We're back with the second part of our interview with chef Justin Olsen of Bink's Midtown. Today, we get the story about how he landed a job with chef Jose Andres at his center for culinary experimentation, minibar in Washington, D.C. He also shares the one thing he wants you to know about Bink's Midtown and why he loves working with chef Kevin Binkley. If you missed the first part of the interview, in which Olsen told us about why this Texas-born chef loves his veggie-centric menu, you can double back and read it here.
It was just about two years ago when Olsen says he found himself caught in a whirlwind of events that had him interviewing with James Beard Award-winning chef Jose Andres for a position at his Washington, D.C., restaurant minibar. He was working with Kevin Binkley at Binkey's Restaurant at the time, when his current boss set him up with the once in a lifetime chance.
"It was intimidating," Olsen admits about his interview with Andres and a handful of the chef's higher-ups. "He asked he after the interview if I ever smiled."
But the experience wasn't intimidating enough to prevent him from getting the job, and a week later, he was driving across the country to start at the new gig. He didn't have a place to live before he set off, but it would turn out to be quite a formative experience for the young chef.
"That's his baby," Olsen explains about minibar. "He likes to call [the employees] his delta force."
And it's pretty clear why. The restaurant offers a one-of-a-kind dining experience in which three chefs craft more than a dozen small courses for just six diners at a time. There are only two seatings five nights a week. The restaurant also doubles as Andres' center for research and development, where chefs try, test, and perfect ideas that get used throughout the Andres culinary empire.
"It was a really awesome experience," Olsen says. "You just learn on a different caliber. I'm really grateful to Kevin for getting it for me."
Being a part of that elite team of chefs meant getting in on some other pretty incredible experiences too. Like traveling to Las Vegas to help open new spots and to New York to help put on James Beard House dinners. It also meant working side-by-side with Andres at times; Olsen describes him as passionate, energetic and hands-on.
"He'll just squeeze behind the bar," Olsen recalls. "Once you get to know him, he's a pretty talkative guy."
As much as he seems to have been enjoying the job, Olsen and his pregnant wife (who's also a pastry chef) decided they wanted to be closer to their family in Arizona. So the couple packed up their bags and headed back to the Valley to rejoin their relatives -- and Olsen's job with chef Binkley in Cave Creek. Olsen stayed at Binkley's Restaurant for another 10 months before he left to take the reins at Bink's Midtown.
Though the name on the door might not be his own, Olsen calls Binkey's eatery his "baby."
"For [Kevin] to entrust me with his is huge," he says. "He's not intrusive, so in the end, this is my baby to run. If it's going to be successful, I'm going to be successful."
Over the few months since opening Olsen says, he's been fine-tuning things at the new spot and learning about himself as a leader. This is his first time taking control of some duties, things like hiring, firing, ordering, and more. It's been overwhelming at times, but he says he's starting to feel more and more comfortable each day.
The seasonally influenced menu will change as produce availability changes and highlights the offerings of local producers. And though he says he's taking some cues from the type of extravagant fine dining he practiced with Andres and Binkley, at Midtown he says, "We're not trying to do anything crazy."
The best thing about working with Kevin Binkley: The fact that we both can act like who we really are: 16-year-old boys trapped in adult bodies.
One thing you would want people to know about Bink's Midtown: We are still very young as a business. We're not perfect, but we strive to be better every day, for ourselves and for our patrons. We are very proud to have made it into Phoenix.
National/international chef you admire and why: Jose Andres. He was a great boss and mentor. He's got a huge personality, but it;s genuine, and he cares so much about other people. I hope one day I can have the impact, and do the kind of good he does for the world.
The best thing you've eaten in the last year: I have no idea where to begin. I'm spoiled when it comes to good food.
One thing the Phoenix food scene is doing well: Vegetables. Our farmers are really upping their game.
The food trend you're totally over: Huge portions.
Bacon is . . .delicious, and tattooed on my body.
A "foodie" is...either a restaurant's best friend or worst enemy. We really like when they're our friends!
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Best piece of advice you've ever gotten: Don't be stagnant and don't get too comfortable.
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