Meet the chef: Justine Kelly

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Chef Justine Kelly cooks real, wholesome and truly inspired food. It’s the kind of food she learned from her pops during weeknight family dinners and what she cooks for her daughter after school. It’s the kind that comes from her experiences honed over two decades in professional kitchens with the best Bay Area chefs blazing the path in the local food movement. And now, as the executive chef of Sun Basket, she’s bringing it all together by crafting deceptively simple and delicious recipes in our test kitchen and sourcing the best ingredients for each week’s meal baskets.

Best known for her longstanding role as the corporate chef de cuisine at San Francisco’s iconic Slanted Door restaurant, Chef Justine’s accolades include stints at renowned local institutions Greens Restaurant and The Flying Saucer, mentions in Gourmet Magazine and appearances on Iron Chef and the Williams-Sonoma Tasting Table Sous Chef Series.

Throughout her many roles, Chef Justine has become a devotee of delicious, wholesome cooking by using only the best organic and locally-sourced produce, seafoods and meats that she heightens with unique ingredients and spices from around the world. That’s because no matter where she has been or what she has cooked, she has focused her attention on building relationships with local farmers throughout the region who stay true to sustainable farming practices.

From her own words, here’s a rundown on what has inspired her, what excites her and what she’s got cooking for Sun Basket:

You threw your first dinner party at 16. What did you make?

One of my best friends and I made squid ink pasta with jumbo prawns and wild arugula salad. We got in trouble for throwing the party because we used my parents charge account at the local grocery store and failed to tell them about it!

Was that what spurred your desire to pursue a career in food?

Oh yeah.

You’ve said that your father was the first mentor who sparked your passion for cooking. What did he teach you?

He taught me never to give up on a recipe. For example, he used to make pasta like ten times until he got it right! He also taught me how to make things from scratch and the importance of family dinner.

After your father, who became your number one inspiration and mentor professionally?

Albert Tordjman, who was the chef at the Flying Saucer, which was a pretty famous 8-table restaurant in its day. He was a French and Moroccan Jew who had studied in France and North Africa. He taught me not be afraid of spices, as he was aggressive in his approach to food and seasoning. He also taught me a lot about Asian flavor palates and opened my eyes to unique flavors and flavor combinations in cooking. And while he taught me discipline, he also taught me how not to treat your employees (he was kind of a tyrant). 

What’s one of the most valuable things you learned about cooking throughout your time in professional kitchens?

To treat my staff well because happy employees will be more invested in what they’re doing.

When and why did it become important to you to work with local farmers?

It was important to me very early on in my career. Kezar, which was owned by Ironwood Cafe, was the place where I landed my first restaurant job and the ones who planted the seed. They were one of the first restaurants in the area to work with organic ingredients — when organics were just starting to make inroads into restaurants. When I started as pastry chef at Slanted Door they were not buying much organic, but I convinced the owner to use organic fruit because the difference in quality and taste is huge. Also, the whole idea of supporting local producers was really appealing to me. 

How do you choose what farms to work with?

A lot of it is based on relationships, farming practices and quality of ingredients. I look for farmers that are not spraying industrial chemicals and take good care of their soil. Whether they are certified organic or not is not as important, since the politics of getting certified in California are complicated. That’s where the relationships really matter. If I know what they grow and how they grow they become trusted partners. 

As a home cook for your family, what advice do you have for new cooks that are getting their feet wet in the kitchen?

Don’t be afraid to experiment and occasionally fail. Read a lot of books, but trust your intuition before trusting a recipe.

What’s the biggest mistake you see most home cooks make?

Not setting aside enough time to cook. If you’re going to cook, make a commitment to that. It does not have to be a lot of time, just focused time. Also, not relaxing enough in the kitchen! Cooking should be a fun experience, not a chore. 

How do you get your daughter to try new things to eat?

I don’t make special meals for her. She eats what I eat (with the exception of some really spicy things). But salad is a good example. We have always had salad at dinner. At first she wouldn’t eat it, but I kept putting it on the table and now she hordes an entire bowl for greens for herself! It’s really just about repetition of ingredients. I don’t force her to eat anything, but I do ask her to taste new things. And the more I ask her to taste, the more she ends up wanting to eat something new. It’s all about exposure. 

Is there anything you will always go out to eat vs. make at home?

Wood fire pizza. I sometimes make it, but it tastes so much better when someone else makes it for you.

What turns you off in the kitchen?

Sloppy cooks and dull knives. 

On that topic, what kitchen tool can you not live without?

Besides a good knife, a zester. I use them a lot.

What are some of the challenge of coming up with dishes in the Sun Basket test kitchen?

Coming up with meals that are a combination of inspiration, flavor and ease while still keeping them approachable. Those three things are hard to balance every single time for one meal. 

Where does your inspiration come from for meals?

Restaurants that I dine at, my library of cookbooks and cooking for my family in general. 

What are a couple of meals that you’re dreaming up for future Sun Basket deliveries?

A jungle curry with pork and japanese eggplant and a seared steak with grilled asparagus and a compound herb butter.

And just for fun…What’s your favorite food movie?

Like Water for Chocolate. 

Favorite color? (Just wondering).

Charcoal grey.