(Left) Author David Wondrich with Chef Jonathan Justus.

(Left) Author David Wondrich with Chef Jonathan Justus.

Justus Drugstore: A Restaurant, located in Smithville, Missouri, has a lot riding on its name.

With over one year of operation and plenty of sweat equity under their belt, executive chef Jonathan Justus and his wife Camille Eklof, general manager of the restaurant, have built the first cutting edge fine dining restaurant in this conservative town and plenty of people have taken notice.

Welcome to the Show
It’s funny how life turns out. Some people let go of the string to helium-filled dreams and watch that balloon rise and disappear. Others seek out their dreams, willing to jump into a hot-air balloon of uncertainty, take a risky flight, search for the time and place to drift back to earth, and transform wishes into reality. Before they even began working in a restaurant, Eklof and Justus had dreams of opening a bed-and-breakfast. That bed-and-breakfast never came to be, but the couple set off on a path that led to another dream.

Today, Justus and Eklof live in a tiny 100-year-old house on a half-acre property in Paradise near Smithville Lake. After years of traveling and working in restaurants in the United States and France, the couple settled down and spent two-and-a-half-years fixing up their corner of paradise from top to bottom. The unassuming house––a sanctuary from the restaurant––is located on a quiet road and is surrounded by old trees, bushes, and flowers planted around the sloping hills. Inside, the cozy home has a guest room, a kitchen the size of a broom closet, and a porch that beckons guests to sit a spell. The interior is filled with art, books, and memorabilia; the sort of belongings that serve as a prompt for stories about heritage, purpose, origin, and discovery.

Conviviality and hospitality is part of the rich adventure that Eklof and Justus share as wife and husband, entrepreneurs, and lovers of a good life fashioned from hard work. Both at work and at home, Justus is fond of telling tales and anecdotes about common objects and arcane artifacts. He is short and stocky with a stout belly earned––like many career chefs––from cooking and tasting in the kitchen and dining at the table. His brain is an encyclopedia of collective knowledge one might find from a historian, European tour guide, forest ranger, farmer, cyclist, chef, and the culinary bible LaRousse Gastronomique. Give him a glass of wine and enough time to get a lungful of air and he will entertain you with lively conversation to pass the time. This knowledge and years of experience in the culinary industry inform his lively patois of cooking terminology and innate love for fine food, drink, and people with a similar affinity.

Equally experienced in the restaurant industry, Eklof is slim as a willow tree and quick with a smile. She is savvy about cuisine and full of industriousness that is evident as she bustles around the restaurant. As co-owner and general manager, she wears many hats such as overseeing the front of the house staff of servers and bartenders. She trains the serving staff, helps to bus tables, and manages the wine inventory. Eklof greets regular customers and welcomes newcomers to the smartly designed space. A television screen mounted near the doorway to the patio shows images of the do-it-yourself construction and remodeling the duo undertook before opening over a year ago. She spent a “day off” in late May 2008 to plant herbs and flowers in flowerbeds positioned around a new patio next to the restaurant. Between scoops of fertilizer, she dusted off dirt from work gloves and worn jeans to field phone calls for reservations and questions from her husband.

Eklof and Justus are the epitome of entrepreneurs dedicated to taking on any task from sun up to sun down. As any husband-and-wife team who run a small business, especially a restaurant (i.e. Mano and Barb Rafael at Le Fou Frog, Megan and Colby Garrelts at bluestem), can tell you, the hope of success and beating the odds in this industry requires a willingness to work long hours. The cycle repeats day in, day out, six days a week plus more time during the “off” day to run errands and deal with paperwork, weekends and holidays, month after month, year after year in a bid to break even and someday make a profit. What takes place behind-the-scenes matters little to most guests. They come for fine food, drink, service, and an idiosyncratic ambiance which restaurants with a true sense of place offer. And modern day foodies, amateur and professional critics, and bloggers in the chattering class notice every detail. So, the pressure to be on is always there.

Heritage
Despite garnering a top-notch reputation as a culinary destination among gourmands in the Kansas City metro and Midwest, and in national food publications such as Food and Wine and Bon Appetit, the memorable restaurant name “Justus Drugstore: A Restaurant” has lead to some legal woes for the couple.

The name refers to the former family business that Justus’ grandfather, a pharmacist, operated from 1914-1955 on property that has been in the family since 1854. After the grandfather passed away, Jonathan’s mother, also a pharmacist, ran the drugstore and soda fountain for another forty years at 106 West Main. Justus worked as a soda jerk behind the fountain since he was old enough to see over the counter. After graduating from Smithville High School in 1983, he moved to Los Angeles to study art. Six years later, he moved to San Francisco where he met Eklof.

After several years of working in restaurants, eating, living, and traveling in Kansas City, San Francisco, Aix-en-Provence, and Paris, France, the couple returned to Smithville, brought their culinary experience to the table, and opened for business in the old storefront. Naming the business “Justus Drugstore: A Restaurant” was partly a nod to the former family business and an acknowledgement of a brand name that folks living in Smithville over the past few decades would recognize and appreciate. Everyone, that is, except the Missouri Board of Pharmacy.

An investigator for the Board appeared at the restaurant just before Memorial Day 2008 and announced that she was there to file a report on the pharmacy. In disbelief, Justus laughed and stated the obvious to anyone that has stepped inside the doorway or noticed the signage, business cards, and menus in plain English––Justus Drugstore is a restaurant. According to Justus, the inspector stated that someone could come in and “think that what you are telling them is the advice of a medical professional.” The dining tables, working kitchen, and plates of food might have been a clue to the contrary.

Changing the name of the business would cost Justus and Eklof unexpected expenses and an invaluable brand name tied to the family’s heritage. Nonetheless, the inspector completed her investigation and filed a report with the Board. On June 10, Justus and Eklof received a letter from executive director Debra Ringgenberg on Board of Pharmacy stationary ordering them to CEASE AND DESIST the unlawful use of the word “drugstore” and change the business name within thirty days. The letter cited a Missouri statute specifying that the use of the designation “pharmacy” and “drugstore” is only legally allowable in a place of business supervised by a licensed pharmacist.

Concerned, the couple took up the issue with Missouri Senator LuAnn Ridgeway, who spoke with Governor Matt Blunt about the matter. Since then, the legal battle has escalated. William Raney, a Kansas City attorney specializing in First Amendment law and president of the board of directors of the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas & Western Missouri, has taken up the cause. Raney sent a letter back to the board challenging the order as an unconstitutional infringement of the free speech rights of the restaurant’s owners. Further, the letter challenges the board to provide evidence that anyone has been confused by the restaurant’s name.

Currently, the board has plans to discuss the matter in September. The story of legal concerns over the restaurant name has garnered press in the KC Star and other print publications. Justus and Eklof, backed by legal representation, are seeking a reasonable settlement that does not involve a name change for the business.

Sense of Place
Long before fuss over the name arose, the restaurant’s reputation has been highly touted by local foodies and critics. Justus cites regulars who claim, “It’s the best meal I’ve ever had.”

Self-generated hype? Judging from the packed house of enthusiastic diners on two weekday visits, it’s doubtful. Entering the renovated space located off Main Street, the restaurant is modern and charming with nods to its heritage. A clip of film, enlarged and framed, displays the name of the pharmacy from yesteryear. Also, the soda fountain now functions as a bar replete with stools that still bear graffiti from years past underneath the seats.

Glancing at the contemporary art on the walls, sleek furnishings, or the open design of the kitchen framed by orange panels, it’s plain to see that Eklof and Justus put their creative stamp on the surroundings rather than rely on kitsch or nostalgia. The outdoor patio with wooden planters bearing herbs and flowers is most inviting during cooler months. This stylish Smithville restaurant would fit right in with chic bistros and boutiques filling Kansas City’s Crossroads Arts District, but is worth the excursion as a retreat from the demands of the day.

Purpose

Cooking is not about convenience and it’s not about shortcuts… Our hunger for the twenty-minute gourmet meal, for a one-pot ease and prewashed, precut vegetables has severed our lifeline to the satisfactions of cooking. Take your time. Take a long time. Move slowly and deliberately and with great attention. ––Thomas Keller, Chef Owner, The French Laundry

The above quote attributed to renowned chef Thomas Keller is printed on the menu at Justus Drugstore: A Restaurant, and is also posted on the front door of the Smithville establishment. Justus believes in respecting local farmers and growers, treating food and land as a sustainable resource, and honoring the time-tested traditions of cooking. He believes in the tenets of Slow Food––the social nature of dining slowly and deliberately, the importance of a food’s origins and genetic integrity, and the respectful preparation of ingredients to yield inspired results.

Before assuming the mantle of executive chef, Justus apprenticed in a number of cooking roles during his career to learn lessons, refine ideas and skills, and develop his own assertions about cooking. In sum, he has worked stints at Zin (since closed; Michael Smith’s occupies the space now), Macaluso’s (also gone), Le Fou Frog (author’s note: I cooked with Justus in the kitchen years ago; Eklof also served there), as a food stylist for cookbook writers, and at a company where he learned to butcher and process meat. He also cooked as a chef (along with Eklof as a server) sans working papers in a small southern French village known for legendary gipsy guitarist Manitas de Plata, who played at the restaurant on occasion.

Now with a kitchen of his own, Justus balances inventive instincts with a reverent sense of tradition and understanding of food’s relationship to geography, history, and seasonality. His menu regularly features original dishes prepared with uncommon ingredients or familiar food in innovative combinations. As a chef and advocate for local, sustainable food sources, Justus does back flips to obtain ingredients and deliver dishes that maximize the sensory impact of the food with minimal impact on the environment. “We try to inform the palate of our guests. We doing it on our terms,” he says.

Dating back to the ’70s, Alice Waters, celebrated chef and owner of Chez Panisse, advocated the use of fresh foods from local, sustainable sources and revitalized California cuisine with her ideas and practices. Today, terms like fresh, local, organic, seasonal, and sustainable are bandied about regularly in the culinary lexicon of what’s desirable. Anyone who’s anyone, that is, chefs like Thomas Keller (The French Laundry-CA), Charlie Trotter (Charlie Trotter’s-Chicago), Nancy Oakes (Boulevard-San Francisco), or Mark Ladner (Del Posto-NY) would hardly disagree with using fresh, local, seasonal ingredients. Nor would hometown proponents like The Garrelts (bluestem), Beth Barden (Succotash), or the staff at blue bird bistro.

Justus also lives out this philosophy, dubbing his approach as country referential. “I’m not trying to capitalize on the trend. I’m doing what makes sense,” says Justus. “I’ve been doing this since the Nineties.”

Today, he taps into a regional network of Missouri farms and purveyors including heritage Berkshire pork from Newman Farm in Myrtle that is processed at Paradise Locker Meats in Trimble, Arrowhead Game in Holt, Shatto Milk Company in Osborn, Norton Farm located in Plattsburg, Hammons Walnuts in Stockton, and Cunningham’s Berry Farm in Smithville. The list goes on. Justus isn’t above gathering wild seasonal edibles near his home in Paradise when foraging on a rare day off or buying from individual sources.

Adventure in Flavor
What can you do with produce, milk, eggs, and meats delivered from regional farms located less than a hundred miles from its source rather than trucked cross-country? Each week, Justus, his chef de cuisine Jeffrey Scot, and team of cooks apply technique and imagination to transform fresh ingredients as far as they can go.

Showing his craft, Justus takes an appetizer such as brandade––traditionally, a thick dip of whipped salt cod and potatoes that originated in Provence, France ––and substitutes smoked walleye instead for a touch of local flair. Justus draws on an affinity for French cuisine filtered through his Midwest sensibilities. For example, he creates a foie gras terrine with homey flavors of vanilla maple pecan, fig, ginger pear port syrup, fresh pear, and cinnamon brioche French toast. Ceviche, a dish usually associated with coastal Mexican or Mediterranean cuisine, is composed from fresh water striper bass, chives, chervil, sunflower sprouts, and other ingredients dressed in sesame citrus vinaigrette.

Local flavors come into play with Maytag blue cheese salad balancing the hearty taste of roasted beets against Missouri black walnut praline and apple gelée over mixed greens. Justus doesn’t hesitate to use fancy touches like truffle oil, smoke trout roe, and lardon made from heritage Berkshire bacon to dress up a curly endive salad.

Main entrees range from vegetable risotto to savory Campo Lindo chicken, fork tender Berkshire pork shank to hearty Akaushi beef brisket. Justus composes ingredients into a multilayered sensory experience, but sometimes the results are a bit fussy and over-extended. For instance, the brisket involves a house-made root beer braise, honey sassafras mustard vinaigrette, watercress, sorrel, wild arugula, celery root puree, and smoked vanilla butter glazed carrots. It feels like a buffet of flavor crammed on a plate. In contrast, the pork shank is a simpler assembly of down-to-earth components featuring wild arugula pesto, hominy, Berkshire bacon, creamy polenta, wild arugula salad, and fresh apple vinaigrette.

Specials featured off the menu allow Justus and his team to introduce more options for adventurous diners. During a meal in June, the kitchen offered a charcuterie plate featuring locally raised and processed pork. The sausage, headcheese, pate, house-made condiments, and bread were an ideal marriage of spicy, savory, and sweet flavors, rustic presentation, and sublime texture.

Justus is a chef hitting a strong stride in his professional career with only self-imposed restrictions to challenge his instincts. Sometimes, he is tempted to use too many of the colors available in his palette when a select few might deliver a more distinct and powerful impression. That’s not to say that these dishes aren’t tasty; indeed, as a hungry diner, every plate of multiple courses over a couple of visits left the table with barely a morsel left. The takeaway culinary observation is this: A little restraint can go a long way both in the use of complicated flavor profiles and in presentation.

While marveling over the last bites of food and sips of wine and cocktails before the final course, another subtle sensory element to the restaurant experience registers. Below the burbling conversation of chatting guests, a pleasing soundtrack of music washes through the room. Tunes by Camera Obscura, Bobby Bare, Jack Johnson, Johnny Cash, X, and other select artists only add to the distinctive ambiance of the place. Both Justus and Eklof are as avid about music as they are about food, drink, design, art, and hospitality. After a respite, when the time is right, dessert menus float into place.

The array of desserts is an all-star lineup of sweet and savory delights. Sweet corn crepes filled with lingonberry, blackberry compote, and lemon custard ice cream is tempting. Apricot beignets served with cinnamon honey ice cream and honey roasted pistachios were divine. Chocolate lovers can rejoice in the dark chocolate ale cake dished up with a side of caramel black walnut ice cream and delicate chocolate lace. The flights of homemade ice cream are dreamy scoops of lusciousness, ranging from exotic chai to fresh fruit, herb, and spice combinations.

Drink Up
Justus Drugstore: A Restaurant, is not just a dining destination. They whip up spectacular drinks that are worth spending the gas alone to drive up and wet your whistle. The Silver Elder Fizz requires fancy preparation that involves gin, house-infused vanilla vodka, local elderflower, fresh-squeezed lemon, limejuice, and egg white. Pull up a stool at the soda fountain/bar and watch it come together. It’s fizzy, floral, and fantastic. Tea Mist is a sophisticated concoction of Bacardi Silver, Skyy Vodka, ice tea, fresh-squeezed lemon juice, and house-made mint syrup. It’s a proven defense against dreadful summer heat and humidity. Other notable beverages include a fancifully named Sazerac d’Oise, Martini Provencal, or the deceptive, innocent-sounding Strawberry Limeade.

Justus, Eklof, and the bartenders put effort into their selection of infused spirits, fresh juices, and specialty ingredients. What goes into the glass is equally as important as what appears on the plate. Making the selection process simple for guests, each item on the menu’s list of starters, salads, and main dishes has a suggested wine pairing to complement flavors. The selection of red, white, sparkling, rose, and dessert wines offer more opportunity to uncover refined liquid refreshment in a range of prices. The Jibe Sauvignon Blanc ’06 presented passion fruit flavors followed by a grassy character. Chapoutier Belleruch Blanc ’06 is a crisp white with a profile of apple, lemon, mineral, and white pepper. If unsure of making choices or simply unwilling, then Eklof and the servers will gladly make recommendations that pay off.

Namesake
It’s a peculiar trait of humans to name the world around us. We name lands, lakes, streams, woodlands, and natural spaces. Once these places are razed and developed into commercial property, we invent fanciful names to evoke the place changed by money and machines. We apply names to tiny components of matter invisible to our eyes and distant heavenly bodies that we may never reach in person. We name our babies and pets and that name matters beyond calculation over a lifetime. It is more than a signifier for a person, place, or thing. In time, a name becomes intertwined with an identity that gathers weight and presence and legend unto itself.

Jonathan Justus and Camille Eklof have made a reputation for themselves by building on a trusted family name. They reinvented a piece of property once respected in the community as a pharmacy and constructed a dream into reality as a highly regarded restaurant. Justus Drugstore: A Restaurant is something significant. It is more concrete than culinary ideals and esoteric philosophies, more relevant than Missouri statues and codes in law books. It is far more than heady reviews with flowery words written and spoken by fawning fans and self-important critics. It is a living expression of food and season, craft and hospitality that cannot simply be classified by name like a variety of potato.

The Justus name on the signage, menus, and business cards reflects something greater––identity, family heritage, a sense of purpose, and discovery of what can be. It is something not easily defined, not a quality so quickly named, not an experience so easily checked off a must-see, must-do list. This land, these people, this community of farmers and growers and diners and neighbors, and this intentional gathering over food and drink inspires respect for what takes place from farm to kitchen to table. Whatever we might call it, once experienced firsthand we wish to participate in its broader purpose and be present as if it were our own corner of paradise.

Originally published in Present Magazine, August 2008. Photography by Pam Taylor.