A Chat With Olive and June’s Justin Rupp

By Megan Giller  |  October 9, 2013

Unassuming, friendly Justin Rupp has been on board with chef and owner Shawn Cirkiel’s restaurant group for almost six years. He's helped open Parkside and Backspace, and recently was made executive chef at Olive and June, the modern Italian restaurant that has become a staple of the Rosewood area over the past two years. Before that Rupp worked at the usual suspects in Austin, including Magnolia Café. (“It might be a while before I can eat another pancake,” he told us.) Rupp won’t brag, but his dedication to keeping it local has played a major part in shaping Cirkiel’s restaurants, and his hands-on attitude in the kitchen at Olive and June means the quality is always high.

Zagat: So you were a history major. Have you always been interested in cooking?

Justin Rupp: I started washing dishes when I was 19, and I realized that being a history major wasn’t for me. Cooking was just a job for me in the beginning, and then it became where I wanted it to be my career. I like that it’s hard-working, instant gratification. You see what you’re making, and it goes out every night. You can also see your reviews right away through comment cards and Yelp and OpenTable. And the craft of cooking, knowing about all of your produce and fish and meat and vegetables, how to cook them.

Zagat: You were cutting onions right before this interview started, which is unusual for an executive chef. How hands-on is your role?

JP: I am in the kitchen every day that I work, from beginning to end. The only time I’m out of the kitchen is when I’m doing my ordering. That way, I stay really hands-on.

Zagat: It seems like Shawn Cirkiel has been a mentor to you. What is your relationship like?

JP: I have a very good relationship with Shawn. We get each other. My personality is one that goes really well with his. We’ve been working together for five and half years, almost six years. The level of professionalism that Shawn has - you work in some restaurants, and I’m sure this goes for all jobs, when the owners or managers or people above you really care and are very involved in what they’re doing. It’s super important to everything else. Shawn cares a lot about his restaurants and is always very involved. That was a major lesson for me. I’ve worked in restaurants where my chef cared or the front-of-house manager cared, but you never saw the owner in there every day. That’s something that translates to me. I’ve learned a lot as far as cooking goes too [laughs]. To me it goes without saying. He’s taught me a lot. He also will push you to always come up with new things and always do new things.

Zagat: You change the menu pretty often. Where does your inspiration for all of those new dishes come from?

JP: The ideas for menu changes almost always come from seasonal produce. What can we get right now? What are we going to be able to get for a little while? That drives how we do our menu. What’s in season. We’re looking at what’s at the farmer’s market. What we can get a lot of and feature. In terms of the Sunday [family-style] menu, we look for something really cool that we want to use. Like, we can get porcinis today, so let’s do that. Things that are very seasonal or a one-time deal.

Zagat: Are there certain produce vendors that you like to use?

JP: We work a lot with Phoenix Farms in Bastrop. We go through Farm to Table and get a lot of things from them. We get produce from everyone. Right now we’re getting quail from Lockhart. When lamb comes around, we get lamb. When rabbit comes around, we get rabbit.

Zagat: The term “local” is thrown around a lot lately. What does it mean to you?

JP: When we’re using local produce or meat or products, it’s just better because it’s closer. It’s not shipped a long ways away. Something that you’ve just picked out of the garden is going to taste a lot better than something that’s been picked three weeks before. We’re doing it because we see these people and talk to them and we get good products. I don’t think we’re out there trying to say we’re local and all that. But we are. It’s probably getting to the point now where people should just expect a good restaurant to follow that. If you want your best products, you’re going to get something close to the source.

Zagat: But you guys don’t advertise that you use local produce and meat.

JP: No. Maybe sometimes we will. All of our servers know, and if somebody asks, we’re happy to tell them. We have a list of all the farms that we use. It's not a secret. Why advertise it? We’re doing what is expected. At this point people know that if we’re going to put chicken on the menu, it’s going to be good and local, because we can.

Zagat: What are some of the fall ingredients you’re excited about using?

JP: Right now it’s all about winter squash, butternut squash, acorn squash. We’re also using a lot of nuts. Started using a lot of walnuts. On the last Sunday menu we did a walnut butter and roasted winter squash salad. I can’t wait for sunchokes and getting all the greens like escarole. We’re already seeing kale.

Zagat: Recently chefs like Callie Speer have told us they really don’t like fall ingredients. Is fall produce easier to fold into the Italian palate?

JP: Have you ever grown peppers? You get a whole new batch of peppers in fall. You get fall tomatoes. Tomatoes and peppers are perfect for Italian. They use things like pumpkins a lot in Italy. It definitely translates. I can’t think of a season that doesn’t. I’m always excited about pears. We’re getting persimmons now. I don’t know how much they use persimmons in Italy. Right now we’re just kind of playing around with them for the desserts. Maybe when they get a little bit more ripe.

Zagat: Did you study a lot about Italian food when you opened Olive and June? You also opened Backspace, right?

JP: I did the opening menu for Backspace for Shawn and opened that restaurant too. I went and learned how to make pizzas and everything. I went to a place in Los Angeles called Antica Pizzeria. It’s an Italian guy who has been doing it for a long time.

Zagat: What are some of your favorite places to eat around town?

JP: I honestly don’t go out to eat that often [laughs]. I went to Kome the other night. I’ve been to Foreign & Domestic a couple of times. Places in my neighborhood are always good.

Zagat: What do you do in your free time?

JP: I’ve been trying to put in a fall garden this year. I work in the yard on my days off and try to relax.

Zagat: What’s next for you?

JP: We’re just going to keep building at Olive and June. We’re always fine tuning and trying to up the ante a little bit. We’ll be open for two years in February. Shawn has projects coming up, but I’m not going to be involved with them. Other than giving him advice and my opinions, I want my focus maintained on Olive and June, which is great, because I’ve had the opportunity to be here from the beginning.