The food world has plenty of ego. Chefs are notorious for their larger-than-life, type-A personalities, but spending a little time in Dallas’ culinary scene is a quick way to dispel any Gordon Ramsay-style notions you have about many of this city’s chefs. Sure, there is plenty of bravado, but just as many chefs across Dallas are silently knocking it out of the park behind the scenes. Among them is Justin Holt, sous chef at the much-beloved Lucia in Oak Cliff.
Holt has worked at Lucia for much of its wildly popular existence, making his way from line cook to sous chef throughout the past four years. Despite the next-now-new nature of Dallas diners, Lucia’s popularity has endured and reservations are still as hard to claim as ever. We sat down to talk with Holt about his collaboration with executive chef David Uygur, his famous pop-up ramen nights and what it’s like to work in the constantly changing culinary paradise that is Lucia.
You’ve been a sous chef for a long time, and many chefs seem tempted to jump into executive chef roles quickly. Was that something you were really conscious of?
I’m very leery of making the first jump on my own into that. I’m scared and hesitant. It took me a long time to feel confident in becoming a sous chef, and I want to spend as much time as I need to feel as confident in leading an entire team.
How does working in a small kitchen influence how you feel about that, and how you work?
There are similarities and differences in the two factions of restaurants — one being a huge group of people in the kitchen, and the other being just a couple of people. The attention to detail is high. I don’t have any experience in anything but small kitchens.
When I first moved to Dallas, I worked at Nana. It was heavily staffed at the time, with upwards of 20 cooks, but I was a cook at that time as well. My experience in management is all in smaller kitchens, so I can’t say what it would be like if I was somewhere else. Having a small staff affords me the time to spend with each person individually, and I think that’s quite beneficial.
How did you end up at Lucia?
Dave [Uygur] hired me six months after Lucia opened, and I left Nana to become a cook there. I stayed there for about two years, and then left to become the sous chef at Driftwood. About a year later, he had an opening for a sous chef, and he wanted to promote one of the guys that had been there for a long time, Mike Gibson. When I was a line cook there, Mike would come in every day he had off from culinary school to work as a stage. When a slot was open for a sous chef, Dave wanted to bring Mike up, and he brought me back at the same time.
How do you work with Uygur? Can you talk about that relationship?
The process between the three of us is completely collaborative. Dave works an evening expediter shift and oversees the entire restaurant. Mike and I sort of alternate on a two-week basis a morning and an evening schedule. The morning chef will do bulk prep and pasta production, and the evening chef will work the station, do ordering and closing duties and work with the chef. We just sort of flip-flop back and forth.
How does the collaboration between the chefs in the kitchen at Lucia work in a creative sense?
It’s a roundtable. Everyone gets together in the daytime, before anyone else shows up. We all sit down and talk about the changes that are coming to the menu, and that goes throughout the night and you see what you’ve sold. Because we are so small, the life of our dishes is very short. We’ll see a dish for four days or a week, and we’ll either be tired of it because it sold so well, or tired of it because it’s problematic. Sometimes something else just becomes more seasonal, and we have that talk then. We make those decisions as they come along.
A week is a pretty short life for a dish. How does that impact your sourcing? Do you feel like you’re constantly able to find interesting ingredients?
I feel like we consistently find the most in-season ingredients that we can. Not being tied to a menu that lasts an entire season, or tied to a menu because it’s printed out of house means that you’re not committed to it for an entire season. David and Jen [Uygur's wife, who created Lucia with him] have created this restaurant that is small enough that it can be completely managed, and you have absolute control over everything from how people are set to the food that we produce. In being so small, we have the opportunity to change dishes at our whim.
That can be bad when people come in wanting a dish like cacio e pepe and then it’s gone the next week, [and] they’ve been waiting a month to try that cacio e pepe. It’s frustrating in that sense, but as a cook, it’s the best thing in the world. You’re never stagnant. You get the chance to cook everything that you want, all the time.
Lucia is such a unique animal — it has inspired a devotion and curiosity that hasn’t really receded. Is that why, because things are constantly changing?
I think it has a lot to do with it. The change is constant, and the replayability is high. There are certain things that you’re always going to be able to find at Lucia. We will always have salumi. Pasta will forever be the focus — it’s on the sign outside. Those are just the bones, though. It will always change. You can come in a week from now, and the menu will be completely changed.
That sounds really challenging. Do you ever get creative block?
Sure. Maybe challenging is the wrong perspective, though. It’s inspirational to be challenged in that way. You want to be pushed. You’re not forced in that way at a lot of other restaurants because you know that you’re going to ride a dish for four months. At Lucia, you spend time finding all these interesting or traditional ingredients, or whatever that may be, and manipulate them in a way that you want. You test it, you sell it, and when you’re done with it, you can be done with it. You don’t have to be tied to it.
You’ve also gotten a lot of attention for cooking that you’ve done outside of the kitchen at Lucia, especially your pop-up ramen nights. What was the impetus for that?
When I was a cook at Lucia, I had told Dave that I wanted to try some pop-up stuff. At the time, it was only Chef DAT and Nicole Gossling that I really knew of that were doing pop-ups, and I wanted to get feedback on something that I’d experienced, and something that I could do well. Serving staff meal over and over isn’t going to get you the feedback that you want, so he pushed me to do pop-ups. He’s been forever supportive, which has been excellent. I don’t know how many cooks or sous chefs have the support from their chef to do those kinds of things outside of the kitchen.
How can you even find the time to do that?
You don’t find the time. It’s not extra. You make it. You sacrifice for it.
How long does it take to prepare for a pop-up dinner? How much work goes into something that lasts one night?
All the events are different, but generally soup for 100 people inside of your normal work week, you can tack on plenty of hours. On Friday, you’re doing prep and mise-ing out your pasta dough, and Saturday you’re just crushing prep. Everything has to be finished before you walk out the door. Saturday is a long day, 16 or 18 hours along with your regular job. The day before that, you can tack on another 6 to 8 hours, and the day before that another 4 to 6. The amount of time that I spend now versus what I spent four years ago, though — I’m in a way better place.
Was it hard to find help to execute these pop-ups?
It is tricky. I’ve got one guy, Antonio Ybarra, who worked with me at Nana. He’s been with me since day one, and so has Michael Gibson. I would bust ass to break my station down and get over to the place that was hosting the pop-up, and he would come after the kitchen at Lucia was broken down at night. Just recently, I started posting an open forum on Facebook to see who would be interested. Having more hands is nice, and I think that the process is streamlined to the point now where it is pretty simple. You just need extra people to do the little things, and if there’s more people, we can all enjoy it better. Me just pulling my hair out with two other dudes and trying to mash out an event, it’s definitely better than that.
Are there other themes or cuisines that you’re interested in exploring in your pop-up events?
I would like to stay in the Japanese vein. It’s really close to me, it’s comforting and I like it. I feel like if I do other pop-ups, it kind of dilutes what I’m doing. I’m not necessarily opposed to it, but I don’t want to lead people astray. If people like my ramen, why would they come out to eat my tacos? I don’t want to be a jack-of-all-trades.
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What does the future look like for you? In five or 10 years?
I don’t know. I know that I will be cooking, unless I lose both my hands. I know I will be at Lucia for a while longer. I don’t plan on going anywhere. I’m still going to be doing Japanese food, and I’ll probably still be doing pop-ups around Christmas time. It probably won’t be ramen. One thing that I’m going to be focused on and I will execute in the near future as soon as it’s not so fucking hot outside, is that we’ll expand the ramen further. Instead of taking over a dive bar with no kitchen from 12 to 2, we’ll take over a restaurant on a day that they’re closed. I hope to do mobile restaurant takeover and just mob a spot with six dudes — or ladies — and take over the entire spot.
How are you going to fit that in?
I mean, I’ve got Sundays and Mondays right now. I can do it on Sunday or Monday, and I get two weeks of vacation every year. There’s potential time in there for that.