When BlakeSt approached Chef Justin Kent, he wasn’t looking for a new job. His head was somewhere else entirely, specifically, Kansas City, Missouri, managing three concepts inside the Crossroads Hotel, including Lazia, an Italian restaurant with exceptional attention to detail.
“For the last four years, I had blinders on,” he says. “Lazia was all-consuming, overwhelmingly Italian, down to the olive oil being from a particular region. Did the shape of the pasta also come from the same region? Was it a representation of that region of Italy? The idea of food as representation, culture, status. Overall, it’s just history.”
As for his personal history, Arkansas isn’t exactly a coming home for Chef Justin, but it does offer a sense of familiarity.
“I grew up in the Ozarks. Until the age of 15, every weekend we spent at a house on Table Rock Lake near Branson, Missouri. We went to the White River and to Horseshoe Canyon. As a new dad, this place has all the things I had growing up that I want him to have.”
It’s also part of something bigger. “At Ropeswing, the hospitality group that BlakeSt is a part of, there’s a greater mission outside of being profitable. Taking these food and beverage concepts and putting them into the community. Ten years ago, these concepts didn’t exist. It’s about community first, business second.”
Another draw to this position was the opportunity to deliver a unique brand of hospitality.
During his time at Lazia, Chef Justin lived in Italy on a vineyard and a pig farm in Tuscany where he learned to make fermented sausages and hams, which became a passion, but his main takeaway was the level of hospitality.
“Being welcomed into someone’s home, the feeling of being taken care of, of all needs being anticipated.”
This is a feeling he brings to BlakeSt.
“We want this to be Members’ other home. We are always creating opportunities for connection. It’s a very personal thing. Cooking for someone is one of the most intimate things you can do.”
A big part of BlakeSt’s identity is wellness, a holistic approach to well-being. But kitchens can be notoriously unhealthy working environments.
“The kitchens I’ve worked in were very structured – militant. It was an all-or-nothing mentality. The idea of never being good enough,” he says.
“I want to create a culture of empathy and patience that I didn’t have. We have an amazing team here. It’s easy to make this transition. We have three young culinarians from Brightwater, a local culinary center with a high school program for aspiring chefs. I spend extra time with them, providing mentorship and understanding,” he says.
“The day is really a manifestation of where your head is at. The energy you have makes its way out and into the dining room. If you are stressed, upset, not happy, the quality and morale start to suffer and trickle down to guests. It’s important to make sure everyone has a good balance and the individual treatment they need,” he says.
“It’s not about making cooks, but problem solvers, making decisions in real time. The hardest way is the easiest way in the end. People will spend a lot of time trying to make something faster, when doing it right is the best way all along. You can’t find a shortcut. It’s like if you’re a runner, you just have to run.”
“Right now, the focus is producing things consistently with a goal of being more creative as trust is established. It’s about trust for us. It’s about getting to know Members and keeping clear lines of communication with Members about what they want. It also allows us to exhibit our own brand of hospitality – a shift from serving/being served to developing a relationship where we take care of one another.”
Special dinners allow for Chef Justin to express his creativity and exhibit that level of hospitality.
“I love cooking to a theme, driven by content. It gives me silence over any distractions and a space to put anything on the menu. Focusing on one region, like the Delta Dirt dinner with the theme of ‘Southern garden,’ allowed us to be more thoughtful.”
When it comes to how Members should enjoy a meal in the House, he says, “The House allows everyone to have a unique dining experience. Grab snacks while you’re working on your laptop, gather with people after work at the bar, or dine in the dining room. We want you to feel welcome, comfortable and ultimately feel cared for.”
As for his philosophy on food, he says, “I do believe food is medicine, and you can heal or harm yourself with anything you find on the shelves at the grocery store. I want to make honest food, unadulterated. Don’t try to make a tomato anything but a tomato. That’s kind of my whole take on life – letting things be what they are.”
To Chef Justin, the restaurant at BlakeSt is a modern version of what it started as – a farmhouse – and it matters to him to “use all of the produce in our backyard, good product from local farmers.”
“Both of my parents worked. I spent a lot of time with my grandmothers who both had gardens. My aunt started a victory garden after WWII and kept it going until the early 90s. These women looked after me until grade school. I learned how to can and preserve things. My granddad fished and hunted, and it gave me a certain appreciation of life. We didn’t have a lot of family meals except at my grandmothers’ houses, when everybody slowed down and came together.”
This is what BlakeSt seeks to provide, a place to slow down, come together, share a meal and to take care of each other.