When Arturo Justo was growing up in Chamblee, his mom worked long hours, so she often assembled quick meals from pantry staples to feed her family: pozole with canned hominy, chicken in store-bought mole sauce, chirrarones in salsa verde.
Today, Justo and his mom, Angeles, both work at Kimball House in Decatur: He’s the executive chef; she’s the dishwasher. While they are surrounded by luxury ingredients at the high-end restaurant — oysters, caviar, prime steaks — they still savor the homey dishes they brought with them from Mexico decades ago.
Justo, 33, immigrated from Mexico City at age 5 and has never been back. After attending Cross Keys High School, he got a job as a dishwasher at the now-shuttered Shout at Colony Square. It was there that he met chef Brian Wolfe, who eventually hired him at Bacchanalia and, three years ago, at Kimball House.
When Wolfe left Kimball House earlier this year, Justo — who lives in Lawrenceville with his parents; his wife, Cindy; and his two young daughters, Mia and Suzie — was promoted to executive chef. Little by little, he has introduced dishes of his own, some with Mexican touches.
Q: What are your favorite ingredients to cook with at home?
A: My favorite ingredients would have to be Asian. At home, we always keep sambal hot sauce, and use it with every dish we make. We keep a bottle of soy sauce and a bottle of fish sauce. We are always cooking outside, and one of the go-to things is soy chicken on the flat top or the grill. And we make fried rice at least once a week, and we do it on the flat top outside.
Q: What ingredients do you always keep in your fridge?
A: Ketchup, mayo and butter.
Q: What do you think is the most underrated food?
A: Cilantro stems. Most people just throw them away.
Q: What is your go-to dish for a quick dinner?
A: That would have to be pasta. Chicken-broccoli Alfredo is what I would go to. My family loves pasta. If they could, they would ask me to make them that same pasta, or red sauce, every day of the week.
Q: When time is not a factor, what dish do you like to prepare for a meal at home?
A: I like to do seared fish. I’ll buy some red snapper and shear them off really nice, and make a puree for the bottom of the plate. This last one I made was English pea puree with roasted poblanos in the puree. Then I did a salsa with mangoes, red onions, cilantro, lime juice and pomegranate.
Q: What music do you listen to when you cook?
A: Cumbias, bachatas and a lot of rap, and it’s a mixture of English and Spanish rap.
Q: What is your signature dish to impress dinner guests?
A: Again, cooking fish is one of the things I like to show off. Most of my family members expect the fish to be dry and that they’ll have to put a bunch of salsa on it. They are really impressed by me just taking snapper and baking if off in parchment with lemons and olive oil and butter. Or just searing off a nice piece of fish for them, with a basic slaw on the side.
Q: What do you cook for yourself at the end of a long workday?
A: Scrambled eggs. I love scrambled eggs. My daughter (Mia) eats over-easy eggs almost every day she’s at home.
Q: What’s your favorite midnight snack?
A: We keep these snacks that we buy at Sam’s Club in the fridge: mozzarella wrapped with prosciutto, and salami-mozzarella sticks. So my late-night snack is basically those, Yoplaits and a bag of Munchies.
Q: What is your favorite cookbook in your collection?
A: “The Mexican Home Kitchen” by Mely Martínez. It’s just a whole bunch of Mexican authentic recipes. Some of them I’ve heard of but never had.
Q: What are your three favorite kitchen tools or gadgets?
A: A mandolin, a small strainer and some tongs.
Q: What is your worst home cooking disaster?
A: Catching a pan on fire and setting off my fire alarm. I got the pan too hot, just added my oil on there, and it immediately caught fire. I was trying to cook eggs. It was a (cheap) pan from a dollar store. Setting off the alarm was probably the scariest part. You know, you are in an apartment building. Everybody around you is freaking out.
Q: What are your best words of advice for home cooks?
A: Never stop trying.
This classic Mexican soup comes in many colors (red, green or white) and can be made with pork or chicken. The constant is hominy. Arturo Justo’s family often enjoys it with tostadas smeared with sour cream and sprinkled with queso fresco. This dish will feed a crowd, but you can make it go even further by adding another can of hominy.
1 chicken, cut into quarters
2 bay leaves
2 white or yellow onions, divided
6 cloves garlic, peeled, divided
2 tablespoons kosher salt plus more for seasoning
15 guajillo chiles
1 (29-ounce) can white hominy
1 small head cabbage, finely shredded
2 limes, cut into quarters
Place chicken in a large stockpot with bay leaves, half of one of the onions, two garlic cloves, 2 tablespoons salt and a gallon of water. Bring to a boil over high heat. Cover and simmer over medium heat until the chicken is fully cooked, about 25 minutes. Remove chicken and set aside.
Deseed guajillo chiles and place in a large bowl. Cover with 1 quart boiling water and allow to rehydrate, about 15 minutes. Pour the guajillos and water into a blender, add the remaining four cloves of garlic, the other half of the first onion, and a pinch of salt. Blend until smooth; strain through a fine-mesh sieve.
Add guajillo puree and hominy to broth and bring to a simmer over medium-high heat. Return chicken to pot and cook over medium for 25 minutes, covered.
Chop the remaining onion. Place the onion, cabbage and limes into serving bowls. Ladle hot pozole into soup bowls, and allow guests to garnish with the onion, cabbage and limes.
Per serving, based on 8: 492 calories (percent of calories from fat, 48), 35 grams protein, 28 grams carbohydrates, 8 grams total sugars, 7 grams fiber, 26 grams total fat (7 grams saturated), 153 milligrams cholesterol, 837 milligrams sodium.
Note: For nutritional calculations, a “pinch” is defined as 1/16 teaspoon.