Twin Cities chef Justin Sutherland has plenty cooking

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Sharyn Jackson, Star Tribune
·13 min read
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Try not to get into an argument with Justin Sutherland. You won't win.

The former high school speech and debate champ knows how to work any angle of a conflict until he's the one in control. Take, for example, the time his dad wanted the garage painted and offered Sutherland $100 for the job. When his dad came home, he found Justin's brother, Jared, with the paintbrush. Justin had offered Jared $50 to complete the chore, and kept the other half as commission.

"My dad lost his mind. 'I hired you to paint the garage!' " Justin recalled. "I was like, 'You said you wanted the garage painted.' "

Sutherland won that argument on a technicality, but he's parlayed the skills he exhibited as a teen in Apple Valley — business acumen, a smooth-talking way with words and boundless charm — into a multifaceted career.

Today, the 36-year-old helms one of St. Paul's buzziest restaurants, Handsome Hog, and his culinary imprint is all over the Twin Cities. He is a rising television star and is using his growing platform to advance causes he believes in: raising money for hospitality workers displaced by the pandemic. Speaking out on racial and social justice issues after the killing of George Floyd. Honoring his Black and Japanese roots.

All while making some seriously good food.

There's an overused phrase in reality TV: "I'm not here to make friends." Yet on TV, and in real life, Sutherland does the opposite. Everyone seems to like the bearded guy with the calm voice; if "Top Chef" was judged on congeniality, he would have easily won.

His television career came out of nowhere when he went on "Iron Chef America" in 2018 and beat celebrity chef Alex Guarnaschelli. His breakout turn on "Top Chef" came the following year, and since early February, he's been reverse-engineering fast food on the TruTV show "Fast Foodies." He's also developing a new project with seasoned television personality Andrew Zimmern, and just appeared in a Zimmern-produced Super Bowl commercial.

Zimmern spotted something in Sutherland at one of their first meetings, at a Super Bowl party in Atlanta in 2019. "I walked away from there and I had this feeling," Zimmern said. "This guy — he's got it."

"It" has made Sutherland one of the most visible small-business owners in St. Paul, and one of Minnesota's brightest culinary stars.

"We know he's a good businessman, we know he's an amazing chef, but he also has a heart for this city," said St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter, who has turned to Sutherland to talk through matters of public safety, pandemic relief, even how to set up sidewalk cafes.

After the first pandemic-related restaurant shutdown last spring, Carter worried when he saw Sutherland's number pop up on his phone. "I figured he was calling me because he was upset," he said.

Instead, Sutherland was calling with a solution. With restaurants closed, he and other restaurateurs had a surplus of food, and he was trying to coordinate a way to get it to people in need. In the following days, he established a free community market and, with restaurateur David Fhima, co-founded the North Stands, which raises money for unemployed hospitality workers.

"Just to have a partner like that gives me somebody who I really trust, whose voice means a significant amount to me and our city," Carter said. "He is somebody who I consider not just a friend, but a real partner in the vision we're advancing for St. Paul."

Food was a family affairThe child of divorced parents, Justin and his younger twin brothers were often left on their own while their flight-attendant mother traveled for work. Janet Sutherland always had a watchful friend look in, and always made it home in time for family dinners. But as the mom of three Black sons in a predominantly white suburb, she worried.

"My fear of failing them was so incredible," Janet said. "There was this pressure, like, what's the world gonna think? I have very high-energy kids. They're very impulsive. Risk doesn't scare them."

Janet also wanted to prepare her boys for the ignorance and inequality they might face outside their home.

"I always taught them about what people are going to say, but I always tried to make them believe that they're wonderful," she said. "I am so proud of these guys, and how they can just interact with the world and they can give their opinion, without punching somebody in the face."

Well, except for that one time. Sutherland was in third or fourth grade when a kid in his after-school program called him a racial slur. So he punched him.

"I didn't know why I was mad, because I had never identified that way," Sutherland said, looking back. "It was the first time that I truly identified as Black."

It was another family activity — watching the law drama "The Practice" — that inspired Sutherland to win his fights with words. He joined debate, and decided to pursue a law career.

There were what he called "educational missteps" along the way. Sutherland enrolled at Minnesota State University, Mankato, where he always knew where the best parties were. "I kind of lost a little interest in really buckling down on the work part," he said.

Still, he finished with a business degree, and came home the summer before law school. He got a job at a mortgage brokerage, but something didn't feel right.

"Between studying for the brokerage stuff and the cold calling and sitting in a cubicle all day, that's when I was just like, there's no way that I can do this life," he said. "I knew I needed more human connection, artistic expression."

With his dad's encouragement, he took a chance on food, and went off to Atlanta for culinary school.

He'd always loved cooking, but hadn't thought about it as a career. It was just something he did with his family. His grandparents hailed from Mississippi and Iowa on one side, Japan and Minnesota (but 100% Norwegian) on the other.

"I followed my grandmothers around in the kitchen," he said.

One grandmother's cooking was steeped in big soul food neighborhood suppers. His other grandmother came over from Japan after the Korean War, and out of fear of persecution, didn't share much about her culture. The one thing she did share was food.

"That's how she showed us Japan, because she was afraid to show us any other ways," Sutherland said.

For both of these matriarchs, food was their "love language," and today his cooking is a love letter back to them, both at Handsome Hog, where he celebrates soul food and barbecue, and at O Bachan, his restaurant in Rosedale Center, where he's applied the build-your-own model to bowls of ramen and Japanese fried chicken. (The name means grandmother in Japanese.)

But before that, he had to work his way up the culinary ranks.

Finding himselfSutherland stayed in Atlanta after finishing culinary school.

"I fell in love with it," he said. And Atlanta loved him back, maybe too much. "Being in a place where bars are open till 5 a.m., we'd all get off work at midnight, go home, shower, get ready and go out at 2." The partying wore him out.

After four years, he decided to come home. "I don't think anybody really leaves here for good," he said.

But he didn't shake off that hard Atlanta lifestyle right away.

His first job after returning in 2008 was under David Fhima at the chef's two Zahtar restaurants.

"He was too much of a bon vivant," Fhima said. "I fired him 10 times and hired him 12."

Fhima became somewhat of a food scene father figure to Sutherland, and taught him an important lesson.

"I remember telling him whatever you do, what is your story?" Fhima said. "Because if you have a story that connects [to your food], it connects your heart to your brain. If you don't have that, you don't have a good dish."

Sutherland bounced around a bit but set his sights on a new French restaurant in St. Paul: Meritage.

He applied again and again until he finally landed a job working under chef and owner Russell Klein. "And it was the most difficult, just insane thing I've ever done in life. Every single day I went to work, I thought I was going to be fired," Sutherland said.

He couldn't bring himself to quit, and his tenacity took him from ice cream scooper to sous chef in four years. When Klein opened Brasserie Zentral in 2014, he picked Sutherland to be the opening chef.

"He got a lot more serious about the craft of cooking, thinking about food, reading about food when he was with us," Klein remembered of that time. "He was surrounded by people who took the career seriously. They really fed on each other."

But a year and a half into the job at Brasserie Zentral, Sutherland abruptly quit.

A few things had coincided that led him to evaluate his life. There was a bad breakup, and then a serious car accident. Though his car "crumbled around me," he walked away unscathed.

He had been living hard and working harder. "I had this quarter-life crisis," he said. All he knew clearly was that he wanted to cook — and be his own boss.

Sutherland sold his possessions, cobbled together $2,200, wrote goodbye letters to his parents and bought a one-way ticket to Costa Rica.

He spent eight months there, walking a lot, sleeping in hammocks and writing a business plan for what would become Handsome Hog.

Just like the job he conjured at Meritage a few years earlier, he focused on what he wanted. In this case, it was a little sliver of a wine bar in Lowertown that reminded him of cozy spots in New York.

"I remember telling myself if this space ever closes, I want to have a restaurant here," he said. When he came back from Costa Rica, there was a sign. Literally — the place had closed.

Sutherland called the number listed on the window and pitched his restaurant idea to the owner. He got the space, and with it, the financial backing he needed. He opened the restaurant in 2015 with business partner Joe Pirri.

Handsome Hog has since relocated to much larger digs in Cathedral Hill, and will soon add an exclusive, members-only lounge in the basement.

But not every step in his career went as smoothly as that one. He's opened and closed places and has had projects languish. And the pandemic, of course, shut him down altogether. Twice.

'This is Justin'Sutherland doesn't pretend everything is rosy for the public's sake.

"At the beginning it was all about showing the positive stuff, but you know, your Instagram is never really what your real life is," Sutherland said. "I've embraced failures and struggles and all the things that aren't shiny and pretty about myself as well, because I think people need to see that."

When George Floyd was killed last year, Sutherland opened up even more. Everything he felt and experienced as a Black man in Minnesota needed to be as much a part of his public image as his food and camera-ready smile.

"For me, that was definitely a line-in-the-sand moment," he said. "When that happened, and everything surrounding it, I was like, I don't care what everybody thinks. This is Justin. This is what I stand for and everybody's gonna know it."

He brought food out to protesters, and spoke at the State Capitol. He got new tattoos: the symbol of a raised fist synonymous with Black Lives Matter, and the title lyric from the Run the Jewels song, "Kill Your Masters." And he vented his frustrations on social media.

Suddenly that TV phrase "I'm not here to make friends" had new meaning.

J.D. Fratzke, the chef and restaurateur who is another mentor to Sutherland, accompanied him to a rally last summer where they handed out food. He noticed a change in Sutherland.

"To be there with him through that experience, it was kind of a catalyst for him to really realize what he wanted to do with his voice moving forward. He just wanted to be as positive and strong in what he was doing as possible," Fratzke said.

Sutherland's advocacy is a big part of his new TV project with Zimmern. "There are some sides to Justin that have not been developed for public consumption and are incredibly fascinating," Zimmern said. "He's a talented culinarian, but he's also a very smart and ferocious social justice advocate, and I think he is going to be a big voice for so many for a long time to come."

But even big voices start small, and Sutherland is already using his to guide the next generation.

He sits on the board for the Inner City Ducks, which provides after-school sports and mentoring for young boys in inner-city schools. He recently gave a virtual keynote address to a youth organization in north Minneapolis. He rarely turns down a Career Day invitation.

One of the first times he spoke at a school, he walked into a Minneapolis fifth-grade classroom and was immediately pulled aside. "There was a little Black kid, and he was like, 'Hey, sir, are you a chef?' And I was like, 'Yeah, I am.' And he's like, 'No, you're not. Chefs are white.' "

For once, Sutherland wasn't sure he could win the argument.

"What hit home was this kid doesn't even think he can be a chef, let alone president or anything that's way greater than what I'm doing. That's the importance of these kids seeing somebody that looks like them doing something other than sports or rap or prison."

By being a television personality, being a businessman, being himself, "that's my way of letting these kids know that of course you can be a chef," Sutherland said. "But you can be so much more."

Taste of JustinJustin Sutherland's influence is all over the Twin Cities.

RestaurantsHandsome Hog, 173 Western Av. N., St. Paul, handsomehog.com

O Bachan Japanese Fried Chicken & Noodles and Chickpea Hummus Bar, Rosedale Center, 1595 Hwy. 36, Roseville, potluckmn.com

He also is the culinary director at:

The Gnome Craft Pub, 498 Selby Av., St. Paul, thegnomepub.com

Woodfired Cantina (temporarily closed), Keg and Case Market, 928 W. 7th St., St. Paul, woodfiredcantina.com

And the culinary consultant for:

Minnesota United at Allianz Field, mnufc.com

RetailSignature seasonings, meat rubs, Tattersall whiskey and Craftmade apron: justinsutherland.com

Hybrid Nation clothing brand, which he co-owns with his brothers: hybridnationclothing.com

TV"Fast Foodies" on truTV, Thursdays at 9:30 p.m.