Justin Warner on His Restaurant’s Closure and the Allure of Celebrity Chefdom

“The easiest way to get a target on your back is to be a pioneer in anything.”

Last month, Do or Dine — Justin Warner’s four-year-old restaurant Do or Dine in Bed-Stuy — unexpectedly closed. This came as a total surprise, especially because it seemed like Warner’s star was only rising: His first book (The Laws of Cooking: And How to Break Them) comes out today, and after winning season eight of Food Network Star, he’s gone on to make new shows for the network.

Warner cites a few reasons for the closure, like the changing landscape of Bed-Stuy (Scratchbread closed this weekend, too), and financial concerns, but he’s not too choked up about it: He says, at this point, he’s more interested in pursuing a career in media, where he believes he can connect with a larger audience. It’s not that a second restaurant is out of the picture, it’s just that it’s not his end goal — or even how he defines success. Here, Warner explains:

So, what brought you to the decision to close Do or Dine? Was it something that you’d been thinking about for a while?
We opened Do or Dine because we realized it was the right time, at the right place, with the right people, with the right attitude, and getting all of those things together was difficult. That’s why most people don’t own restaurants. We didn’t really factor in that we needed the right money. We just figured any money would be fine, and then it was the same in closing. We all had the same attitude. We made a restaurant that, even after our death, was getting Bib Gourmand. People can say whatever about it, but me, as a person who had never cooked before, and to have a restaurant that brought Michelin to Bed-Stuy, was mission accomplished. There wasn’t much more that we could do.

And myself personally — TV stuff, book stuff aside — on the busiest freaking night, packed at Do or Dine, I could serve 90 people, and I could manipulate ever so slightly their relationship to food. But I can do something on Snapchat and reach thousands of people and do it with less stress, less sweat, less money, less of everything. It’s not so much about the easier route. It’s about the more effective route, for me. It’s more and more difficult to blow a New Yorker’s mind.

Now, what seems to blow people’s minds here is food that’s more simple and comforting. But of course, as a chef, you also want it to be interesting.
Yeah, I said since minute one at Do or Dine that all food is either interesting or comforting or bad. Obviously we’re not going to serve bad, so it’s about finding the line between interesting and comforting. We did that at Do or Dine. For example, our fish-and-chips dish wasn’t anything special: It’s a whole fried fish, and instead of tartar sauce, we take the mayo out, and use olive oil and yuzu as the acid, and then we make regular old French fries. What is interesting for people? They get to navigate a whole fried fish. But conversely, in that neighborhood, which has a lot of Caribbean influence, we basically made escabeche fish-and-chips, like a Jamaican dish.

So, oddly enough for the Jamaicans in the neighborhood and the Caribbean folk, the comforting thing for them was escabeche. The interesting thing for them was having fries with their escabeche, and also having yuzu in the mix. We were able to corner both sections of the market with a dish that was very easy for people to wrap their minds around.

Foie-gras doughnuts — same thing. Not everybody wants to try foie gras. The spoonful of sugar of doughnut helps the medicine freaking go down. Next thing you know, you’ve got kids, literally 8-year-olds being like, “This is my first time trying foie gras, Justin. Thank you, you’re amazing.” Those are the kind of people that I was trying to reach, and so by doing stuff like books and TV, I can serve … I mean the internet is now everywhere in America. I can serve food deserts, and I can serve people that actually deserve it, because they’re in need. Everybody works hard to get food. Everybody deserves to eat a foie gras doughnut if they can make the money to go buy it, but the people that need it more do not live in New York. New York is not a desert. New York is a food freaking Eden. So it’s more effective and, ultimately, more pleasing to me in my career to do stuff in media, because I can give to people who have nothing.

And what do you see yourself giving these people, specifically?
A fresh take. In my opinion, I’m a little bit of a Sherpa. On Twitter, for example, I talk about video games. I talk about Lego. I talk about food. And I think if you look at the vast majority of people that are associated with any major food or brand of chef-y type thing, the vast majority of it is 100 percent food-centered all the time, and it’s a little scary. It’s a little intimidating for someone who lives in Amarillo. Do you know what I mean? I trade Nintendo cards with people who I meet via Twitter. I’ve sent out six trades, and four of them were in Texas. So are they doing foie gras doughnuts in Texas? That’s a huge state. They would have to drive for miles and miles and miles to get something, and not everyone can live in Austin. Not everyone can go to some fancy restaurant in Dallas.

Would you open another restaurant?
Yeah. The previous Venn diagrams would have to apply, and it would have to be with the right money. I would also say that it would be with the right motive. The right time and right attitude and right people sounds like the right motive, but it’s not, because generally, to do anything entrepreneurial, the motive is to not work. The end goal is to not work or to create a machine that just runs.

So what’s your end goal?
My end goal is to … I don’t know. I think it’s to make some sort of — I don’t like saying art, because I don’t know. I’m not an artist. When people say that art is simply something that’s designed with the intent of giving you a reaction … I look at a restaurant as edible art, 3-D, time, space, I don’t know. That’s it. You don’t commission an artwork because you think it’s going to make you tons of money. You commission it because it’s art, right? But unlike art, if you don’t like your food, or it elicits a reaction that is not positive, you ask for your money back or you complain to someone.

Or you never go back, and then the restaurant closes.
You go to a movie. You didn’t like that movie? Sorry. You buy a book. What are you going to do? Return it because you didn’t like it?

That ties into this whole struggle for control between chefs and diners. Who gets to call the shots? It was chefs for a while, but now it’s shifting back to diners.
It’s tough. In the early days of Do or Dine, we were just focused on staying alive. We were actually less focused on profits, you know? That was, to me, the heyday of the restaurant. It was probably a misstep in the grand scheme of things. We made a lot of mistakes that we shouldn’t have, but at the same time, we changed a little bit of Brooklyn. We changed a little bit of dining. We poked fun at people who needed to be poked fun at, and trends that needed to be poked fun at, and we got in trouble when we should’ve gotten trouble.

Let’s talk about your work on the Food Network. There are of course benefits to becoming a public personality, and it seems like you’ve been able to be yourself on television. But have you found that work limiting, or distracting?
The lucky thing is that I didn’t do television until I was on Food Network Star, and Food Network Star is a proving ground. What it proves is fake versus authentic. About halfway through each season of Food Network Star, you will see that people that get eliminated are either terrible cooks, and they’re faking their ability to cook, or they’re faking their personality. A lot of people think that being on television is acting. You don’t have to be acting … It was a game to me, and I played it how I would play a game, and that’s it.

Do you feel like, being a part of the Food Network family, you’re excluded from aspects of the New York chef scene? Are they mutually exclusive circles?
I feel like I’m one of the few people that can kind of straddle it, you know? I can go to Mission Chinese and if Danny [Bowien] is there, he says, “What’s up?” I feel like he’s definitely not interested in pursuing a Food Network career, and I love that guy’s work. Can I hang with the cats that do Vice stuff? Yeah. If people are throwing shade, maybe I’m immune to it.

Well, it’s a different way of defining success.
Trust me, I’ll have a couple drinks, see some chef’s success, and be like, “Eh that ol’ boy’s club. Darn them.” Or something that I’m working on won’t get coverage in a certain outlet, and I’m like, “Ah, crud. They have their own agenda.” I don’t take those things to heart.

But now that you have this moment without a restaurant, what do you want to do?
To be honest, I’d love to take a little bit of a breather. I hit the ground running in New York when I got here. I haven’t really had a break since. I’ve lived a better life than a lot of people, and it’s a very miraculous story that I was able to work in the service industry, and then out of nowhere, I open my own place and jump into TV. Some people would say that’s cushy, but I wasn’t living the dream. I was working the dream. I’d really just like to kind of take a minute and not do anything.

I know this sounds really psycho-babble, but I’d really like to just talk to myself for a minute. The moments where I’m by myself, playing Nintendo with my Lego collection, that’s where I have the moments that made the foie gras doughnut, and the crazy fish-and-chips. It’s that guy.

I need to get a little uncomfortable. Believe it or not, the restaurant, as great as it was, you make a machine that is repetitive and that breeds comfort, and comfort never breeds creativity. I’m at my best and worst when I’m alone, when I’m not participating in something. That’s when I get itchy. So who knows?

I’d love to have a kid and make a daddy blog. I really would … I’d make food, and talk about what it’s like to have to navigate whatever gigs and jobs I have, and what’s it like to stay home while my wife manages a restaurant. I actually think that we’re at a time and place where men are craving these opportunities. Maybe it’s like man-bun culture, but it’s, like, cool. If you look at the evolution of what it means to be “male” — which, I hate that term — but it was only like 12 years ago when the term metrosexual was created, and now we’ve explored gender so much. The time is right to be able to do whatever I want and put it on the internet.

Or do a show with it.
Or do a show with it. I don’t know what would be more entertaining than, like, trying to raise a kid and change the food-scape of South Dakota. South Dakota is where my wife’s from, and it’s constantly rated as one of the most decrepit food states ever. But at the same time, a lot of people don’t know that the vast majority of wheat — semolina that goes into pasta and is labeled “made in Italy” — is grown in America, in that grain belt.

Do you think you’re going to actually leave New York?
I’d love to, eventually. But I’m not saying I’m done with New York.

More and more chefs are saying that.
I’ve always described New York as a giant broom. You constantly have to dodge the bristles. If you don’t dodge the bristles, it will send you back to wherever the hell you came from. So you do this dance, and figure out how to dodge the bristles. I feel like the people who don’t do the dance are the people who were born here and stay here.

If anything, especially in the age of social media, it’s easier than ever to become a big-name chef without having to hustle in New York.
Listen, when I say I’d love to go to South Dakota, a tiny motivating factor for me is: What are they going to do? I could get a weird award for Best Chef in the North Midwest. For being the only one. Not to discount all of the people who are there doing incredible things. The arrogant chef in me casually thinks, Why not go to the middle of nowhere and do whatever I can? It’s so du jour to use local ingredients, but it’s so weird to me that chefs trumpet that. It’s not a concept. It’s a freaking moral obligation. The second you advertise the brand of your meat … That’s why Bed-Stuy was very difficult starting out, because we wouldn’t use all of that stuff. We had to keep things cheap, so when we needed Cornish hens, we’d use Tyson. Would I love to do an artisanal Cornish hen? Yes. But should I sell chicken and waffles for $18?

Did you feel that the locals in Bed-Stuy ever fully embraced your food?
When we opened, the locals were on our side. As the neighborhood changed, it became what I like to call, “Stay in my condo and get Seamless.” When we opened, there was one taco shop, and it was like eight blocks away. Now, in that same radius of eight blocks, there are 12, I kid you not, 12 taco places. All of these places are doing something that I consider to be a transplant food. Like, people who have transplanted into New York like tacos … I feel like we became a restaurant that was the ‘fancy’ restaurant. Before, we were the only restaurant.

How do you think your role on television — and Do or Dine becoming a “celebrity-chef”-driven restaurant — impacted its success?
The summer I won Food Network Star, we’d have a bunch of people show up at the door at six. And we were like, “Whoa. What is this early-bird special?” And then we found out, “Oh, they’re from Oklahoma. This is a part of their trip.” It was this beautiful thing. Of course, we would get Yelp reviews that would hate on me because I was on television. You know Bobby Flay is one of the smartest men in food. He recently said, “Listen, man, keep your restaurant, always, because that is your temple.”

With Gato, I think people almost wanted to dislike it, because he had a target on his back. But then it was a good restaurant.
This is a guy who made a show called Beat Bobby Flay … The easiest way to get a target on your back is to be a pioneer in anything. Because people are after you.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Justin Warner on His Restaurant’s Closure and the Allure of Celebrity