I first met Justin Kingsley Hall, the chef at The Kitchen at Atomic, in early 2018 for my chef Q&A column in Las Vegas Food and Beverage Professional. He was to chat with and you could tell he has big vision and aspirations, so I was like, I need to get to know this guy better.
We met for beers in September at Hop Nuts in the Arts District, his wife was due with their second child and he was prepping for cooking at Life is Beautiful. His life is filled with busy, but he’s able to make it work. (Next year will be the third Whiskey in the Wilderness event, so keep an eye on that! And don’t be surprised if you see him at any number of other events he joins in to cook!)
How’d you end up in Las Vegas and you’re favorite part about it?
I ended up in Las Vegas because I was coming to the end of a very long relationship and I needed to get out of my hometown. I was deciding where to go and was deciding on Portland or Las Vegas and it seemed like a better option for the resume. … I made the move out here, I came out and interviewed a lot of places and just got captivated by a friend, Brian Howard [of Sparrow and Wolf], working at his restaurant, took that job and an extra room [at a friend’s house] and that’s what drew me to be here. I thought a year would be about as long as I’d want to live in the desert.
Why not work on the Strip?
I think because, I worked on the Strip for nine months and was transferred to West Hollywood and then came back to Vegas and I had all these opportunities to get back to working on the Strip when I was ready to work in restaurants again and I just didn’t take them because I didn’t want to. That’s not why I cook. I don’t cook to try the fanciest dish or blow minds with flavors. My food is being a catalyst for conversations; people sitting at a table longer than they intended to.
The Strip, that’s not the intention. That’s blow your mind, maybe fill you with food and get in and out. The Strip restaurants are these elaborate experiences and there are lots of great aspects to it, but when it came to my style of comfort and hanging out, and disappearing into a conversation, that’s not what the Strip is about, so I came along to the neighborhood restaurants.
Come in, take a seat. Want to stay longer? Awesome, I’m glad you feel comfortable here. So then it was bout trying to find the right off the strip restaurant that was perfect to pour myself into.
What is it exactly you’re trying to do with The Kitchen at Atomic?
The idea with the menu was to create something that limits the size to control quality and consistency. But it was also about building two experiences of a neighborhood restaurant. That place you can run to for a burger and a beer and go to a show at Bunkhouse, go to Smith Center, or continue drinking down Fremont Street, but it will get you that fill you need.
Or you can come just for us, have four courses, wine, cocktails, beer, large or small format and we can cover all those aspects and get the same quality as the Strip. We’re not going to rush you out. You’re welcome to stay for three hours.
That’s what I want to be for somebody. Me being at Atomic was to create more of a neighborhood scene.
Why do you do all these extra events [on top of your executive chef job at Atomic]?
I’m a workaholic. Feeding the madness, even when I have two or three things to do and I just want to sit down and watch TV and hang with the family, drink with friends. The minute I start doing that, I’m like man I’m being lazy. Could I cook for someone? Do more?
But also anywhere I’ve lived, I wanted to be invested in the community in some way. The community feeds me and my success so to feed off it and not give back seems ridiculous. I gotta find a way to keep doing things. It’s a sickness.
What’s your hope for Las Vegas food scene in the long run?
In the long run, I hope it’s more focused on the talent we have here than the talent of other places. Stop worrying about New York, San Francisco, France, Italy, and utilize our resources to bring in everything we want and the talent we want and realize it’s our city and very open canvas. Let’s start doing something that can be focused on.
What’s your relationship with beer?
It’s been interesting within the U.S. in craft beer and its influence, going from beer is for white trash, NASCAR, frat parties and getting wasted to now there’s all these complex flavors and things you can do with it.
We got so used to wine dinners, why not on a high level add in beer and play with the flavors. In a lot of ways, there’s so much more room to have fun with beer. It’s not just the terroir like in wine. It’s influenced by so many ingredients. You can have things like chocolate, saffron, oak, implemented into the beer.
My relationship is having fun with the beer community. Midnight brunches, tasting dinners, being at Atomic and having a great bomber list, and a sour list to enhance and a push for someone to have a great meal.
It’s one of those playful elements, you have a lot more room to explore than having to stick to what we remember as fine dining with just wine.
Do have a favorite Las Vegas beer?
In the Las Vegas beer scene, we have some really cool things coming along. You do have this actual community, not as deep as East Coast or West Coast, but some people who can fucking push those people as far as talent and what they’re putting out.
It’s like loving people like Crafthaus and Big Dog’s, you have all these people working to do something here, that I think are just waiting to explode. You look at, where Firestone Walker started, Double Barrel was my intro to beer. It was like, ‘Holy shit this is interesting,’ and before we got to Barrelworks.
Basically, with the beer scene, I think there’s a lot of room for growth, but with people who actually are very much on the upswing. People don’t expect that artisan quality out of Las Vegas and I think they’re missing out.
Beer, hard liquor, distilling, food-wise, they don’t expect the small here. It’s all about mass, and I think that’s where they can get surprised in the next handful of years.
Las Vegas very much has its own artisan scene.