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Saint Paul’s Top Chef on Keeping Secrets and the Moment that Freaked Him Out the Most

Justin Sutherland’s star is on the rise

Justin Sutherland smiling and leaning on a banquet, wearing a black hat with white stitching that says, “In Diversity We Trust.” Lucy Hawthorne/Eater Twin Cities

A conversation with chef Justin Sutherland centers less on his restaurants and more on his current stint on “Top Chef.” His mind is occupied with meetings, spreadsheets and keeping his TV outcome on lockdown. Sutherland recently took over operations of the Madison Group’s six restaurants — including Handsome Hog, where Sutherland is founding executive chef.

“It’s been intense,” he says of the secret. “I already lived through it all and have been having to keep it quiet for so long, so it’s a relief it’s happening. But it will be weird.”

Several episodes in Sutherland has emerged as a frontrunner, having won the season’s very first Quick Fire challenge, and later, impressing judges like Tom Colicchio and Padma Lakshmi with a Kentucky-inspired corn hoecakes dish — despite some kitchen calamity. Of tonight’s second part of the Restaurant Wars battle Sutherland said, “That’s the worst moment. That’s where I felt my heart drop out of my butt.”

Fortunately, the fast pace and chaotic situations of the show play into Sutherland’s personality. “Being in this business in general, I thrive on adrenaline and pressure” he says, noting that what makes him a strong competitor is his ability to “think on my feet, think on the fly, make decisions, trust myself and go with it.”

Lucy Hawthorne/Eater Twin Cities

His range of experiences makes him a formidable foe as well. After graduating from Le Cordon Bleu in Atlanta, Sutherland, who grew up in Apple Valley, came home and worked around St. Paul at places like Faces Mears Park, W.A. Frost and Bennett’s Chophouse. He connected with Russell Klein and worked with him for five years, including as sous chef, at Meritage and Brasserie Zentral before opening Handsome Hog in 2016. Combine his background with strong culinary roots — one of his grandmothers is from Japan, one is from Mississippi — and you have a chef who can cook both high-end and easy-going cuisine in a range of global flavors.

“I have a love for Southern cuisine and soul food, and I wanted to meld a lot of French techniques and cooking styles with the food I enjoy,” he says. “World cuisine in general is how I like to eat and personally cook. Right now with Hog, I am the barbecue pork guy, and that happens because that’s your restaurant. But I like to do it all.”

That time he won Iron Chef
Photo courtesy of Justin Sutherland

Sutherland caught the eye of “Iron Chef” producers, and after a resounding victory against Iron Chef Alex Guarnaschelli, the “Top Chef” team came knocking. In order to film the series this past spring, Sutherland had to completely leave his restaurants in the hands of his teams to enter complete seclusion. No phones, no internet, no contact. “You’re completely in the ‘Top Chef’ bubble,” he says.

When he got there, he quickly realized that to some of his fellow competitors he was one of the small-town guys. “There were a couple of us — myself, a guy from Iowa and someone from Dothan, Alabama — and we were all kind of like the small-town people,” he says. “I wouldn’t put Minneapolis and St. Paul in the same category as Dubuque or Dothan, but to the LA cast that’s what I was. So it was kind of fun to try and showcase what we’re doing out here, help gain us a little more notoriety and let the world know there’s cool stuff happen in the Midwest.”

In the midst of the televised excitement Sutherland has continued his upward trajectory. He’s teamed up with restaurateur Pat Conroy of the Muddy Cow restaurant brand to take over the Madison Group’s operations with six established and vastly different St. Paul restaurants, plus Pearl & the Thief, which is in the process of relocating from Stillwater to Minneapolis. “It’s a different kind of stress and pressure,” he says. “But I’m definitely ready for a change. My original background is business management, that’s what I went to school for, and that’s a part of the business that I definitely look forward to. I love cooking, so I won’t lose that completely, but I won’t be on the line so much anymore.”

As he acclimates to his new role, Sutherland is starting with a hands-off approach, getting to know each unique spot before he makes any moves. “The chefs and GMs, the people who are running [the restaurants], they’re there every day on the front lines, so I don’t want to go in and step on anyone’s toes,” he says. “Right now it’s to see what they’re doing and hopefully be an asset to them to help be more successful. Once we get our heads wrapped around that aspect of it, we can see what changes need to be made.”

Though he’s received offers for opportunities in other places, Sutherland’s new path proves he’s committed to staying put. “I’ve been in St. Paul for 12 years,” he says. “It’s very important for me to continue to do what I’m doing here and become a bigger part of our community, and it’s great to be able to employ my friends and neighbors and feed my neighborhood. So I’m not going anywhere.”