James Beard award-winning chef Justin Yu.

Image: Jenn Duncan

Justin Yu, one of Houston's James Beard award-winning chefs and the mind behind the restaurants Theodore Rex, Squable, and Better Luck Tomorrow, wears eyeglasses. That's his look.

But just before Yu interviewed with producers of the Nat Geo TV series Gordon Ramsay: Uncharted, he couldn't find his glasses. So he went without them. Then he decided that when it was time to shoot scenes with the celebrity chef for the season-three premiere—to air at 8 p.m. Monday on National Geographic—he probably should be consistent with what the producers saw.

"I ended up not wearing glasses the entire episode," Yu says. "I had to be the same guy!"

Call it attention to detail, or maybe it's the kind of constant tug-of-war with the brain that can come in handy for a chef—either way, it's what makes Yu a great foil for the intense and crisp Ramsay, who travels about the globe eating food and learning about cultures for the series. On the upcoming episode of Uncharted, Yu gives Ramsay a deeper look at our state's bounty.

"When people think of natural ingredients, they think of the Hudson Valley of New York and California, but I wanted to show how special Texas cuisine is," says Yu. "It's really hot and you sweat a bunch, but the products aren't any less special."

To that end, Yu and Ramsay help cut down a mesquite tree to use the wood for fuel. Then Ramsay hunts wild boar and herds cattle. And Yu isn't the only local chef to help Ramsay discover the flavors of Texas: Emmanuel Chavez, who works with maize under his brand Tatemó, shows Ramsay how to make masa.

"I was super excited that [Chavez] was part of this because I think he's definitely not just an up-and-comer chef, but he's already there and his product is great," says Yu.

There's another thing Yu says we should watch for: The chef is a notorious side better—Yu still owes Bobby Huegel a bar-back shift at Anvil Bar & Refuge for losing a fantasy football title—and makes one with Ramsay on the episode. 

Speaking of Huegel, Yu says he has some projects ongoing with his hospitality partner, but "nothing I can talk about right now." He can talk about the refreshed Theodore Rex, which came back recently after Yu yielded the spotlight to his talented chef de cuisine Kaitlin Steets for her spring pop-up, Littlefoot. (On Littlefoot, Yu says that after such a tough year for everyone in the industry, he was excited to "make sure she's making the type of impact she can.")

Rex looks and feels a little different than before. Yu says he's focusing on simplicity and intensity with the menu. While the layout of the dining room and kitchen is the same, the design is refined with special attention to textures, and some new artwork will make guests feel like it's a new phase for the restaurant.

"It's a more formal experience than T-Rex has ever been," says Yu. "It was built to be a bistro, but it's not that anymore."

Theodore Rex is now taking reservations. You can catch Yu on Gordon Ramsay: Uncharted at 8 p.m. Monday on Nat Geo. 

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