Embracing a Proud Culinary Tradition
Representing his adopted home town on the current season of Bravo’s Top Chef, Justin Devillier is the chef and owner of New Orleans’ fantastic neighborhood bistro, La Petite Grocery. Since taking the reins in 2007, the California-native has focused on traditional Louisiana flavors and ingredients in his contemporary cuisine – think turtle bolognese with a crispy soft boiled egg, blue crab beignets, and Gulf shrimp and grits with roasted mushrooms. His food hasn’t gone unnoticed, Devillier is a two-time James Beard nominee for Best Chef South, while La Petite Grocery is consistently ranked among Nola’s best restaurants. We chat with Devillier about Top Chef challenges, developing the soul of La Petite Grocery, and his favorite New Orleans restaurants.
AndrewZimmern.com: You’re originally from California. What brought you to New Orleans in the first place?
Justin Devillier: I really wanted to get out on my own and learn all that I could about becoming a chef. My top three cities for that were New Orleans, San Francisco and New York. At the time a line cook made about $7.50/hr, so that almost immediately ruled out New York and San Francisco. Also, the Devillier side of my family has been in Louisiana for a couple hundred years so I have family here that made the transition easier. Once I got to New Orleans and settled in, I completely got sucked in and fell in love with the uniqueness of the city, met my wife, started a family and bought a restaurant (not necessarily in that order). It’s been 11 years…
AZ.com: When you and your wife Mia bought La Petite Grocery in 2010, what did you change about the restaurant or menu?
JD: In 2010 we had the opportunity to purchase the majority of the restaurant. We decided that if we were going to do it we would make a strong effort to develop its identity. In the past the walls had been bare and signage was pretty basic. It was missing some soul. We procured pictures from the original turn of the century grocery store that occupied the location to display on the dining room walls. With the help of the granddaughter of the original proprietor and old city records we came up with a timeline of the building and a detailed history. Through the ambiance, bar and food we really want to evoke the feeling of what it is that makes the building and neighborhood so special. We had a local artist etch a gold leaf design of our name on our front window to give a little more exposure and a more welcoming feel. The menu is a collaboration of myself, our sous chefs and our pastry chef. We are one big happy family and family-run restaurant.
AZ.com: Who has been your biggest influence thus far?
JD: I have been fortunate to work for some great chefs who taught me so much about technique and work ethic. These days I get my inspiration from our cooks and sous chefs who I spend all of my cooking time with. When you are surrounded by passionate people, it’s easy to stay inspired.
AZ.com: Favorite New Orleans restaurants?
AZ.com: Fill in the blank: A trip to New Orleans is not complete without _____.
JD: Exploring the whole city and not just the French Quarter/downtown.
AZ.com : What prompted you to try out for Top Chef?
JD: When the opportunity came about to represent the home town I got interested.
AZ.com: On Top Chef, many challenges require improvising. What’s that like?
JD: I think it’s what makes it so challenging and unique. Not only are you constantly adapting to the ingredients but to the environments as well. On one hand you’re used to prepping in a fast paced, high pressure situation and on the other the challenges have perimeters that add a whole new dimension.
AZ.com: What’s in your fridge?
JD: Baby formula, kimchi, La Croix sparkling water, pickles, chocolate milk and lots of veggies.
Justin Devillier was raised in Dana Point, California, a small beach town in South Orange County. He spent summers fishing for Yellowtail and Albacore tuna and in the fall and winter he would dive for lobsters just steps from his front door. This bounty of local seafood inspired Justin to enter the culinary industry and after working in local restaurants right out of high school, he decided to focus all of his time on becoming a chef.
In 2003, Devillier moved to New Orleans and cooked in the kitchens of Bacco, Stella and Peristyle. While at Peristyle, he worked with Chef Anne Kearny-Sands and learned the intricacies of French cuisine.
Devillier joined the La Petite Grocery team in 2004 and became sous chef a year later. After Hurricane Katrina, he helped re-build La Petite Grocery’s infrastructure by managing the daily specials and training the new line cooks. In February 2007, he was promoted to executive chef and was named a 2008 “Chef to Watch” by Louisiana Cookin magazine and the Times-Picayune. In 2009, the New Orleans City Business Culinary Connoisseurs named him one of the city’s best chefs and also recognized La Petite Grocery as “Best Neighborhood Restaurant”.
He and his wife Mia bought La Petite Grocery in 2010 and he has since been named a James Beard Award finalist in 2012 and 2013 for Best Chef – South. When he has free time, he can be found fishing or on the beach with his wife and two young daughters. Devillier can also be seen on the current season of Bravo TV’s Top Chef – New Orleans.