Down Under Delicacies: Meet a Metro Detroit Chef Making Waves in the Australian Food Scene

On the other side of the globe, a metro Detroit native uses his culinary talents to make incredibly unique dishes.
Illustration by Rachel Idzerda

Sitting in his Office in a hundred-year-old building in the center of a botanical garden on the other side of the world, chef and metro Detroit native Justin James is sharing how he ended up there.

After a career in some of the highest-rated restaurants in the world, he’s now chef of Restaurant Botanic in Adelaide, Australia — called “a revelation” by The Australian, which gave it a five-star review, and named South Australia’s Restaurant of the Year by Gourmet Traveller, among other accolades — and stretching his culinary creativity to the max.

Sitting in the middle of a 51-hectare botanical garden, the restaurant is designed to feel like it’s an extension of its surroundings, from its decor to its menu.

With a special agreement with the Adelaide Botanic Garden to harvest from the garden, James and his team use the gathered ingredients to make the restaurant truly unique — on and off the menu.

Speaking with Hour Detroit in the Australian autumn, he mentions that leaves are scattered on the floor of the restaurant, bringing the feeling of being out in the garden indoors.

Then there’s the food, influenced not only by the garden but by Australian culture.

James’ “Garden Trail” menu features ingredients foraged from the Botanic Garden, such as the paperbark in which abalone is smoked with boab, Geraldton wax, and sea urchin hot sauce.

James says he emulates a technique taken from Aboriginal culture, using the bark of the paperbark tree to “wrap fish, throw it in the fire with steam in there,” he says. “It comes out to the guests in the bark, and you open it up.”

James grew up in Oxford, Michigan, and always loved cooking. By the time he was 13, he was cooking his family’s entire Thanksgiving meal. He went to college unsure about what to study and took classes in engineering before deciding to follow his true passion and attending the New England Culinary Institute in Vermont.

From there, his career skyrocketed. He was quickly working at high-end New York restaurants like Blue Hill, which has been named among the 50 best restaurants in the world. After that, he made his way to other fine-dining restaurants in Arizona and Florida before deciding that to be a truly great chef, he needed to travel.

“Well, where’s the farthest place in the world?” he remembers asking himself. He chose Australia in part because his dad had traveled there. He was also chasing down other restaurants on that top-50 list and knew of one in Melbourne: Attica. He got a job there and within nine months was the executive chef. He later moved to Copenhagen to work at Noma, once rated the best restaurant in the world, but after about a year, he started to miss that laid-back Australian lifestyle.

That led him to Restaurant Botanic in 2021, where he’s letting his curiosity and creativity wild and, it seems, having the time of his life.

Learn more about his passion for food and how he got where he’s at through this Q&A with Hour Detroit:

Let’s start basic: Why do you love food so much?

James: With cooking, there’s that idea of being really creative. There are five tastes on
the tongue: salty, sweet, sour, umami, and bitter. How [do] you balance those out? Like Sour Patch Kids, they’re sweet and sour. Coffee with sugar in it is bittersweet. So there are all these little things that you can really just start playing with.

Then you’ve got temperature and texture. You can add freshness or rawness, spiciness. It’s an endless possibility to create something new.

That’s one, but two, we all need to eat. And there you can have instant gratification — most of the time, hopefully [laughs]. Somebody eats it and smiles or is like, “Wow, that was delicious.” There are not many things in the world where you can get that kind of feedback right away.

You’ve used that creativity to come up with some unique dishes. Can you talk about that?

James: Bunya bunya is a native pine tree, the world’s largest pine tree. Therefore, it creates the world’s largest pine cone. They fruit every three years. I’ve been here for
a year, still waiting for the pine cones to fruit. But I’m stepping over these dead branches and saying, “Hell, surely these have flavor.” So I picked up all the branches and made ice cream with [them]. We set the ice cream of dead branches on the dead branch, and then you eat [it].

And … what does that taste like?

James: It’s like rich mahogany. A roasted chestnut flavor is the best way I can describe it. It’s just f—ing delicious.

You’ve traveled all over the world as a chef. Why choose Australia?

James: It’s beautiful to live here. The lifestyle is very good. It kind of has this slow pace. And then I looked at the restaurant — it’s in the middle of botanic gardens — and I was like, “This is a world-class setting. All it needs is someone to spearhead it.”

How does being an outsider to Austra- lia with its unique flora and fauna af- fect how you prepare food?

James: People come in and say, “Hell, no one’s even thought about using the branches
the way you’re doing it.” I think the way I would describe it is, people that are here kind of have blinders … and I’m like, “Wow, these are new flavors and things I’ve never tasted,” and I’m just using my past experiences, obviously professionally but also personally, to create new ideas. I think it gives me an upper edge sometimes being an outsider coming in.

And I mean, how fun is that?

James: It’s pretty fun.

This story is from the September 2022 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. Read more in our digital edition.