Justin Yu: the new chef at The Whole Ox Butcher and Deli
The Whole Ox Deli just celebrated its one-year anniversary with a new chef at the helm, Justin Yu. Bob McGee, the former chef, is no longer with the Ox, and he plans on spending some time away from the kitchen, getting more involved in agriculture and "working closer with the farmers and ranchers," he says.
Yu is 34, New York born and raised, "from the projects in Coney Island," he says. He spent the last few years working at some of San Francisco's and the Bay Area's top restaurants: Quince, Michelin-starred Commis and Hawker Fare. He was on his way to stage in Australia and The Willows Inn on Lummi Island, but a Craigslist ad for chef de cuisine at The Whole Ox caught his attention. He's been in Hawaii for about three weeks. And he sure as hell isn't afraid of change.
Ox regulars will immediately notice the difference in prices (the $11 burger is now $16, though it may ease up a bit soon), the change in recipes (that burger tastes a little different now), and a more refined dinner menu with scaled back meat portions. All the breads for the sandwiches are now made in house. Even the mayonnaise is now made from scratch (though that doesn't require 30-plus hour shifts from the pastry team like the bread does).
He's 86ed foie gras from the menu, citing a contradiction of serving humanely-raised, grass-finished beef topped with foie.
"The Whole Ox represents sustainability in Hawaii," Yu says. "Using whole animals in a responsible and sustainable way—that's what I see going forward." Yu's not into "slapping the Shinsato Farm name" on the menu. He says he's more interested in creating superior pork by purchasing a pig at suckling rather than at slaughter, so that he can work with Glenn and Amy Shinsato to develop a more local feed (rather than the current imported grain) and ultimately, more flavor in the pork. (If we're honest with ourselves, Shinsato Farm pork does not taste so different from some Mainland imports.) He's already started the process with Shinsato. Whereas McGee is stepping away from the kitchen to spend more time with producers, Yu is using his new position as chef at The Whole Ox to become more involved with Hawaii ag.
When I called Yu about the future of the Ox, I expected a five-minute soundbite. Instead, I got an hour-long manifesto on sustainability and agriculture in Hawaii, on the new culinary guard, and that "People don't like change too quick ... but Hawaii needs to change now."
But is it that people don't like change or they don't like Yu's changes? It's too early yet to tell, but there are certainly disappointments voiced on Yelp and among Ox regulars.
But bringing the Ox back to the way McGee ran it is not on Yu's broad-reaching, lofty to-do list. Yu says, "If all people want is Bob back, I feel really sorry for the Hawaii food scene."
The Whole Ox Butcher and Deli, 327 Keawe St., 699-6328, wholeoxdeli.com