The historic Bernards Inn in New Jersey is known for its picturesque weddings, but Justin Smillie’s reverence for the place has nothing to do with tying the knot. It was there, under the tutelage of Ed Stone, that the chef and partner of New York’s Upland took his first steps towards a career behind the burner.
Smillie was first drawn to food as a kid in California, where he remembers “digging things up in the dirt and helping my mom in the kitchen” (Upland refers to the Inland Empire town where he grew up). But his teenage stint as a dishwasher, where he “fell in love with the energy of the kitchen because it was loud and fast,” provided the impetus to pursue a cooking as a vocation.
This passion reached fever pitch at the Bernards Inn. “It was ground zero for me. I made proper stocks, organized walk-ins, and learned real knife skills,” he recalls. “I knew every cut of meat under the moon, and was learning to make foie gras at 18.”
It’s not always what you add to a dish, but what you take away. I just want to respect the simplest pleasures.
Smillie’s resume includes stints at New York restaurants like the Mercer Kitchen, Gramercy Tavern, and the Standard, but it was during his time as executive chef of Il Buco Alimentari e Vineria where he—and his much-hyped roasted short rib for two—really caught fire. “It was the first time I had done my own food and it was an exciting, creative time, surrounded by amazing ingredients. It was crazy, really,” he says.
Now at Upland, the latest hit from restaurateur Stephen Starr, Smillie telegraphs a California-meets-Italy sensibility with dishes like five-lettuce Caesar salad, and pasta laced with chicken liver and sherry. The ethos of simplicity harkens back to his years working for Jonathan Waxman at Washington Square Park and Barbuto. “The one thing I was amazed by was Jonathan’s ability to suss out the simple things. He informed a lot of who I was when I was young, and as I’ve grown into who I’m going to be as a chef, I keep that in the foreground,” Smillie says.
Upland is conceived as the type of place Smillie would like to go after his shift ends, or take his family on a laid-back Sunday. “It’s the way I want to eat,” he says, “It’s not always what you add to a dish, but what you take away. I just want to respect the simplest pleasures.”
Smillie’s penchant for globetrotting has undoubtedly influenced such a pared-down aesthetic. From yakitori served high above Kyoto’s train platforms, to San Francisco’s best straight-from-the-oven baguette, here are 10 beautifully rendered classics that compel Smillie to cook from the heart.
Great-Grandma’s Popover, Chicken Salad, and Egg Noodles
After pre-school on Tuesdays, I would go to my great-grandmother’s house to eat. She grew up on a farm in the Midwest and was a real do-it-yourself woman, killing chickens and such. She always served this one meal. It was simple, but it made me smack my lips: The popovers as light as air, the chunky chicken salad with a little mayo, the buttery, handmade egg noodles—it’s my first food memory. I can still smell her house and that chicken simmering in the pot. (Photo: Emily Dubner)
Yakitori at the Kyoto Train Station
My wife is Japanese, so I’m fortunate to have spent some time traveling to Japan. One of my favorite things on the planet is yakitori, and at the Kyoto train station on, I think, the 20th floor, there is a place that makes these accordion-like strips of chicken that are crispy and chewy all the way through. It’s amazing to have live-fire cooking in a train station. There’s the smell of coal, the sound of sizzling chicken fat, and the panorama of Kyoto below you. It’s pretty remarkable. (Photo: Nippondom)
Bigoli in Salsa at Anice Stellato
On my first eating foray to Italy, probably about 10 years ago, I started in Venice and ended in Naples. One of the highlights in Venice was Anice Stellato, which has a backwater location. They make fresh-to-order buckwheat pasta for their bigoli in salsa, and it’s sweet and chewy. Dressed in melted anchovies and cipollini onions, it’s a dish that truly smells of a specific time and place. (Photo: Anice Stellato)
Torta de España at Cal Pep
There are so many wonderful things I could pick from the menu at Cal Pep, like the tiny clams. But they make the torta to order. You know how sometimes it just sits on the counter all day and gets reheated? Theirs is a warm, slightly gooey omelet oozing a thick, custardy egg. (Photo: Yelp)
Fish Tacos at Rubio’s
When I was a teenager, I went to San Diego one summer. My uncle took me to Rubio’s and we got these crispy fish tacos with beautiful slaw, fresh tortillas, and a little bit of jalapeño, lime, and mayo. We ate them while hanging out in Mission Beach, looking onto the Pacific Ocean. It feels a little strange singling out fast food, but Rubio’s is my guilty pleasure—and my first stop when visiting San Diego. (Photo: Rubio’s)
Spicy Seafood-Tofu Soup in Fort Lee, NJ
So Kong Dong is probably the restaurant I eat at more than anywhere else. It’s an unadorned room of wafting perfumes and the sounds of sizzling pans. It’s a family-around-the-table feasting kind of place. Sometimes I get the shredded pork soup, but I like the seafood-tofu one with mussels, shrimp, and maybe crab. They will do any gradation of spice, and I get it as hot as I can. (Photo: Yelp)
Baguette and Butter at Tartine Bakery
I love their country loaf, but Tartine’s baguette is probably my favorite in the country. I remember when I was out there and Chad [co-owner Chad Robertson] pulled a fresh baguette out of the oven. We had it with a couple pieces of ham, and butter that had just been churned 24 hours before. It’s one of life’s most simple, purest pleasures. (Photo: Tartine Bakery)
Smoked Fish in Senigallia
Moreno Cedroni is a Michelin-starred chef with two nice restaurants and then this kiosk on the beach, Aniko, where you can have late-afternoon razor clams and a crisp white wine. Senigallia is a special place. You’re on the water, smelling the ocean, and then there are these little smoked-fish wraps. They just drop them on the table and you unroll them and eat it all. There’s like two people who work there: a waitress and a wrapper. But because Cedroni cures all his own fish, so much work goes into it before it gets to that point. (Photo: cucina.excite.it)
Post-Auction Sushi at Tsukiji
It’s 7am in this little sushi place without pretense and half the people are in rubber boots. There is fish I’ve never heard of before on perfectly prepared rice. There are different mussels, clams, and a crazy array of Japanese shrimp, all expertly cooked. My wife and son and I had 40 pieces between us. You don’t think about eating sushi (and having an ice cold beer) that early in the morning, but it re-programs your palate for a pure experience, unlike when you have sushi at 8pm and might have had a chili dog at noon. When you’re eating it surrounded by the fish market, there’s a whole psychological effect, too. (Photo: travelience.com)
French Onion Soup at Au Pied de Cochon
I ate at Au Pied de Cochon three times—I had the poutine, I had the duck—when I was in Montreal. During an early dinner before hitting the road, I saw the onion soup come out, bubbling and smoking from the oven, and I had to try it. It was surprisingly delicious. They took the time to slowly cook the onions and invest in a beautiful stock. It was porky, fatty, unctuous, bready, and probably the best I’ve ever had. (Photo: Trip Advisor)