Travel tales: Justin James from Adelaide’s Restaurant Botanic
From Copenhagen to New York, the chef behind Australia’s best restaurant takes us on a journey worth biting into.
Adelaide is one of the country’s culinary powerhouses – a city bordered by premium wineries; its streets overflowing with rich, multicultural restaurants. And at its core, the iconic Adelaide Central Market, which has been a source of fresh local produce since 1869.
The city’s also home to Restaurant Botanic from Chef Justin James. Housed within a rotunda at the heart of Adelaide Botanic Gardens, the venue’s racked up an impressive list of accolades since mid-2021, as well as being named ‘Australia’s Best Restaurant’ in 2022.
What makes it so special? It’s both the experience and the food, with Chef James bringing the depth of Australian native ingredients to the forefront, plating up inventive flavour combinations from elements sourced locally and within the Gardens itself.
Native to Michigan and an Australian resident for eight years, he also loves to chat, making him a perfect choice for the second instalment of our Travel Tales Q&A series, in which well-known celebrities and personalities share their past adventures.
Travel and food go hand in hand. What are some of your favourite memories?
I know for a lot of people, including myself, you plan your trip for where you want to go eat. Whether it’s tasting menu restaurants or just local cuisine or street food. I don’t know how you plan a trip without thinking about what you’re going to eat.
Sometimes I love just going to as many two and three Michelin star restaurants that my belly can fit in, and my wallet can afford. Or sometimes it’s just digging deep into the local cuisine. Just hitting up the street food.
One of the more recent ones was travelling to Vietnam. The first time I went was in 2017 or 2018 and I just fell in love with the food. I’d had Vietnamese food plenty of times in the States, Australia and in Europe, but never straight from the source.
I was just blown away by the flavour, complexity, and simplicity of it. Their coriander, herbs, those aromatics that they put on the pho or a salad or the additions to bánh xèo… delicious.
Any restaurants or dishes you always return to?
I would definitely go back to is Frantzén in Stockholm. I dined there in 2018 and the fitout was incredible, the experience was incredible. But the hospitality was phenomenal. They made me feel like I belonged there, like I was part of the family.
Another restaurant I absolutely love is Eleven Madison Park in New York – and not just because I worked there for four years. It’s probably the hospitality that drives me back more than anything. Every time I go back to the States I want to go.
That said, last time I went the place I wanted to go to most was Mamoun’s Falafel, which is just a falafel joint off St Mark’s Place. Just because the flavour is so delicious.
Have any of your signature dishes been inspired by your adventures?
Street food is always a big inspiration. Something so humble can be absolutely delicious. Sitting on a milk crate on the street, eating out of a plastic bowl using chopsticks, and I’m like: ‘Wow, this is just so good. But what makes it so good?’
A good example would be a Korean fish soup. It can be very simple yet complex – made of fish cakes, seaweed and daikon, spring onions, chilli and dried anchovies – and served with the fishcake on a skewer over the top. It got me thinking about making a version with crocodile.
We’ve created that dish, but in a more botanic way – it’s about raw flavours, inspired by the Botanic gardens. Part of our restaurant experience is you eat things off rocks and bark and branches, you use your hands. It’s about bringing the Garden in through aroma, sound and touch, not just flavour.
Our crocodile dish is inspired by the Korean fish soup. It’s a broth made from crocodile and seaweed, which sits in a bowl with burnt branches from the garden. While it sits, it infuses with mushrooms, dried finger lime skins and fallen leaves from the pine trees.
Placed on top of that is a skewer of crocodile rib with lion’s mane mushroom brushed in a native XO sauce, which we make with lemon myrtle, quandongs and muntries. You eat the skewer first, then drink the broth through a bowl of branches.
That’s just one of 26 things that we have on the menu. That’s where the creativity is. I can say very humbly that there’s no one else serving food in that format or with those flavours.
What’s one dish that always makes you think of travel?
Tacos. Which makes me think of the States. I love cooking tacos and Mexican food. There’s a large Mexican influence on the culture in Michigan, where I’m from. A lot of them work in kitchens. They teach you to cook their food, and it just makes me think of travelling.
Growing up in the Midwest, it was quite safe food like mashed potatoes, grilled steaks, green beans and roast chicken with glazed carrots. So Mexican food, just like Vietnamese food, has flavour and personality. It’s bold. It’s got lots of coriander, lots of lime juice and herbaceous notes, and it’s spicy as well.
Those flavours get me thinking of travel, anywhere I go.
What’s your favourite gourmet destination in Australia and why?
One specific spot would be Brae Restaurant, about 90 minutes outside of Melbourne. I flew into Melbourne, went to the restaurant for lunch, stayed the night and then flew home the next day. They’ve created something really special, a destination.
My goal at Restaurant Botanic wasn’t to create a great restaurant, but an exceptional restaurant that brought people to Adelaide. I believe one restaurant can change a city.
If you look at Copenhagen and what’s happened over the last 20 years with Noma, it went from basically no-one knowing it as a foodie city to one of the biggest capitals of the world.
The reason for this is you now have a city that breeds this level of quality and creates an environment to learn. Then the sous chef goes and opens a restaurant, or the head chef, or the restaurant manager opens a wine bar.
Now it brings people from around the world to eat at Noma, and then all these other great restaurants – one and two Michelin stars – that serve so many different experiences.
Looking for culinary inspiration closer to home? Here are some other Australian dining experiences worth travelling for.
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