and the garden helps us to make that possible. There is a flavour profile out there and I want the guests to see, smell, touch, hear and taste it.
What plans and ideas will you bring to the role?
I would like to bring a fresh new perspective to the restaurant and the city. The other thing is I want to integrate the garden into our menu more by creating a fermentation program to preserve the garden and create new flavours. We will close for renovation during May and June, and [we're] aiming to reopen late June. All these changes will allow me to deliver an exceptional and memorable dining experience to all the guests.
Will you bring along any dishes or ideas you are known for?
I am not going to repeat any dishes from the past. I am interested in innovating, moving forward, and creating new dishes based on where I am and what I experience at this location.
What are some fun/highlight dishes on the menu?
Our menu is ever changing, and all I can say is I am working on some cool ideas with the different types of roots and barks from the garden.