Few likely know the idea of farm to table better than new Blue Jacket chef Justice Neal. Neal, after all, went from farm to table himself, having grown up on 40 acres near Beloit.
Recently, Neal, who served as the restaurant’s sous chef after having worked briefly in Chicago, was promoted to replace departing chef Matt Kerley, who had run the kitchen at Blue Jacket since 2013.
One of Neal’s first moves was to immediately launch a new menu -- one that stays true to Blue Jacket's Great Lakes and farm to table mission, but that veers a little more toward comfort food, too.
We decided it was time to check in with him about his work in the kitchen: past, present and future.
OnMilwaukee.com: Tell us about your background, where you're from, how you got into cooking, your experience in the kitchen, etc.
Justice Neal: I was born and raised in the small town of Beloit. I grew up on 40 acres of land. I have a big family; growing up in that setting has had a lot to do with why I got into cooking. The homemade meals my mother cooked inspired me to want to make people happy through my food. I worked in Milwaukee from 2009 to ‘12 and in that time I met and worked with Chef Matt Kerley.
At the end of 2012 I made the move to Chicago, where my career really took off. I worked for Chef Bill Kim at Belly Q and Chef Ben Sheegren at Hopleaf. These three chefs have really put me where I am today.
OMC: Congratulations on your promotion. You've got a new menu already; tell us a bit about it.
JN: Yes, Vinny and I put out our menu last Friday! I feel like our menu represents the heart of the Midwest, with just a little twist. We tried our hardest to create simple, elegant dishes that represent not only Blue Jacket, but also us as chefs. The poussin, for example, is something that I grew up eating all the time; the fig puree and cider gastrique are the twist I put on it. When I see that dish it screams "family dinner at my parents' house" to me.
OMC: What's your philosophy going forward in terms of style at Blue Jacket? Will you stay the course in terms of the Great Lakes focus?
JN: I plan on focusing on the Great Lakes while adding my element of comfort to it. I want people to experience greatly sourced products and plates of food that really wow them, but also be able to leave here feeling like they just left family dinner at mom's house.
OMC: What do you like most, and least, about your job?
JN: The thing I like most about it is that I get to express myself through my work and make diners happy. The worst... There is not that much I don't like about my job, but if I had to choose, I would say the amount of hours we work.
OMC: What are favorite restaurants in Milwaukee?
JN: Odd Duck and Ardent at the moment.
OMC: Do you have a favorite cookbook?
JN: My favorite book would be (Marco Pierre White’s) "Devil in the Kitchen," and cookbook would be "Heston Blumenthal at Home."
OMC: Do you have a favorite TV or celebrity chef?
JN: Not really, I try to stay away from TV.
OMC: What's been the biggest development in the culinary arts over the past 10 years?
JN: I would say the molecular side of cooking. I feel like a lot of people have tried to image what they did at El Bulli. And if you are able to do that you can really enhance the dining experience.
OMC: What kitchen utensil can't you live without?
JN: My tweezers or my Grey Kuhns spoons.
OMC: What's the next big trend in food?
JN: I don't know, that's a tough question. I guess I don't pay much attention to that. Trends come and go, whereas good solid food will be around forever.
OMC: What's the toughest day / night to work in the restaurant biz?
JN: For me it's Saturday. That's the last day of my work week, so it's the toughest to get through -- yet usually the most fun!
OMC: What is your favorite guilty dining pleasure?
JN: Any place that has a great dessert program! (Laughs) If I find a restaurant with good desserts I will most likely have to be dragged from the place.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in an episode of TV's "Party of Five," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.