Why We Love Justin Bazdarich
Though Justin undoubtedly has bragging rights after opening three wildly successful restaurants, that’s just not how he rolls. His advice to new cooks: “Make sure that your way isn’t the best way and that there’s a better way to do it.”
“I have a mantra I try to instill in my employees: ‘How do we make it better than it was today? How can I be better tomorrow than I was today?’”
“The origins of all food come from a wood fire.”
How did you get into cooking?
I started cooking when I was in college—or sort of when I dropped out of college! I realized that the restaurant industry had all my loves in it: architecture, industrial design, painting, pottery, interior design, on and on. I didn’t know what I wanted to do after I quit my industrial design major. But Food Network had just come out, and I’d watch that and saw the culinary landscape was so wide. It was inspiring to go out and learn more about food and learn how to cook.
So, where did this inspiration lead you?
I started in a Mediterranean fast-casual restaurant to learn to become a line cook. Then I went to a bar to make sure I got those free shift drinks I really needed! Then I moved to Texas to work for a Belgian woman who had a French bistro. She taught me about French technique and showed me a lot of cookbooks. One of them was Cooking at Home with a Four-Star Chef by Jean-Georges Vongerichten. I was enamored by this book. I moved to New York and started interning for him straight away. After about six years, Jean-Georges took me to open restaurants worldwide. I opened 15 restaurants and was on the road for three years. But I learned every aspect of understanding how to run a restaurant and decided to open my own, Speedy Romeo.
Woodfire seems to be your signature. Where did this come from?
I knew wanted to do a woodfired restaurant from a steakhouse I opened in Las Vegas. I wanted to run with those flavors. Both Speedy Romeo’s kitchens in Brooklyn and the Lower East Side use woodfire, there’s no gas. So we sort of tied our hands behind our backs. I didn’t want to just take Jean-Georges’ stuff and reconstitute it. It was a way to be unique and do something different. After that, the woodfired cuisine was so special to me, so I wanted to do another restaurant in that realm. So, that’s where Oxomoco started.
Why did you choose Mexican after Italian cuisine?
Mexico was the first country I ever traveled abroad when I was young. I went to Merida with my high school class. I stayed with a family for a few nights. That was my first stamp on my passport, and that’s where the love of travel stemmed from. Everything I’d learned with Spanish in high school I later started using in those kitchens I worked in, and my knowledge of the language grew from there. Oxomoco is like an homage to all my travels through Mexico and then putting that woodfired twist on it.
What's the draw to pizza and tacos?
When working with Jean-Georges, I thought I’d be like a molecular gastronomical genius and that I’d have the craziest, most outlandish food if I were to ever open my own restaurant. And when I was traveling with him, we’d dine at these incredible restaurants around the world. And one night after one of those 12- or 15-course meals, he said, ‘This is a business. Culinary genius doesn’t pay the bills.’ From there, I saw how his restaurants evolved to ‘everyday food.’ So, that’s where I tried to make a menu that was approachable by all. Everybody loves pizza, and I’m not excluding people to be afraid of trying more than once, or only come to for a special occasion or once a month. I wanted as many people as possible to enjoy my menus. That’s where the pizza concept started. Then, what’s next to pizza? Tacos. I’m just trying to make food people crave and that’s easy to obtain.
Do you think most people are familiar with Oaxacan cuisine before they come to Oxomoco?
I think some are. The way we’ve designed the space is a touch of a departure from New York. Speedy Romeo is kind of more masculine, New York City, gritty, rock-and-roll feel interior-wise. And for Oxomoco, we chose a space with skylights, there’s nothing above us, we have plants and it’s like a light and bright room with lots of foliage. You don’t feel like you’re in New York when you’re in that room. I know that’s why people enjoy sitting there and eating. But when they’re there, a lot of comments are like, ‘I just got back from Oaxaca, or Tulum, or Mexico City, or California.’ So, I know that people feel like they’ve departed New York. And when you live in New York, that’s how you want to feel—that you’re not here!
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