It seems like Justin Beckett was born to be in a kitchen. From cooking with his family, to working in kitchens from an early age and helping to open various restaurants around the Valley, it was only a matter of time before Beckett opened his own eatery. His dream came true in 2010, and Beckett’s Table has become a staple in the Arcadia community. Arcadia News reached out to the restauranteur to see how his story began.
Where are you from?
I was born in San Francisco, CA. I was raised mostly in the BayArea and traveled with my hippie parents from Guatemala to Canada and Arizona to Hawaii.
How did you get into the restaurant business?
I think the restaurant business was in my blood from day one. As early as 8th grade, I was in professional kitchens washing dishes, making fresh pasta, peeling shrimp, staring wide-eyed at the line cooks jamming and, of course, the pretty cocktail servers. I have never wanted to do anything else – food, cooking and hospitality is how I think. Four days after high school graduation, I enrolled in culinary school. I attended the California Culinary Academy and graduated in December of 1995.
Who first taught you how to cook?
My mother, father and grandmother all had a place in showing me food preparation and how it fits into my daily life. My mother helped me learn how the family should eat every day. Making meals out of what was in the fridge was the best solution, and sometimes the only way to come together. My father showed me specialties like fresh pasta, the treat of fine Italian cheeses and the art of leftovers. My grandmother taught me the importance of eating from her huge garden. We would take an empty basket down the path to the garden and pick only what looked amazing and ripe.
What is your signature dish?
At Beckett’s Table, the dish we sell the most of is our fork-tender short rib. This braised beef dish takes over five hours to simmer in what we call our mother sauce. This sauce imparts flavor and a silky saucy texture to make them unforgettable.
At Southern Rail - I would have to say our fried chicken is the shining star here. We butcher our birds and let them rest in a Coca-Cola brine before we dredge them in buttermilk and spiced flour.
Where else have you worked?
I started my career off at Roy’s Pacific Rim Cuisine, working and opening a dozen different locations. I opened Hotel Valley Ho, Trader Vic’s, Canal, Estate House, Metro, Food Bar, as well as a few stints at catering companies and Steamers.
Who has been your favorite chef to work with?
I loved working with Chef Chuck Wiley at Hotel Valley Ho. Chef Wiley had a calm, commanding energy that was incredibly easy to work with and I follow his directives. Chef Wiley also never shied away from sharing life lessons and kitchen tips.
What is the inspiration behind the dishes at Beckett’s Table and Southern Rail?
All the dishes at Beckett’s Table and Southern Rail have to be crave-able. There are not many rules beyond that.
How do you come up with all the different variations for the deviled eggs?
Most of the flavor inspirations begin with a theme/twist on a dish or drink. We have been elaborating and creating them for years and try never to repeat a flavor; themes like the martini, pickled veggies, cheeseburger, peas and carrots, and Frito pie. The fun never ends.
What is the most challenging part of being a chef?
I think the most challenging part is all the things that don’t revolve around cooking or playing with food – fixing air conditioning units, scheduling, HR paperwork, answering emails while I’m cooking in the kitchen, etc. The other thing most chefs don’t talk about is the hours that you work take time away from being a dad, being available for your kids and all their events.
What is one item you can’t live without in your kitchen?
My knives are the obvious ones, but I also can’t live without my Vita-prep blender.
What is the most challenging dish you’ve had to cook?
I can’t think of one super challenging dish, but I will tell you that making pastries sometimes takes me a try or two. The picture in my head of the final dish is usually a little bit more refined than my first or second attempt.
What is your favorite ingredient to cook with?
The answer depends on the season: spring is asparagus, fresh mushrooms, and green garlic; fall/winter is squashes and apples; summer is melons, herbs and tomatoes.
What do you do when you’re not working?
I can’t remember…
How are you coping with all of the restaurant shutdowns?
It is a very weird time – a time when we are learning to run our businesses in a whole new way. It is still a lot of work but with way less staff and more challenges. We are taking it a week at a time by serving our comfort food-to-go.
What advice do you have for chefs/restaurants going through the shutdown?
Do what is best for you and your people. Be safe, and remember the long game is as important as the short game. Each business has different circumstances, so do what makes the most sense for your restaurant.
What inspires you?
I get inspired by dishes that I see or eat. I usually get back into the kitchen and want to try to recreate or change them up. I feel like sometimes dishes come from a simple place or junk food/snack, and then I take it to the next level to fit it into the restaurant.
What is your go-to comfort food?
I am a fan of pizza like most other people, but I love, love, love a good messy sandwich, or quesarito (burrito quesadilla).
Do you think the shutdown will affect how people see/treat others in the restaurant industry in the future?
I think this situation has already had a significant impact on the restaurant industry. I’m not sure what the biggest changes will be on the other side, but I’m keeping an open mind on how our industry needs to adjust to the public’s needs. Being nimble and evolving in this industry is the only way to survive.
What advice has stayed with you throughout the years?
Always surround yourself with good people. Always do the right thing – even when no one is looking.
What are your goals for when the industry is back up and running?
Our goal always has been to bring the neighborhood (Metro Phoenix) together to enjoy a meal. Serve crave-able, upscale comfort food, and an award-winning wine list to business professionals, first dates, family get-togethers, and nights out, all while treating them like old friends. This will still be the goal, no matter the circumstances.