Justin Bruhl grew up in Massachusetts and worked in Boston for years before moving to New Orleans. Here, he’s cooked at Compere Lapin and Maypop and started his Matchbook Kitchen pop-up at Barrel Proof, where he serves a primarily Asian menu Saturday through Monday. He’s preparing a five-course tasting dinner at Mister Mao on Wednesday, May 17. In June, he’ll do a collaborative event with Nashville-style hot chicken pop-up Daddy Hot Bird. For more information, visit @matchbookkitchen on Instagram.
Gambit: How did you get into cooking?
Justin Bruhl: I got into cooking when I was a kid. My mom was a really good cook. She was half Japanese and she took us to Chinatown and all the cool stores, and I knew what a dumpling was at a young age. I always had something in the back of my mind about food. I didn’t think about it as a profession until I was in high school. That’s when it really started.
Almost all my professional career happened in Boston. I worked at Babbo, which was a Mario Batali restaurant. I spent a lot of time in the North End at a fine dining Italian spot. I spent four years with the Franklin Group, which is Citizen Public House and Franklin Southie.
When I turned 30, I moved to New Orleans for various reasons. I started off at Compere Lapin and was there for a year. I came in without knowing there was such an awesome pop-up scene. I knew it was more open than Boston, where you can’t do a damn thing. That was one of the bigger reasons I moved. It was between Chicago and New Orleans. That was the very beginning of 2016. I drove through the blizzard that ripped apart New England to get out.
Gambit: How did you start Matchbook Kitchen?
Bruhl: I did my first thing for myself in Boston. It was a now-defunct startup where you would go on this site and click on what chef you wanted to come to your house and cook either a family-style dinner or a tasting. As a cook, you’d put a prix fixe there. You’d need a three or four course menu and a five to seven course. People could click on the menu and your schedule. I’d put up my days off, because I was a full-time sous chef. I got my feet wet. I was like, I can make money for myself.
When I came to New Orleans, I wasn’t thinking about that quite as hard as having to re-network myself. When I started at Compere Lapin, they brought me to Barrel Proof for drinks after work. I saw there were pop-ups and they could do whatever they wanted. That’s where it started. I took the A.M. spot at Maypop so I could do that stuff as well.
At first it was one day a week, but it grew, and then one day I was quitting my job. I would also be at Courtyard Brewery. I did some fun lunch shifts at Coffee Science. As far as full time at Barrel Proof, that was a pandemic thing.
Now, I always have the fan favorites that I try not to change. I always have salt roasted, smashed and then re-fried potatoes. The crowd favorite is the onion dip. It’s from-scratch caramelized onion and nori dip. It tastes like the onion dip you grew up with, with preserved seaweed. It’s dank.
A fan favorite I can never touch is dan dan noodles. That’s as traditional as you need it to be, but with a little more sauce. I make it how 70% of Sichuan China makes it, and I don’t think it should be changed. I get fresh noodles from the Asian market. I can do it vegan with mushrooms, which got some excited vegans on board.
The fried chicken and rice dish got me on the map. It used to be only General Tso’s chicken, but now I try to change it two or three times a year. In the summer, I do lemon-ginger chicken. I’ll use nice lemons and fresh ginger and float Sichuan oil on the top. Right now, it’s orange-sesame chicken. If there are satsumas around or nice oranges, I’ll squeeze them and put that in there.
They’re all made from scratch riffs on the American-Chinese dishes that you get when you’re shitfaced in Chinatown at 3 a.m.
I do two at least one or two special things every month. Last month I did a steak tip night. I did an Italian night at Rabbit’s Foot, with fresh pasta. I found some ramps and did ramp agnolotti.
Gambit: What will you serve at the dinner at Mister Mao?
Bruhl: I have been thinking about doing a tasting since I started doing pop-ups. Sophina (Uong) reached out to me with her pop-up series. It’s a fancier version of what I am doing. It’s fresh pasta — everything from scratch — but elevated.
Anytime I put out a menu, it’s subject to change. It’s ideas of where I want to go, but with pop-ups, you don’t have purveyors at your fingertips. You might not be able to find ramps.
Snapper aguachile is two of my favorite things in one place. I had an ah-ha moment. Why can’t this be a crudo? I love the flavor profile of savory Thai laab and other dishes like it. These are all things that would be great on raw fish — all the mint and toasted rice for crunch. I absolutely love raw bars. I am happy to do ceviche, but at a bar it’s a little tough.
That dish is a play on the flavor profile of laab with my favorite way of doing raw things, which is aguachile, because Mexico is one of favorite food destinations. Real Mexican in Oaxaca and beach ceviches.