Take Five with Chef Justin Simoneaux of the Boxing Room, Who Proves You Can Take the Boy Out of Louisiania, But Not Louisiana Out of the Boy
Executive Chef Justin Simoneaux wears his heart on his sleeves.
His tattoo sleeves to be exact.
Take a close look at the artwork on this 27-year-old’s arms and you’ll understand what’s near and dear to this chef of San Francisco’s Boxing Room.
On the right arm of this Southern Louisiana native is a tiny front-page of the New Orleans Times-Picayune. That’s accompanied by all the makings for a crawfish boil (potatoes, crawfish and crab) and the Cajun ”holy trinity” of onion, bell peppers and celery.
On his left arm is the cityscape of New Orleans, the bayou and gravestones of dearly departed ones.
At the Boxing Room, part of the Absinthe Group of restaurants in San Francisco, Simoneaux cooks up the food of his beloved Louisiana: gumbo, deep-fried alligator, Southern fried chicken, and duck and sausage jambalaya. Before that, he honed his skills in Mediterranean cuisine at Coco500 in San Francisco, and the Moss Room at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco.
Last week, I had a chance to sit down with him to talk about how his roots and his upbringing (his mother was only 18 when she gave birth to him) have influenced his career, which started when he took a job as a dishwasher at age 15 at a restaurant near his high school.
Q: Are you cooking the food of your childhood here?
A: It’s the food I grew up eating, but I’m using my training to better the recipes. Don’t tell my Mom and Grandma I said that.
Q: You learned how to cook from them?
A: In Louisiana, everything centers around food. My Mom and Granny made gumbo and stews. My grandfather boiled crawfish and did a lot of grilling. I’d always be like, ‘Ooh, what is that smell?’ I was intrigued from an early age.
Q: Did you always know you wanted to be a chef?
A: When I worked as a dishwasher, then as a line cook, I just fell in love with the adrenaline and energy. I came out here for culinary school (California Culinary Academy) with the intention of going back to Louisiana afterward. But I’ve been here seven years now and love it. I feel like I have two homes now.
Q: When you go back to Louisiana to visit, is there something you just make a beeline for that you’ve just got to eat first?