The reasons for celebration continue in Minnesota where Champagne flowed before the official announcement of a winner. Perhaps, patrons attending watch parties at the Handsome Hog in St. Paul and Pearl and the Thief knew the executive chef of both restaurants would dazzle “Iron Chef America’s” judges with his culinary mastery. “It was quite the experience, and I think everybody at home in Minnesota is pretty happy about it,” says Justin Sutherland, who grew up in the Twin Cities area.
The graduate of Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Atlanta beat the odds when he defeated Alex Guarnaschelli, an Iron Chef, Food Network star and executive chef of New York City’s Butter Midtown Restaurant. The two competitors and their teams went to battle in the July 8 episode with the secret ingredient, whole lamb. “It was a whirlwind. Finding out that I won was probably my favorite moment,” says Sutherland. “I was definitely surprised. I know challengers don’t win that often.”
The victory in Kitchen Stadium boosts Sutherland’s celebrity status and the number of people turning up at Handsome Hog and Pearl and The Thief to sample his expertise with whole animal cooking. He grew up watching the original “Iron Chef “produced in Japan as well as the American version on Food Network. “It was one of my favorite shows when I was a kid before being a chef was even something I thought I would do.”
Sutherland owns Pearl and the Thief with his partner, Joseph Pirri. He is also a partner at Handsome Hog. When the call came from the Food Network, he turned to two friends and fellow chefs to create a competition team. Brandon Randolph, chef de cuisine at the Pearl and Donald Gonzalez, culinary director of Madison Restaurant Group which includes Handsome Hog. “We had no idea what the ingredient would be,” says Sutherland. “But you go and practice different techniques and recipes; things that you could do regardless of what the ingredient was. We really focused on getting faster.”
With the 60 minutes on the clock rapidly ticking down, Sutherland and his team went to work on the whole lambs. The “In Diversity We Trust” hat the executive chef wore reflected his personal philosophies about people as well as his approach to animal butchery and cooking. “I wanted to show the versatility of it, show some of our butchery skills, and show ways to use everything from the bone marrow to liver to shanks and loins.”
In what Sutherland calls the fastest hour of his life, he and his team prepared lamb tartare, an African lamb samosa, a ramen dish with lamb meatballs and lamb heart, a Jamaican Jerk lamb steak, and curried lamb two ways. Judges Jonathan Waxman and Susan Feniger praised Sutherland’s flavors and presentations with the “world cuisine” dishes the executive chef based on his Japanese, Norwegian and African-American heritage. After defeating Guarnaschelli 40 to 35 points, Sutherland called his win an “absolute dream come true.” His competitor even commented that she had “actually learned from him.”
Like so many other incredible chefs, Sutherland began his culinary education in his grandmothers’ kitchens. His grandmother in Mississippi influenced his love of food with her traditional Sunday suppers. Despite his initial success as a head chef early in his career, Sutherland applied for a line cook’s job at Meritage, a fine-dining French restaurant with a stellar reputation. He wanted to learn all he could from the chef and owner, Russell Klein, whose high standards he admired. The years at Meritage taught him how to work under high-stress situations and more. “It taught me about having thick skin and not taking things too personally,” says Sutherland. “I learned how to always strive for perfection and try to make things the best. Nothing is perfect until it’s perfect.”
Achieving perfection these days means cooking on the line at both restaurants where he is executive chef at least once a week. He does all the menu development, manages the staffs and oversees the administrative duties. Sutherland uses the classic French techniques and fine-dining skills he acquired at Meritage to give the comfort food and barbecue at Handsome Hog a modern makeover. The most popular dishes, however, are the smoked beef brisket, chicken and waffles and shrimp jambalaya.
The #1 seller at the Pearl and the Thief is Tennessee Hot Octopus, a dish Sutherland created because of his love for Tennessee Hot Chicken. The Pearl serves coastal foods from the South, with oysters, seafood and whiskey as the focus. The chef and restaurateur is pleased with the reception his whole animal and Southern cooking receives from patrons. “I think in general, people are becoming a little bit more open to trying different things and being adventurous. A lot of chefs are pushing for that, and I think it’s pretty well received for the most part.”
When he is not in Minnesota managing his restaurants, Sutherland likes traveling to food shows and festivals. He is a regular at the multi-city Heritage Fire, a Cochon 555 food and wine event featuring live fire and whole animal cookery. The demands on his time make balancing the other aspects of life a little more challenging. It also influences his thinking on succeeding in the culinary professions. “You’ve got to make sure you love it. It’s not the kind of job or career that you can be half in,” says Sutherland. “It’s a lifestyle, and you’ve got to be ready to make some sacrifices and know that it is something you want to do.” One more bit of advice: find a chef or somebody who wants to take you under his or her wing, and learn as much as you can.