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Food The Chefs:

Justin Smillie’s Simple Pleasures at Upland

Photography by Winnie Au

“It’s not always what you add to a dish, but what you take away. I just want to respect the simplest pleasures.”

This statement was made by one of the chefs I hold in the absolute highest regard, Justin Smillie. While the Californian-inspired food Justin creates at Upland certainly delivers on the promise of simple pleasures, it also offers layers of complex, nuanced flavor that is risky, bold and subtle at once. It is food you want to eat again and again. Every time I dive into Justin’s creations, I find myself pinpointing certain subtle yet opposing tastes that hit my palate in just the right places. I am also struck by the beauty – or perhaps I should say beautiful mess – on the plate in front of me.

The very first time I ate Justin’s food was at Il Buco Almentari. I think the entire world, myself included, might have gotten the memo to go there and feast on his celebrated and much-hyped short ribs – they were bursting with insanely juicy, robust and smoky flavor. While Justin has been shaped by a great many chefs during the course of his career, including Jonathan Waxman, he has expressed that it was at Il Buco that he came into his own as a chef. There Justin began taking risks and experimenting with flavors and ingredients that helped lead to the rustic, detailed style of cooking he is known for today.

My first experience eating at Upland was for a curated wine tasting dinner in the private room downstairs. In dish after dish, I found myself hanging onto the flavors with longing and curiosity. I was simply blown away. Not too long after that I was invited to an intimate dinner at the Saveur test kitchen. Here I was able to see Justin in action, handling his ingredients with grace and precision. I watched as he handled the most delicate, subtly curled watermelon radishes before him, using his fingers as tweezers as he bent over a dish to plate it, just so. I was captivated watching this delicate dance – it was a ballet in its own right. I sat at the table with Victor and another great chef, George Mendes, and we geeked out over the intricate flavors. “Is that Meyer lemon I taste, or is it a hint of yuzu?” I was moved watching Justin in motion and after the meal, as we exchanged contacts, I told him as much.

A few months later, at a chef-focused benefit to raise money for kids’ cancer, I walked by Justin’s station. I did not know if he even remembered meeting me when I heard him say, “What you create is beautiful”. I looked over my shoulder, confused, trying to figure out who he was talking to. Then he elaborated. “Your feed, on Instagram, it is beautiful.” My head couldn’t believe what my ears and eyes were telling me. I mean, for a renowned chef, a man I personally revered, to even know what EyeSwoon was – to say I was elated and humbled would be an understatement. I thanked him — and I also took the opportunity to say, “We should cook together one day,” to which he responded, “Absolutely.”

Well, here we were. At Upland, cooking. And you know what? As I observed Justin prepare a meal once again, this time in his own kitchen, at the restaurant he curated and conceived, I was instantly as mesmerized as before. I watched closely as Justin plated the wood-burning-oven-roasted chicken – he took a tomato and smushed it between his fingers, then carefully placed vibrant pink sour apple microgreens atop the roast. Soaking up his stunning composition, colors and textures, I made a comment about his artistry. Justin humbly expressed that he saw it from an almost opposing point of view: “I always want it to feel natural, unaltered, unrestrained, like every ingredient just fell from the fingertips.” I love this philosophy – the real artistry lies in making it all look effortless.

After the meal was complete, Justin and I sat down together to share the fruits of his labor. Justin’s demeanor is intense, intellectual and direct, but it is also kind, gentle and open. We talked with ease and in great detail about his stunning cookbook, Slow Fires, an incredible resource on techniques for “building flavor from the bottom up”. We also discussed the process of writing a cookbook. At the time, I was deep – way deep – into the throes of creating my own cookbook. As we ate, we shared stories, both the highlights and exciting parts of the process and the challenging, scary bits. We talked about overseeing every minute detail, from the images and creative direction, to the vast amount of writing, to being certain the recipes were properly tested. We discussed the fear of putting the book out into the world and the desire to ensure everything in it truly expressed our vision.

The moment was not lost on me – there I was with a world-class chef, and one whom I admire greatly, eating his food and exchanging cookbook tales. It was a poignant reminder, not only of the fact that I am profoundly fortunate to be doing what I love, but also of the power of gathering together to share a meal. Time and again, it has been proven to me – dining with others fosters some of the truest moments of connection. It is where we are most relaxed, most open and most vulnerable. For me, on this day, around the table was where I could feel at ease, suspend disbelief, and find common ground with the masterful chef who quite literally wrote the book on braising, grilling and roasting.



Justin Smillie

Tell us about the dishes we created together.

We created a table of simple, seasonal pleasures.

What was the impetus behind creating Upland?

Upland is named after the town I am from in Southern California. I wanted it to feel cool, laid-back and approachable. We are always striving to be crave-able. I wanted a place where people would let go and let us spoil them. It’s truly about the appreciation of simple pleasures.

How would you describe the food you create at Upland? What is the core value represented in the food?

Crave, crave, crave-able. We aim to appear simple but to do all the work that delivers big flavor impact. The number one value is curation. If we don’t buy well, and with great care and attention, we cannot create well.

You just opened Upland Miami — how does the menu and food differ from the NYC location?

We are always light and clean, but it will be even more so in Miami. We have a section of crudos and many more seafood options. We will also be cooking 90% of our proteins over a charcoal fire.

What past experiences have most shaped your current approach to food?

I have been shaped by so many people, Jonathan Waxman (approach), Dan Silverman (broader larder, organization, staff motivaton), Donna Lennard (concentration, beauty), Andre Balazs (fantasy), Stephen Starr (true hospitality, sharing, curation, unwavering discipline).

Slow Fires is an incredible resource. You’ve said your time at Barbuto was the start of Slow Fires. Can you talk a bit about that time, finding what made you tick?

Barbuto was where I discovered who I wanted to be as a cook, and it is where I decided to be a maker of food. It was my maiden voyage into the world of live fire cooking, and it was where I started to build my flavor identity.

You’ve lived and worked all over the world. What are your top three cities for food?

I love Osaka, Barcelona, Queens in NYC, New Orleans, Los Angeles, Paris, Tokyo, Montreal.

How did the décor play into your vision for Upland? How important do you feel it is for the ambiance and food to tell a cohesive story?

Stephen and I wanted a place that transported you to a nondescript city in California. A place that called back to another time. A place that was the ultimate embodiment of brasserie, izakaya, trattoria. A place that was casual in aesthetic, yet unpretentious in its efforts with food and hospitality. I have learned with Stephen that creating the vibe and creating the will to suspend disbelief is imperative.

You shared how much you love to mess up, smush and deconstruct your food when plating. Can you tell us a bit about your general rules on plating and aesthetics?

I always want it to feel natural, unaltered, unrestrained, like every ingredient just fell from the fingertips.

Five ingredients you couldn’t live without?

Olive oil, green peppercorn mustard, vinegar, sea salt, dried aji chilies.

Your favorite dish at Upland? Most popular?

I love all the dishes, I never cook anything I am not excited to eat. I love the smoked chicken, the whole smoked branzino with dried fennel vinaigrette and could eat the gochujang cioppino every day of my life.

Do you have a different approach to cooking at home than at work?

Who I am at home is who I am at work.

A snack from your youth you’re mildly embarrassed you still love?

Marie Callender’s blue cheese dressing.

Three local, go-to restaurants or cafes you frequent in NYC? Miami?

In Miami, Puerto Sagua, Michael’s Genuine, Kyu, Lucali, Eating House. In NYC, Estela, Toro, Nomad, Barbuto, Totto Ramen, Izakaya Ten (now closed), 15 East, Baekjeong, Wildair.

Your ideal meal is… With…

People who live to laugh and love at the table.

Food trend you partake in? One you wish would go away?

Good food is the trend.

Thrice-Roasted Chicken

Justin Smillie


Serves 2 to 4

Brine and Roast

  • 2 fresh bay leaves
  • 7 fresh thyme sprigs
  • 1 gallon water
  • 1 cup kosher salt, plus more to season
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1 lemon, thinly sliced
  • 1/4 cup black peppercorns, toasted and roughly crushed, plus more to season
  • 1 2 1/2-pound chicken
  • 2 tablespoons rosemary-anchovy rub (ingredients below)
  • 1/4 cup plus 1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 1 tablespoon champagne vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice (from 1/2 lemon), or more to taste

Rosemary-Anchovy Rub

  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly cracked black peppercorns, toasted
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves
  • 1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh rosemary leaves
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
  • 1/2 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest (from 1/2 lemon)
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice (from 1/2 lemon)
  • 1/2 garlic clove, finely grated
  • 2 tablespoons anchovy paste
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons olive oil
  • Kosher salt

The Prep

Brine the chicken

With the broad side of a chef’s knife, press down on 1 bay leaf and 4 of the thyme sprigs to release their essential oils.

Place the water, salt, salt, sugar, lemon, peppercorns, and the pressed bay and thyme into a large nonreactive container. Stir until the sugar and salt dissolve. Add the chicken and make sure it is completely submerged. Cover and brine in the refrigerator for 12 hours.

Break down the chicken

Remove the chicken from the brine and rinse it under cold running water. Set the chicken on a work surface and thoroughly pat it dry with paper towels.

With the chicken on its back, take a leg and gently pull it toward you. Cut the skin between the leg and the breast, exposing the inner thigh. Gently but firmly force the thigh toward the back of the chicken, until the thigh bone pops out of the joint that connects it to the body. Repeat with the other thigh. With a sturdy knife or shears, cut the legs away at the thigh joint.

Turn the bird over and cut through the thin rib bones where they meet the back; this is the first step to freeing the breasts from the carcass. Put your hand in the cavity of the bird and hold the chicken down while you pull the breast back toward the neck; this should break the breast free. If necessary, cut it free near the neck and shoulders. Find the joint where the wings meet the drumettes with the tip of your knife and cut the wings free. At this point you should have 3 pieces: the whole breast and 2 legs. Save the carcass and wings for another use, like stock.

Make the rosemary-anchovy rub (makes about 1/2 cup, enough for 4 birds)

Place the peppercorns, parsley and rosemary in a mortar. Smash the mixture with a pestle until the peppercorns break into fine pieces. (Alternatively, blend the mixture in a spice grinder.) Transfer to a small bowl.

Stir the mustard, vinegar, lemon zest and juice, garlic, anchovy paste, and olive oil into the peppercorn mixture. Once a uniform paste is formed, season with salt if necessary. When stored, covered in the refrigerator, this rub holds 1 week.

Rub and dry the exterior

Pat the chicken dry once again. Once paper towels come away completely dry, lay the chicken on the work surface skin side up.

Smear the rub all over the skin until it’s evenly coated in a distinct layer; with rosemary-anchovy rub, I generally use about 2 tablespoons.

Place the rubbed chicken, skin side up, on a cooling rack set over a rimmed baking sheet. Refrigerate the chicken for 12 to 24 hours, or until the rub dries and doesn’t smudge easily when prodded.

Roast the chicken

Remove the chicken from the refrigerator 1 hour before roasting. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.

Slick a large heavy pan, preferably cast iron, with 1 ½ tablespoons olive oil and set over medium heat. Place the handle at six o’clock. When the oil is shimmering-hot, lay the chicken breast, skin side down, in the pan, centering it with the pan’s handle and placing the thickest part of the breast toward the pan’s rim, so the tip of the breast points toward the pan’s center. Next, add the legs, skin side down, with the thighs down by the point of the breast; the drumsticks should point back toward the handle and the thick part of the breast. Press down slightly on all pieces so their skin is in maximum contact with the pan.

Increase the heat to medium-high and sear the chicken for 7 minutes, or until the edges turn golden brown. Without flipping the meat, transfer the pan to the oven and roast it for 17 minutes, or until the breast juices run clear and the drumsticks wiggle easily at their joints. When done, the meat should be 160 degrees at its thickest portion.

Carefully remove the pan from the oven and set it back over medium heat. Add the butter and remaining bay leaf and 3 thyme sprigs to the pan. As the butter begins to foam, protect your hand with a towel or an oven mitt and tip the pan slightly to pool the butter toward you. Use a spoon to baste the chicken all over in the foaming butter for 2 to 3 minutes, or until the butter browns. Make sure the butter does not blacken or it will taste acrid.

Remove the chicken pieces from the pan and place them, skin side up, on a cooling rack set over a large rimmed baking sheet. Let the chicken rest for 10 minutes so the juices settle and skin crisps.

Carve the chicken

With a sharp, sturdy knife, cut through the breastbone lengthwise, separating the breast into 2 pieces. If you like, cut each breast piece in half crosswise as well. Next, break down the legs, separating the thighs from the drumsticks by opening the V between them and feeling for the joint with the tip of your knife. You should be able to cut through easily once you find it.

Transfer the chicken pieces to a warm serving platter, leaving their drippings behind. Pour all the drippings from the cutting board into a small mixing bowl, and add any accumulated juices from the roasting pan.

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