Justin James – building the world’s next culinary capital

18 December 2023

Restaurant Botanic is one of our country’s best culinary experiences and head chef Justin James is ready to see his home city take on the world’s best

In just two years, Justin James has propelled Adelaide’s historic Restaurant Botanic onto the national culinary scene with one of the most exciting menus in the country. 

But this is only the beginning for the celebrated chef, who is eager to see his home city take on the world’s best.

Justin boasts an enviable resume, having worked at several of the world’s best Michelin Star restaurants including Noma, Dan Barber’s Blue Hill at Stone Barns and Eleven Madison Park. After a stint at Melbourne’s exceptional Vue de Monde, he relocated to Adelaide to take the position of executive head chef at the Botanic Restaurant, which opened in mid 2021. 

Since then, he has garnered national and international attention with his seasonal menu infused with a farm-to-table ethos which has defied expectations through its unique approach to Australian produce.

Upon taking on the restaurant, Justin was well aware of its long history, dating back to its opening in 1906. Over time, he has gained an appreciation of the special place it has in the heart of South Australians. 

“I feel like everybody’s got a little history to the place, whether they were married there or their parents got married there or they worked there,” Justin said. 

“Like a mini historic kind of landmark in a way. 

“When they come in for the evening and say they’re very proud to have an incredible experience in a place that means a lot to them, it’s a cool thing to hear.”

The celebrated tasting menu at Restaurant Botanic promises a journey through the surrounding Garden with a meticulously planned sensory menu. It is recommended that visitors allow four hours to savour the entire experience.

Central to this experience is access to some of the Garden’s unique produce. Justin worked closely with horticultural staff to incorporate a limited quantity of produce in the restaurant’s menu.

“The Garden is a museum of living plants, trees, shrubs, flowers and everything else in between,” Justin said. 

“The Gardens want you to see the full cycle of a plant’s life, whether it’s the avocado growing on a tree that’s been half eaten off the tree by the bats or the birds that then falls on the ground and decays – it’s important that people don’t just go out and pick.

“We can take a certain amount of produce or leaves or flowers, but still keep some on there for the general public to walk through and see Mother Nature work.

“We become part of that life cycle story.”

As of early August, Justin reports an array of produce coming into season that will be incorporated into his upcoming menus, including finger limes, Meyer lemons, blood oranges, bergamots, tamarillos, lemon myrtle, lemon aspen, quandong, saltbush, bunya nuts, Davidson plums, macadamia trees, almonds, bay leaves, peaches, nectarines, persimmons, quinces, and diverse avocados.

His respect for the produce is evident in his commitment to minimising food waste in the kitchen and reducing Restaurant Botanic’s carbon footprint on the environment.

His dishes often include preserved and fermented creations, as well as oils and vinegars infused with the Garden’s flavours.

“I get upset if I see anything that we pick from the Garden go to waste. Someone worked really hard to grow that produce and then picked it for us to use,” Justin said. 

“Anybody can just put a leaf or flower on top of a dish and that’s not what I’m interested in. I want to taste the Gardens in our food.”

Crafting a new menu that embraces these local flavours and continually challenges customer expectations means Justin is constantly searching for inspiration and time to develop his concepts.

“To cook really great food is incredibly hard and I’m always just trying to be different – that’s what Restaurant Botanic is. 

“It has to be a bit quirky and delicious and it has to incorporate the Gardens. Coming up with something like that takes a long time.  

“I’ve lived in New York City, London, Copenhagen, Melbourne and Los Angeles, and every day was a grind. 

“My job means I hustle every day, but when you add in traffic and the other hard parts of big cities and dealing with a lot of people, you don’t always realise that all those little stresses are bogging you down and you get to the point where you have no space. 

“Living in Adelaide allows me to think about other things. It’s a good place to call home.”

Justin doesn’t need to look far for inspiration, with Adelaide Botanic Garden right on his doorstep. 

“Just walking a little path I haven’t taken or finding a nice dry spot of grass to sit down and look at the massive pine trees or the little creek is perfect.

“Just being absorbed by it all. That’s where I get most of my creative ideas.

“You should never look within your industry for ideas, look out. Because if you look within, you’re just going to do the same as everyone else. 

“’I’m going to create something new. That’s why I go to the Gardens.”

This creativity has yielded remarkable results, with Restaurant Botanic becoming one of the most talked about restaurants in the country.

A mere 14 months after opening, Restaurant Botanic was crowned Gourmet Traveller Restaurant of the Year 2023 

It has also earned Three Hats by Good Food and a perfect 5 out of 5 in The Australian. 

Despite these accolades, Justin believes the success of Restaurant Botanic is also tied to establishing Adelaide as a culinary destination. 

“I wasn’t here just to create an exceptional restaurant, my goal was to be something bigger, something that we can be proud of as a community,” Justin said.

“My goal is to put Adelaide on the map.”

“The more exceptional experiences we have across the platform, the better it is for everybody. 

“When you have a portfolio of great restaurants and bars and cafes that play to all different types of experiences, then people will come and spend the weekend here because there’s so many different options to suit everyone.

“The better we are as a community, the better it will be for everybody.”

The dynamic chef sees distinct parallels between his new home and Copenhagen, the Nordic city often hailed as the world’s culinary capital where Justin lived and worked for several years.

He wants to be part of the journey that’s propelling Adelaide onto the world stage. 

“If you look at Copenhagen 20 years ago, they’re a small city who has a similar population to Adelaide. No one really knew about it. 

“Then a restaurant called Noma opened and just changed their entire dining scene. Then people who were working there go out and open their own cool little wine bar or another incredible restaurant.

“All of a sudden people want to go to Copenhagen for two weeks because it is full of so many great experiences in the food and beverage scene. 

“When I came to Adelaide, I saw a foundation that was fantastic. 

“I believe Adelaide is on that projection, as long as we keep delivering and we open up some good spots and more hospitality professionals come here, there’ll be no doubt that it can compete as one of the best.”