Chef Justin Olsen of Bink's Midtown on the Meaning of Farm-to-Table and the Surprising Story of How He Ended Up at Binkley's

Justin Olsen Chef de cuisine Bink's Midtown binksmidtown.com

This is part one of our interview with chef Justin Olsen of Bink's Midtown. Today, he dishes on how he went from fixing cars to the culinary arts and how he ended up working at Binkley's four years ago. Be sure to come back tomorrow for the second part of the interview, when we find out about his experience working closely with the father of the small-plates trend in the United States, chef Jose Andres.

You might not know him by name -- yet -- but chef Justin Olsen has spent years working with some of the state's and country's best and best-known chefs. His journeys have taken him to the east coast and back and currently, he's heading up James Beard Award finalist Kevin Binkley's newest venture, Bink's Midtown.

The restaurant, which opened in spring, isn't farm-to-table per se -- a fact that Olsen makes pretty clear if you ask. Farm-to-table, Olsen might clarify, implies taking produce and making it shine through simplicity. On the contrary, what Bink's does best is wholly transform fresh, seasonal and, if at all possible, local produce into gastronomic art. The menu's vegetable and appetizer options far outnumber the usual meat-heavy stuff, which Olsen says is a concept he, Binkley and Binkley's wife, Amy, came up with based on their own dining preferences.

But the best part about this particular chef doing awesome artful things with vegetables is that underneath it all, he's a down-home Texas boy. That's right, as in the state known for barbecue, beef, and big everything.

Olsen says he grew up cooking because as one of four kids (he has three sisters), the family didn't get to dine out much.

"And when we did, going out was for my mom's birthday," he says. "Fancy was Olive Garden."

And though he may have been cooking for nearly as long as he can remember, culinary wasn't always in his dreams. While he was in school he worked as a mechanic, eventually going to look at a tech school outside of Waco. While he was visiting, he caught a glimpse of the school's culinary program and decided to ditch greasy cars for greasy pots. He moved out to Arizona to attend Arizona Culinary Institute.

Here's where things get pretty crazy. Thanks to luck -- really, Olsen says he just happened to be in the office at the right time -- he got a gig helping James Porter open the now-defunct Tapino Kitchen and Wine Bar. He got his hands into the carpentry of the new eatery and got "his ass kicked" by the notoriously intense in the kitchen chef. It was a good fit, though, since Porter delivered the kind of tough love Olsen says he was accustomed to and probably needed to grow and succeed.

"I grew up that way," Olsen says matter-of-factly if you ask about the James Porter experience. "My dad had high expectations of his kids and kicked my butt early."

Eventually, he ended up at Lon's, where he says he "probably stayed for too long." During his three-year stint ,Olsen worked his way up from salad to prep cook and wasn't looking for a new gig by any means when his wife pushed him to seek one out work with one of the city's best-known names.

He took his wife to Binkley's in Cave Creek for their anniversary. He had never eaten the chef's food before but had friends who worked at the restaurant.

"Before we finished she was like, 'You have to work here,'" he tells us.

There was just one problem. He didn't think he could afford to work for an independently owned restaurant when he was already making decent money at a resort. But his wife was supportive and insistent, and the couple decided to move in with her parents in order to make it work. He went for the job with Binkley and got the gig.

He would stay on with Binkley for the next four years, until the chef put him up for a truly one-of-a-kind position with one of the most prominent names in Spanish cuisine.

One thing most people don't know about you: I'm a pretty open book. Not sure I told this story yet: I blew up my first car's motor -- my mom's old minivan -- drag-racing a friend. I was terrified and excited all at the same time.

If your cooking was a song it would be: "I Ain't Ready to Quit," by Jason Aldean (above)

Your favorite childhood food-related memory: Camping with my family and learning how to cook anything over an open fire from my dad. Oh, and Mom's Texas sheet cake.

Least favorite thing about being a chef: Friends and family being afraid to cook for a "chef." I'm really easy to please -- outside of work.

Your current obsession: My son! I can't get enough of him.

Your favorite drink and where you get it: A good gin and tonic [and I get it at] Bink's. Sorry to plug ourselves, but I don't currently have time to go anywhere else and ours is really good.

Three things that are always in your fridge: Pickles, lots of ethnic condiments, and adult beverages of some sort.

The last thing you watched/read:

Watched: Get Out Alive with Bear Grylls. I love adventure/outdoor shows.

Read: Setting the Table by Danny Meyer. It's a great required managerial read at Bink's -- all about how to improve our guests experience and better ourselves as hospitality agents.

Your catchphrase: Better, faster, stronger.

If you could go any where in the world tomorrow, it would be: Back to Spain, and this time with my family. It's gorgeous there and it has to be one of the best countries to eat in.

Check out our past Chef and Tell interviews with:

Marco, Jinette, and Edmundo Meraz - Republica Empanada Brian Peterson - Cork Brian Webb - Hey Joe! Filipino Street Food Lester Gonzalez - Cowboy Ciao Renetto-Mario Etsitty - Tertio German Sega - Roka Akor Marco Bianco - Pizzeria Bianco Brad and Kat Moore - Short Leash Hot Dogs and Sit...Stay

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