Executive Chef Justin Womack of Philly's Del Frisco's Grille
I’ve always had a strong love for food. Food makes me happy. I’ve also been curious about the people behind the food, the people who create the masterpieces that are presented to us on a plate. I enjoy hearing their stories and I enjoy being able to tell their stories. I’ve had the opportunity to sit down and talk to another talented chef in Philadelphia. I’d like to introduce Executive Chef Justin Womack of Del Frisco’s Grille.
Please share with our readers where you’re from.
I was born in New Jersey and I grew up in Delaware. I’m the first generation of my family here, my family is from Trinidad.
Do you know how to cook Trinidadian food?
I can cook a lot of Trinidadian food, that’s what I grew up on. That’s kinda what got me started. My aunties, my father, my step father, they got me started. I come from a big family. I have four brothers and six sisters. At one point, there was a lot of us in the house. If there wasn’t any food, I had to find my own food and make it. When everyone was looking for theirs, I was over the pot making sure I got mines first. I was always moving around in the kitchen.
When did you realize you wanted to become a chef?
At an early age, I definitely knew I wanted to be in the restaurant business. If I had to go back and think about it, I would say around the age of eight or nine years old. That’s when I was able to go to the oven and put hot sauce and barbecue sauce on chicken. I was in the kitchen a lot with my grandmother. Anytime she was on the pot, I was there. I also was a greedy kid, I was always hungry! I always wanted to find some food. I grew up in church, my mother always went to church. We would go to church events and they would always call me the meat man. I wouldn’t want any sides, all I wanted was meat. Until this day when I go back to Jersey, everyone still calls me the meat man. So that as my nickname growing up. I also love the feeling that food brings to everybody. I love the celebration that comes with food. Everyone is usually happy around food. But yes, I realized it very early on in my life that I wanted to be in the restaurant business.
I previously read on another blog that you went to school for early childhood education. I also read you very much enjoy being able to train in the kitchen. Since you have a background in early education, have you thought about teaching cooking classes for the youth in the future?
Yes, I did go to school for early childhood education and yes I love training. I would absolutely do that, absolutely. I watched shows like the kids edition of Next Great Baker. Long term goal when I get to a spot where I retire, I will always want to be indulged in some type of growth. I’m all about growth. People show me things and I always want to show people things. I train adults, but I would also love to train kids. I would love to give them that avenue to show them how things work in real life within the culinary industry. When I worked in Delaware, I was able to bring about 40 kids into the kitchen to experience a whole day with me. I’m all for that, I would love to work with kids. I’m all for education and being able to work with them. They keep you young!
Tell me about your culinary background before joining Del Frisco’s Grille.
Before joining Del Frisco’s and culinary school, I had a food truck that did catering. So I had that entrepreneurial experience. I love food and I know how to cook, but I didn’t understand the business. When I was in culinary school, I was required to complete a certain amount of hours to graduate. I had to work for company to obtain those hours. I worked for Brio, it’s an Italian concept. I ended up getting my hours and I didn’t go back to school. I didn’t go back because I learned so much more inside of the kitchen. I had a ton of hands on experience. There also was a lady named Connie Collins who showed me a whole lot of different avenues and how to be successful in the restaurant business. I stayed with Brio for a while and I did some training and development with them. If a chef was down, I would go and help them out. After working with them, one of my general managers actually came to Del Frisco’s. I later came here but that was pretty much the only other restaurant I’ve worked for prior to Del Frisco’s Grille.
What do you enjoy most about working at Del Frisco’s grille?
I really enjoy the people, I’m a people person. I really enjoy the fulfillment that I get from seeing people come to work happy. I enjoy the fulfillment that I get from seeing guests come in and leaving happy. If something’s not right, I’m all about understanding the imperfection of things and willingness to correct them. I really enjoy the culture that we have. This is a people come first company. I believe that it’s just as important to take care of your people on the inside as much as you take care of your guests. If your people are happy, they take care of the business. I believe happy people make and promote great business. You can go to any restaurant and have some good food. But this company itself, they really take care of their people. I appreciate that about this company.
What are your favorite ingredients to work with?
I’m from the islands, so I like to play with those type of ingredients. But as far as the ingredients we play with here, I love the freshness. All our products are fresh, nothing is frozen here. We butcher our steaks in-house every single day. Everything here is 100% made from scratch. We recently added a dish to our menu, the Mediterranean shrimp bowl with turmeric rice. It’s an awesome dish. I like it because turmeric has a lot of health benefits. I like that we’re trying to offer some healthier options. Right now I’m enjoying being able to work with turmeric because it’s an ingredient that has so many health benefits. I don’t really have a certain amount of ingredients that I specifically like to work with, there’s such an array of them. It’s never ending. I’m inspired by something fresh and new everyday.
Describe the perfect dish?
A perfect dish is something we kinda started out with here. If you want to start with an appetizer, I would go with our signature cheesesteak egg rolls. They’re made with American cheese, we chop our own steak and cook it down, we add a few secret ingredients and it’s drizzled with a honey mustard that we make in-house. That would be an amazing start to a perfect meal. Next, I would go with one of our steaks. I would go with an 8oz filet cooked medium and pair it with our truffle mac n’ cheese. It’s also made in-house. It’s tossed with three different cheeses. It’s topped with truffle, thyme and breadcrumbs that we make in-house as well. After that, dessert would be our lemon cake. It’s a six layer cake and it’s REALLY nice. It’s served at room temperature and it just melts in your mouth. That would be my perfect start to finish meal here. Oh, and you gotta add a Manhattan! We have a great one!
If you could collaborate with any chef in the world, who would it be?
If I can pick someone who’s not presently here today, it would be Anthony Bourdain. He had a very unique mind. I loved the way he looked at food and what it was about. They way I grew up, food was a celebration. It brought people together. I loved how he showed what food was all about. I loved how he made it about the family culture and where food comes from. He would be one person I’d choose. I also like Bobby Flay. I love his restaurateur mind. I love how he understands both sides of the business. Some chefs just want to cook. I’m inspired to understand the entire business inside and out. He truly inspires me in that aspect.
What’s one fun fact about you that you’d like to share with our readers?
I’m kinda into cartoons. I like old school cartoons. If I’m not watching cartoons, I’m watching the Food Network or Sports Center. I like cartoons, I’m a big kid. I have a sixteen year old and a twelve year old. I’m a big kid and I like to have fun. When I have some downtime, I just like to relax. I like to do things that don’t trigger my mind in a negative way. Cartoons are fun, they don’t make me mad (laughs). There’s nothing wrong with a little Rugrats or Recess once in a while!
What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned throughout your culinary career?
Outside of consistency being key, I learned that without a strong team, or strong locker room, you can’t be successful. I’ve had some very good success, especially at this location. We have a very strong locker room. When I say locker room, I mean the management side of things. We have great leaders, we don’t have bosses. We have people here that are willing to coach and develop the next group of people that come up. I learned that you have to really take pride in your people and make sure that your people are good. Then they’ll take care of the business. Some people say take care of your business. I believe that if you take care of your people, they’ll do all the right things to keep everything going. If you just worry about the money, they’ll feel that strain. The biggest lesson I’ve learned from the beginning until now is to make sure the people that work with you don’t feel like they’re working for you.
Photo by photographer Bruce Loatman