Bartenders have walked out, owners have changed, chefs have come and gone – but Cedars Social still sits there on the west end of the Cedars, its view of downtown now partly blocked by tall apartment buildings.
But there’s a new chef making changes at Cedars Social — and it involves more than just the menu.
“This is definitely a challenge. We all know the history behind Cedars, there’s nothing that’s secret about that,” says chef Justin Box, who’s been the executive chef there since July. “I think Cedars has been through a rough patch, and I’m here to try to give it legs again, and fill the seats, and keep the customers.”
Box, 34 and originally from Richardson, has changed the menu twice so far, but what he really enjoys talking about is the staff.
“My biggest thing was to drive this place in the direction of camaraderie and ownership, owning what you do, loving where you’re at, and having that,” he said. “You don’t have to be the best cook. I’m not the best chef, but I do care a lot about what I do.”
Sitting in the dining room in the middle of the afternoon, kitchen staff gave him fist bumps as they passed by.
“I love that guy,” he said of multiple staff members who happened to be walking by. That appreciation is something he shares with the staff and says he hopes they share it with others.
“The culinary dynamic is, you live your life in the kitchen. I think that’s bullshit," Box says. "You’re not promised tomorrow, and if you lived any way like I lived, you’re lucky to be here, so embrace the people that love you most."
The way he lived, Box says, is a far cry from where he's at in life right now.
“My mother got out of prison the same day I came home from rehab,” says Box, who has been sober for more than six years. “Straight up, this is my story.”
Not unlike many chefs, his love for cooking started young.
“I would sit on my step-grandmother’s stool … one of my fondest memories – and this sounds so cheesy and cliché – was stirring the pot of spaghetti,” he says. “That’s all she’d let me do; and the gravy with my great grandma, she’d let me make the roux, pour the milk in. I was a chubby kid.”
He graduated from high school and took some basic classes at El Centro.
“I had some drug addiction problems, and that’s a big part of this. It’s a huge part,” he says. “I was a bad alcoholic and had a lot of problems with drugs.”
He bounced around at a few kitchens before going to the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco., but school wasn’t keeping him out of trouble.
“I was kind of living a roguish life out there,” he says. “My life was just in shambles when I came home. … I still loved what I did, I just wasn’t there mentally. So I went to rehab April 25, 2010.
“I’ve been sober ever since. Then my passion for this [cooking] took off, that flame was just tenfold.”
Box had stints with Stephan Pyles' catering, Bolsa Restaurant then Cafe Momentum before he landed at Cedars.
He’s paid his dues and worked around the kitchen, he says, and now he’s looking to help others do the same while he tries to shift the culture, reputation and menu of his latest gig.
“I’m really excited about the shrimp and grits, it’s a very traditional dish and has what I love about cooking, there are so many textures, they’re good ingredients, too,” he said. “It’s got a lot of balance and flavors, and it’s what I like, it’s the kind of food that I like.”
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You can expect some Southern food in the cozy, denlike dining room: a shredded pork belly sandwich, a pork belly and pimento omelet at brunch, whipped pork butter on toast and also smoked spaetzle "because I love German food,” Box says.
The menu will change seasonally, and he’s making every effort to keep people returning for the food on their plates here.
“This isn’t your typical exec chef job because I have to find the right niche of what’s going to keep people coming back, try to be as original as possible,” he says. “I feel like I came at a good time. There’s a hell of a lot of work to do here.”
The Cedars Social, 1326 S. Lamar St.