The Laws of Cooking: Talking with Do or Dine’s Justin Warner about His Debut Cookbook

Justin Warner

Having won The Next Food Network Star back in 2012, Do or Dine’s chef/owner, Justin Warner, might have easily become a cog in the food television machine; turning out a few purposefully sanitized, network-prescribed books, coyly winking and nodding at his prescribed brand. But this October, the “rebel with a culinary cause” is making his very first foray into publishing with an entirely self-written guidebook, aptly titled The Laws of Cooking: And How to Break Them.

“As with Legos, social security, and the genetic sequence, there is a system that governs what makes food tasty,” writes Warner of his unique approach to flavor theory, which he breaks down into a series of infallible laws. The table of contents includes sweet meets sour (The Law of Lemonade), herbs meet fat (The Law of Pesto), and funky meets fresh (The Law of the Wedge Salad), which governs recipes such as Minted Sake Sea Urchin Shooters, Blue Cheesecake with Frank’s Red Hot Caramel, and more.

We spoke with the reliably off-the-cuff Warner about proofing donuts on a heating pad, his rejection of the “napkin ring mentality” prevalent in cookbooks, and why he owes it all to Lana del Rey.

First of all, talk to me about your title. In a nutshell, what are the laws, why are we allowed to break them, and how does your cookbook concept encapsulate you and your culinary point of view?
Basically, when I was trying to decide what to base a cookbook around, it was about coming up with the question that I wanted to answer. And I think the question most people have about the food that I make is “where do you come up with this stuff?” So using the foie gras donut as a jumping off point — which, for me, is the song that can’t stop playing — the answer is that it follows a basic, understood culinary format; pairing something sweet and fruity with something fatty and savory, spread on some sort of blank canvas. In essence, it’s a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Since I’m not a formerly trained chef, this is how I cook; identifying the patterns that govern things. Recognizing flavor blueprints. And once you can see those patterns, it gives you the freedom to branch out, break the rules by adding something discordant, and make all sorts of wicked stuff.

Alton Brown has been a mentor to you both on The Next Food Network Star and off, and actually wrote the forward to this book. That being said, you seem like a bit of an odd couple, being that he’s all about following rules, and you’re all about breaking them.
We’re both very curious people—it’s terrifying to me to think that there are people out there completely bothered by not knowing. And Alton and I both completely bothered by not knowing. We’re info-geeks, and food is the lowest common denominator between us. We talk about airplanes and guns and computers and politics and religion and nerd stuff, out of a sheer fascination with information. But food’s the natural link. That’s like us bro-ing out over a football game.

I notice there’s no co-author credit; was expressing yourself on paper something that was relatively easy for you, or were you exercising muscles you’d never exercised before?
A little bit of both. I’ll wait until my second book to make the corporate, Warner Music-sponsored version, but I wanted the first one to have a pure, unbridled, easy feeling. This is 100% my brain on a plate. Writing is something I used to be good at; back as a waiter, I had a pretty decent Myspace blog, and I don’t say that humorously. I like writing; whether I’m good at it remains to be seen. Depends what the critics say. But was it fun? Hell yeah. I had this whole ritual where I bought a desk chair and made a playlist and sat down and blazed through it. Don’t tell anybody (this is one of the situations where you can just write the words “don’t tell anybody”), but there was something about the nostalgic feel of Lana Del Rey, and the pacing… there’s a lot of sweet sadness in her songs. And when you’re trying to write stories about your memories, or about where food comes from, you need to listen to something stirring. When it came to the recipes, I listened to glitchy electro EDM, because it’s good process music. But when you’re trying to conjure emotions and flavors and energy, you really need something that has its own soul. So yeah, me and Lana.

Explain to me how your table of contents breaks down; the method to the madness, as it were. You’ve got The Law of the Wedge Salad, of Guacamole, of Gin and Tonics, of Hot Dogs, of General Tso’s Chicken… although with everything from canapés to cold fish to dessert, you’re not obviously not offering up a chapter’s worth of actual General Tso’s recipes…
One thing that I realized as both a cook and a waiter is that so many people don’t know what they’re tasting. I’ve even had multiple staff members that when something was salty, they’d say it was sour. So I wanted to present flavors in a way that people could understand; The Law of General Tso’s Chicken is the play between sweet and spicy. And thus, all of the recipes in that chapter represent a balancing act between sweet and spicy. There’s a canapé, a cold and hot app, a cold and hot soup, a cold and hot fish, light meat, dark meat and dessert, because I wanted to show people that the same rules of flavor can apply anywhere in the meal. Like at Per Se, when taken together, each dish flows, but they’re all slightly different from the last.

I absolutely enjoy eating your food, but to anyone familiar with Do or Dine, they might immediately be skeptical of attempting to recreate any of it—your recipes can be quite out there. Is your book truly accessible to the home cook?
By winning The Next Food Network Star, I established myself as a culinary rule breaker, and while that was great in terms of packaging, there’s a lot more to my story than that one show. The Ratatouille version is that everyone can cook. Since I’ve only been cooking for four years, I absolutely believe that if I can do it, anyone can do it.

So I didn’t create the recipes from this book in the Do or Dine kitchen; I worked in my crummy Brooklyn apartment kitchen, and I did that intentionally. There are some things that take time, like making your own ramen broth, but with a pressure cooker and a weird technique, I can turn it into a one-day event instead of three. Making donuts isn’t easy; you have to proof the dough, which takes time. But can you do it with the assistance of a heating pad? Yes. The vast majority of my recipes really aren’t complicated; they just take a bit of time. And in each recipe, we have a section called “Hold It,” which teaches busy people how they can pre-prepare food in the morning before work, or during the weekend, “hold it” like they do at restaurants, and pick it up later when they get home from work, finishing the dish in 15 minutes or less. Of course that’s weird to admit, that a lot of the food you’re served in restaurants is not prepared fresh. But hey, it’s a super gourmet tip. And to go back to your original question, I built this directly for home cooks; this isn’t the Do or Dine cookbook. That’s a different book and a different animal. When I’m home, I don’t eat Do or Dine food. I don’t have a deep fryer at home.

With a million and one books coming out every season, how is the Laws of Cooking filling a hole in the market?
To be honest, this is my first serious interview about the book, so thanks for asking the hard questions, even though this one makes me nervous. I guess ultimately the market itself will determine what hole it fills. But I actually think of this as less of a cookbook than a guidebook. It’s not a way to be Justin Warner, it’s a way to be you, and I think a lot of cookbooks are about teaching a lifestyle, or how to emulate a certain personality. So when it comes to food styling, for instance, there wasn’t any. We didn’t even use plates most of the time. What you see is what you cook. I know plenty of people who have made their way in food styling and photography, but honestly, I think its time for a change. It’s intimidating to see a picture of a perfect plate and a napkin in a ring. People don’t have napkin rings, damn it! You want to see a realistic portrayal of home dining; it’s me eating dinner in front of Netflix, with a remote control and a cute dog. People are hesitant to be creative because they’re trying to follow this napkin ring mentality. I’m sorry, I’m getting a little angry.

So final question, what was more exciting, being in my book or having your own?
I’ll be frank, being in your book and seeing it, I was like “oh shit, I should probably be doing this.” But it’s two different experiences; one was like getting accepted into school, and the other was graduating. But who’s to say which was actually more important, you know what I mean? I’m not trying to deflect the fact that I’m really excited about creating my own book, but yours was the first cookbook I was ever in, so that was like getting accepted to the school I wanted to be in. And I could have dropped out of school and still brag that I got accepted to Harvard, but once I saw that book in print, I was like, oh man, this is really cool. Sarah’s doing it, and I want to do it and be cool like Sarah. Not that everyone can do it. Having officially written a book, I can testify to the fact that not everyone can do it.

The Laws of Cooking: And How to Break Them is available for pre-order here.

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