The Untold Truth Of Justin Yu

In Gordon Ramsay's show "Uncharted," the "Hell's Kitchen" and "MasterChef" star travels to "the most incredible and remote locations on Earth in search of culinary inspiration" (via IMDB). And it's no exaggeration. In Seasons 1 and 2, the bombastic culinary personality high tailed it to Peru, Tasmania, and the Louisiana Bayou, and then to Norway, India, and Alaska. By Season 3, episode 1 of "Uncharted" (which premiered May 31), Ramsay took a breather with a place a little closer to his LA home — Houston.

While the Space City might not be totally synonymous with undiscovered ingredients and fascinating culinary history, the episode's guest, chef Justin Yu, showed Ramsay and viewers of the Nat Geo show an unexpected side of the Texas metropolis.

As Yu told Houstonia, "When people think of natural ingredients, they think of the Hudson Valley of New York and California, but I wanted to show how special Texas cuisine is ... It's really hot and you sweat a bunch, but the products aren't any less special."

And Yu would know. He's the James Beard Award winning chef behind Better Luck Tomorrow, Squable, and Theodore Rex, the latter of which has been hailed by Houstonia as one of the city's best restaurants. Yu was excited about the opportunity to work with one of the biggest figures in food entertainment on the show. "Who wouldn't want to hang out with Gordon Ramsay? He's a culinary icon, a fantastic chef, and an excellent ambassador for our profession. Plus I kind of have a dry sense of humor that I thought would (positively) rub him the wrong way," he told Nerdophiles.

There's no doubt Yu's wit, and thoughtful approach to food, will ensure more appearances in his future — so you might want to get to know him before he's the next big star.

He (almost) always wears glasses

If you've followed Justin Yu on social media, or if you live in the Houston area where he has been a celebrated chef since opening his now closed Oxheart restaurant more than a decade ago, you might be surprised to see the chef on Gordon Ramsay's "Uncharted" without his glasses. They are part of his signature, and often bespoke, look. If you're just now being introduced to Yu via the Nat Geo show, you can probably expect to see his bespectacled look in television appearances going forward. In fact, his reason for going sans specs on the recent episode wasn't vanity, but a mishap.

As Yu explained to Houstonia, he was heading to the interview with Nat Geo producers that would eventually land him his spot on the show, but he couldn't find his glasses and had to take the meeting without them. When it was time to film his scenes, Yu decided his look ought to be consistent with the way the producers had already seen him. We just hope he had contacts, especially on the day he and Ramsay hunted rattlesnakes in the Texas wilderness.

Yu's dumplings are kind of pricey

Justin Yu opened Theodore Rex (T-Rex, as it is playfully known) in 2017 (per Houston Press) at the site of his own former and acclaimed tasting restaurant, Oxheart, which is located in Houston's warehouse district. According to Wine Enthusiast, the revamped bistro-style establishment is a successful reinvention of Yu's work at Oxheart, offering creative dishes made with local ingredients, such as steamed Gulf oysters with turnip purée and the regionally-grown "Texas tarragon." Wine Enthusiast also named it one of America's 100 Best Wine Restaurants in 2019. As did many dining spots, T-Rex was forced to temporarily close in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and Yu used some of that downtime to reinvent much of the menu.

Inspired by a trip to Japan, Yu (who is of Chinese descent) has since developed a dumpling recipe that is said to be out of this world. But while an order of dumplings at your favorite local restaurant might cost $6 or $10, at T-Rex, Yu confidently charges $27. He told Culture Map, "Why are my dumplings $27 when someone else's are $12? I think it's the amount of work and attention to detail that goes into every single one of them." The little pockets of yumminess have a surprising Italian twist and are made with hand-made dough wrappers and top-shelf Parmigiano Reggiano and ricotta cheeses, as well as grass fed-beef that Yu's kitchen crew grinds in-house. (Note: the current Theodore Rex menu shows a price of $28.)

He likes unusual restaurant names

Justin Yu and his business partner, Bobby Heugel (an entrepreneur behind several successful Houston nightspots), put as much creativity into the names of their restaurants as they do the menus. In the last ten years, the duo came up with "Oxheart," "Theodore Rex," "Better Luck Tomorrow," and their newest restaurant, "Squable," which opened in 2019, according to Texas Monthly.

The name "Squable," according to the publication, stems from Yu's affinity for squab, which are young, domesticated pigeons that are prized for their savory dark meat. Yu wanted to name the restaurant for the bird, but Heugel disagreed. A minor "squabble" ensued, and thus the restaurant name was born. Interestingly, the creative duo, Yu and Heugel, also created the interior design for the restaurant too.

Better Luck Tomorrow, a bar concept, was named after the film with the same name, a movie considered to be the prequel to the "Fast and Furious" films. It seemed both whimsical and fitting, said Yu, because "bars are generally happy places with a bit of melancholy" (via The New York Times).

The best naming story, however, is the one behind Theodore Rex, which is sweetly named after Yu's nephew, Theodore. At age five, he adorably asked his Uncle Justin to name his new restaurant after him. Yu added "Rex" to the name because, according to Texas Monthly, he thought the abbreviated version "T-Rex" would be a hilarious name for a restaurant.

Yu paid tribute to his career-inspiring aunts for Pride Month

Justin Yu credits his aunts, Josephine Yeung and Betty Louie, with his success in the restaurant business, thanking them in his acceptance speech when he won the James Beard award for Best Chef, Southwest in 2016. Speaking to Rigby Home, Yu said his aunts' Chinese restaurant in Southern California was not only a site for family gatherings "where all the happiness happened," but it's where he also decided he wanted to be a chef. "I wanted to do something with my life that made people happy," he recalls, sharing a memory of being in the kitchen and watching the chefs with their fiery woks, knowing it would be his chosen path. 

On Instagram, Yu posted a photo of a rainbow flag in honor of Pride Month, along with a tribute to his aunts, saying that he owes his success to them: "I would not be here in the United States if it weren't for a part of my family fleeing persecution of their sexual orientation from another country. I would not know to love food, to love others, and I would definitely not be in the restaurant industry if it weren't for those two." He added: "Both 'my aunts,' one blood, one might as well be. To them, I love you so much it hurts, you made me who I am today."

A famous chapel is his favorite place

Visitors to Justin Yu's profile on the Visit Houston website will discover that Rothko Chapel is his Houston "must-see" destination. Designed by architects Philip Johnson, Howard Barnstone, and Eugene Aubry, the space is home to 14 canvases painted by famous mid-century American artist Mark Rothko. The experience is described as a modern work of religious art (via Visit Houston), and it serves as a ecumenical place of worship as well as a museum, forum, and "a place where religion, art, and architecture intermingle." More than 100,000 scholars, art, and architecture lovers, and thousands of people from all religious beliefs are drawn to the space every year (via Rothko Chapel), including Justin Yu.

In May of 2019, Yu explained to Food & Wine what the space means to him: "I hang out at the Rothko Chapel ... Rothko's canvases look like they're straight black or brown, but as you stare at them, you realize that they're filled with color and little details." Interestingly, he added, the art influences his work. "Being able to think like that is important to a chef. It's the details that make a dish yours, and make it special."

New episodes of "Uncharted" Season 3 premiere Sundays at 9/8c on the Nat Geo channel. You can also stream episodes on Disney+ and Hulu.