Bed Stuy’s Food Star

Published May 17, 2013

ABOVE: JUSTIN WARNER

Chef and television host Justin Warner endearingly refers to Do or Dine, his almost two-year-old Brooklyn eatery, as his baby restaurant. Warner is only 29 himself—when Alton Brown introduced Warner last year on his television show, Food Network Star (which Warner ultimately won), Brown jokingly asked if the fresh-faced contestant’s parental release forms were in order.

Warner and co-chef George McNeese teamed up with bartender Luke Jackson and partner Perry Gargano to open the “fine-diving” Do or Dine near his apartment in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. Success followed soon after. The restaurant, which takes its name from the neighborhood’s old “Bed-Stuy, Do or Die!” motto, has been honored by the Michelin Guide with a Bib Gourmand for “excellence on a budget” for two years running. Warner has appeared on 30 Under 30 lists for both Zagat and Forbes—and that was before he had his own television show, Rebel Eats, which debuted a one-hour special at the end of March.

Do or Dine is known for its unusual, pun-filled menu; a kaleidoscope of different cuisines and seemingly mismatched ingredients that somehow seem to strike the right balance. One cross-cultural crowd pleaser is the gyoza nachos, where frozen vegetable dumplings are fried and topped with salsa and other Mexican staples. According to Warner, “It’s the stuffed crust pizza of nachos, because even the nacho has a filling!”

It’s not the only dish that incorporates pre-made ingredients. “A lot of stuff we leave to the experts,” Warner says unapologetically. Their infamous doughnut employs Welches jam, doughnuts from neighborhood bakery Dough, and store-bought foie gras. Dessert is still a quartered Snicker’s Ice Cream bar, although Warner does dream of a cake of french fries magically suspended in a chocolate milkshake, or an especially squiggly funnel cake made using a Super Soaker.

This offbeat approach has worked well, although it has its managerial drawbacks. Before it received a liquor license, the restaurant was shut down by the cops for allowing patrons to bring in alcohol. Warner’s response: “Our goal is to make a fun restaurant. If you want to bring your bottle of Gevrey-Chambertin in, we are flipping honored. So we paid the fines!”

For the most part, however, Warner has been remarkably successful in balancing his two fledgling enterprises. Do or Dine’s decadent foie gras jelly doughnuts were one of the biggest draws of last year’s Great GoogaMooga food and music festival—Warner claims they sold 3.1 a minute during the busiest part of the day—and this weekend the restaurant will be back in Prospect Park for a second go around. New episodes of Rebel Eats will be forthcoming and Warner is clearly excited about future opportunities at the network. When we half-jokingly suggest he launch a social media campaign lobbying for a spot on the next All Stars’ edition of Chopped, Turner demurs. “I’m still the newbie of the network, so I just do what I’m told, which I guess isn’t very rebellious!”

SARAH CASCONE: This is the second year for the Great GoogaMooga, and despite some negative press for the inaugural edition, the festival once again has a huge line-up of restaurants. Are you looking forward to this weekend?

JUSTIN WARNER: I’m freaking stoked about GoogaMooga. I think it’s a great concept, and I can’t say enough about what wonderful things it’s done for Do or Dine. We were a baby restaurant when they invited us to participate last year. Now we’re a toddler; we wear pull-ups. Other restaurants didn’t seem to realize what 30,000 people meant—that’s more than a lot of places serve in a year. We planned for 3,000 doughnuts. You’re always going to have haters, especially in New York, but I think it’s one of the niftiest things that’s ever happened in Brooklyn.

CASCONE: Last year you were quoted in the New York Times article leading up to GoogaMooga as saying “Right now people collect tastes like they’re records.” There was some backlash on that front—some major foodie hate. Any thoughts?

WARNER: I think that anything that opens your mind is good. Tastes are a cool thing because they actually feed us. You hear people say “I’d die without music!” but you wouldn’t die, you’d just live a miserable existence. Food is something you actually would die without! What’s also cool is that a lot of people don’t realize that if food is your hobby and passion, there’s probably a rudimentary studio in which to experiment with it right where you live. It doesn’t have to be a gourmet kitchen, just a heat-producing element, a vessel to hold food in, and a spoon.

CASCONE: When did you first realize you had that passion for food?

WARNER: When I was 14 or 15 I started washing dishes, which I hated. I intentionally failed at it so that I could be promoted to busboy, which led to working front-of-house. I was just chasing upgrades in jobs at the time, and I wasn’t really into it for the food. I moved from Maryland to Colorado when I was 19 and started working in a sushi restaurant. One day the chef asked me to taste and identify this weird little ball of food. He couldn’t believe it when I guessed it was eggplant, since it was this strange, pickled micro-eggplant that looked totally bizarre. It was the first time I realized I have a knack for articulating and deciphering flavor and so from there I just wanted to be the greatest waiter alive.

CASCONE: So that’s why you worked for Danny Meyer?

WARNER: Absolutely. I read Danny Meyer’s book [Setting the Table: The Transforming Power of Hospitality in Business] and when I moved from Colorado to New York, I mailed a blind cover letter and resume explaining why I wanted to work for him. I got hired at the Modern, which for a kid from “the sticks” in Colorado was really kind of remarkable. I learned so much about service there. Meyer calls it enlightened hospitality, and it’s a true understanding how to make people happy. The high you get from making magical things happen for your customers is just one of the most addictive substances in the industry.

Once, Brooke Shields was getting the tasting menu with a big group of people. As we’re clearing the fourth course, which I guess was pretty small, she says something like “I’m a big girl, where’s my burger?” I ran to the kitchen and told the chef to send out the next course with cloches covering the plates, and to give me an extra cloche and an empty plate. I didn’t have time to explain why, but they went along with it. Then I ran to the dessert cart, and assembled this tiny “burger” from a macaron bun and cocoa nib tuile burger patties, with a slice of maraschino cherry for the tomato and mint leaves for lettuce. We did a big dramatic delivery where a bunch of waiters lifted all the cloches in once fluid motion, like synchronized swimming. Everybody has a nice plate of squab except Brooke. I turned to her and said “the chef was able to accommodate your request.” Everybody died laughing. The whole restaurant was staring at Brooke Shields just having the best time. We all went out for drinks afterwards, which was a blast, but the coolest thing was that she probably remembers that experience. Brooke Shields is constantly treated to the best things in life, so it means something to make an impression on her.

CASCONE: When did you decide to open your own restaurant?

WARNER:  I had been making lots of money selling pancakes outside a friend’s gallery in Williamsburg, and it seemed like I could make money on a restaurant. Two of my three business partners live in Bed-Stuy, and so do many of our friends who work in the industry. We figured either we were a totally inaccurate sampling of the neighborhood and we’d fail, or we’d be spot on and kill it.

Finally we just put down the beer glasses and shook on it. Because there was no money to hire a chef, George and I decided that we’d do it ourselves. The Modern had taught us the importance of flavor; that lobster and vanilla is awesome, lobster and tarragon is awesome, lobster and chamomile is awesome, chamomile and tarragon are awesome… That understanding was a good foundation, but we learned a lot as we went along. Before we owned the restaurant, we had not made our own mayonnaise—now that we know how to make mayonnaise, we’ve experimented with all sorts of crazy flavors. The best dishes happen when we screw something up and it turns into something else. Sometimes someone will make a joke and then it’ll turn into a dish. George is the best at coming up with these pun-based thing. I get a lot of the attention but George really is the work-horse of the place, and makes sure all the little things get taken care of.

CASCONE: Have you had any memorable kitchen failures?

WARNER: Well, I come up with a lot of dishes that we are technically incapable of. There was a really complicated cold, golden beet soup that involved filling little water balloons and dunking them in turmeric and salted white chocolate. They had to dry on a coat hanger in the walk-in so the chocolate would drip down to form a faux beet tail, and you had to handle them with gloves or the chocolate would melt… We’d fill them with hazelnuts and tiny melon balls, and pour the soup around it. The waiter would have to the smash it tableside for the diner, and it exploded goodness all over the place, which of course confounded the diners who thought it was a beet.  Ultimately, it was just too much work and it only lasted a week and a half. Plus, people don’t always appreciate chocolate in a savory course.

CASCONE: It’s true; I know I sometimes have a mental block about certain ingredients crossing over from sweet to savory. But let’s talk about your other big project: your television show. What is your Food Network Star mentor Alton Brown’s involvement in Rebel Eats? I hear he wasn’t able to produce it himself?

WARNER: When you win Food Network Star, the prize is usually six episodes of a daytime show shot in the studio. It’s the traditional “stand and stir,” and you can bang out a season in a week. I chose to do a show for prime time, which is very different. Shooting one hour of Rebel Eats was twelve days on the road. I don’t want drag Alton Brown around in the back of a minivan with spinning rims, all sweaty and eating pistachios—I mean, he’s dignified. Alton set me up with a great production company, Karga Seven Pictures, and helped me articulate my vision to them. They took all my crazy ideas (bringing a painting of Alton along for the ride, stuffing foie gras inside a peanut butter and jelly sandwich deep-fried in 100-year-old grease, ending the show with my own rap video…) and ran with them.

I asked to keep it unscripted with no takes, no staging of anything, no makeup and no wardrobe, all of which they offered me. It became me just seeing what other people were doing in their kitchens, and us turning it into a jam session. And if my foie gras peanut butter and jelly sandwich catches on fire and it’s an absolute failure, that’s great television. I think that two people cooking and having fun is always a good time.

For now, we’re thinking of continuing to make periodic specials. Maybe we’ll turn it into a series, but asking someone to watch an hour of television week after week after week with no plot is a little difficult. You can’t make Game of Thrones the food show.

CASCONE: Well they did make Game of Thrones the cookbook, so who knows? Do you have any favorite shows on the Food Network? What are your thoughts on Cupcake Wars? What bothers me is wondering what do they do with the 500 cupcakes that the loser baked—I really hope someone’s eating them!

WARNER: You haven’t seen the cupcake cannon? They actually fire them at North Korea! I’m kidding, but can you imagine? It would be better than propaganda, cupcakes raining from the sky and we’re like, “You’re welcome.”

CASCONE: We’re killing you with kindness.

WARNER: But seriously, I really believe in the transformative power of hospitality. Feeding people, serving people, saying, “I made this for you all I ask in return is that you enjoy it”? It’s actually a very intimate act if you think about it. What of mine other than my food are you gonna put in you right now? Yeah, right, let’s not go there.

GREAT GOOGAMOOGA BEGINS TODAY AND RUNS THROUGH SUNDAY, MAY 19 IN PROSPECT PARK IN BROOKLYN.