ALUMNI UPDATE: Chef Justin Groom to appear on Food Network’s ‘Chopped’

Class of 2009

Ethan Smale, Editor in Chief

UHS alumni are making their mark, and Chef Justin Groom is doing just that. On March 29, at 9 p.m. EST, Groom will be featured on “Chopped,” a Food Network show that has chefs competing to turn baskets of mystery ingredients into a three-course meal.

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What was your favorite class in high school? Why?

“Oh, man – this is tough. I liked a lot of teachers and maybe not as many classes. But if I had to say my favorite class, it was probably Mr. Herron’s physics class. He was a far-out guy and made class super interesting by keeping us engaged and hands-on.”

Who was your favorite teacher in high school? Why?

“Mr. See, Mrs. Hillard, both Smales! That’s too hard to choose; I really enjoyed so many of my teachers, but each had their own unique reasons why I liked them.”

What is your best memory of your years at UHS?

“I don’t think I remember the best ones, but I have very fond memories of doing something we shouldn’t have done – sneaking out of school during lunch to go get Taco Bell or Wendy’s, sometimes bringing snacks back for certain people. Won’t name any names!”

You attended The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, immediately after you graduated from high school. What led you to the decision to become a chef?

“I was faced with a question by everyone at a young age: What do you want to do when you grow up? I, like many teenagers, had not a clue as to the scope of what that question was really asking. So, I thought about the thing I really enjoyed doing and gave me happiness. That’s how I landed on cooking. As I continued to learn more and more about it, the more I enjoyed it. I find myself lucky to have stumbled upon my dream job on the first try.”

Before earning your Associates in Culinary Arts & Bachelors of Professional Studies in Hotel/Restaurant Management, you “put your time in” as a waiter, bartender, beertender and front house manager. How did these experiences help you grow as a professional chef?

“I think that in order to have a grasp on what a restaurant truly is, you have to see all sides of the machine. I think of working FoH [front of house] as a break, kind of. It’s less labor intensive, but more mentally draining. So, once you get past the honeymoon stage of not sweating like a pig all day in the kitchen, it also becomes dreadful at times, just for different reasons than the BoH [back of house]. The time spent interacting with guests does a multitude of things, but I will mention just one. That is communication. Sounds simple, but most people lack this very important skill. I am not talking about gabbing with your friends or arguments with your parents. I am talking about learning to shut up and listen, when to bite your tongue, and when it’s reasonable to share your opinion, even the subtle art of persuasion can be learned from working FoH in a restaurant. Not to mention you make much more money hourly (with tips) as a FoH than BoH. That being said, I have always found my way back to the kitchen, because I still find food more interesting than most people I meet. It’s long hours on your feet, no breaks, cuts, burns, loud noises, hairpin tempers, and the occasional mental breakdown getting buried in the weeds on a Friday night. Even with all of those things, that would make most people never think about doing that for a living; I somehow find solace in the chaos.”

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Your first “professional” job as a chef was a FCA Headquarters in Auburn Hills, Michigan, where you were the Executive Sous Chef for Eurest (Compass Group). Can you tell us a little bit about that, and how you felt when you landed that job?

“This was the first corporate job that I had gotten. It was a big shift from what I was used to. It was a union house, and I had a huge team and kitchen to manage. All of these things scared me, but I was so excited that I was given the opportunity that I dove head first and gave it all I had. If I hadn’t, I don’t know where I would be today. This one job was a stepping stone to the life I have created for myself, and I wouldn’t change it for the world.”

You’ve worked in New York, Michigan, and Washington, as well as working as an executive chef for the largest caterer in the world. Can you tell us a little bit more about these jobs?

“I went to culinary school in New York for a bit over four years. This is where it all began. While I was in school, I worked at so many places. Everything from fine dining to catering, to private parties. I got a taste of just about every kind of hospitality setting you could think of and learned all of the basics for the later years of my career. In Michigan, I held jobs such as manager for a restaurant group in Birmingham and Royal Oak, wine manager at a golf course, bartender at a tap room, server and cook at a smoke house and the list goes on. I had moved back home to Michigan after I graduated college and really didn’t know what direction I wanted to go in, until the aforementioned job opportunity at FCA, which takes me to Washington. After nine months at FCA, I had learned so much and gained the respect of my peers so much that I was offered a job promotion to move across the country and become the Executive Chef for Seattle University. I held that position from 2018-2020, and then the world shut down. Which led me to start my own company and work for myself.”

Where are you living now, and where are you working/job title?

“I am living in Bellevue, WA just a few miles due east of Seattle. I currently own and operate my own business, JAG Kitchen Solutions, as a private chef. I have already learned so much in my two years of business, I can’t wait to see what happens next!”

What is your favorite experience/chef story?

“Well, I don’t think most of my favorite experiences or stories are even close to appropriate for a publication, so I will go with something cool that happened. In my time at the CIA I had met more celebrity chefs than I care to mention, all cool in their own right but only one stood out from the crowd to me. My friends and I were at our local watering hole by campus enjoying some drinks after a super long day in class. The bar was busy and loud, so was easy not to pay attention to someone right next to you. We took a round of shots and I hear someone behind me ask if he can join in on the fun if he buys the next round. I turn around and who do I see? Anthony Bourdain himself. I am not going to divulge our interaction because I hold that experience close to me. That is my story of how I had a few drinks on a random weekday with Anthony Bourdain at a dive bar in Poughkeepsie.”

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How exactly did you become a contestant on Food Network‘s “Chopped“?

“I was approached through my Instagram by casting producers. I have a few friends from culinary school that have competed on the show, so I am not sure if I was recommended for the show or if they just approached me. Either way, I did not apply for the show. They asked me to apply.”

What went through your mind when you discovered you were going to be on the show?

“The first thing that went through my mind is that my mother was going to freak out. As long as I can remember, she has wanted me to be on TV. For myself, I was extremely excited to have the opportunity to compete on national television.”

How did you prepare to be on the show?

“Honestly, I should have prepared more for the show in the sense of “practicing” probably. I was just so busy with work and life, I figured that I either know what I am doing or I don’t and I wasn’t going to learn it before the show, anyway. It was mostly mental preparation for me before hand.”

You cut your knuckle on your index finger before the show. Why is that the most important finger for cooking and cutting?

“If you hold your knife in your right hand, then the knife blade should rest against your index finger on your left hand (also your middle finger). This is to ensure you know where the blade is at all times. It is actually much safer to have the blade directly touching your fingers while cutting than it is to leave space.”

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How exactly did the accident happen?

The day I was flying out to go shoot for the show I had sharpened my knives, wrapped them and headed to a haircut appointment. I finished and walked across the street to 7-11 to grab a water before walking to meet my wife for a beer before our manicure & pedicure appointments. As I put my wallet back into my bag from purchasing the water, somehow the tip of my slicer pushed through the top of its sheath and made its way through the fabric of my bag. I put my hand into the bag a pushed my finger right down the tip of the blade. I thought it was a joke at first, and then there was blood – lots of blood. I started to panic a little. Not because of the cut, but because of the show. I called my wife on my Apple watch and told her she needed to come to me with the car ASAP. I called the producer while I was waiting in the ER lobby. I wanted to make sure that if I had stitches and a splint, they would still let me compete. They said if I am good and can function, than they were cool with it. I had an awesome doctor that stitched my finger up really good and found me the least obtrusive splint they had. I had to wear a splint because he told me if I accidently bent my finger it was extremely likely that I would split it back open. Now I start to think about how much harder this competition just got for me being down such an important digit. And that’s where I have to stop with that story until after the episode airs.”

You flew out to Knoxville, Tennessee, to shoot the episode of “Chopped” at Discovery HQ in 18 hours. What can you share about the experience?

“I can’t share too many specifics just yet, but it was very stressful and at the same time extremely fun. I think you’ll see what I mean when you watch the episode.”

Did your injury impact your performance on the show?

“I am not sure, because I have never competed with out an injury. But I will just say that I think it hindered some of my abilities and slowed me down a bit.”

What was your best experience about being on the show?

“Just being on the show. That’s it. It was an experience of a lifetime and I am extremely happy I did it!”

Is there anything you want viewers to know before they tune in?

“Just get ready for some really interesting food!”

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What advice do you have for students considering a career in the culinary arts?

“If I had to give a small piece of advice that would give the most impact, I would say go work in a kitchen for a year before you make that decision. Cooking professionally and cooking at home are two very different things, and you better be sure you understand and are still excited by it. If you are, go for it. Just don’t waste time and money on anything you don’t understand. This job will teach you discipline hard and fast. It will teach you what pain really means. It will teach you that your opinion doesn’t matter until you have something to show for it. It will break you down to your lowest point and if you have the courage to fight through it, you will come out a hardened soldier that can entertain any challenge you may come to face. There is nothing quite like it, in my opinion.”

How did your time at UHS impact your life?

“My time at UHS impacted my life for sure, in detail I am not sure how to explain that but I had a lot of firsts while I spent my time there, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I still have friends I talk to consistently from high school, and I don’t ever see us losing touch. Real friends stick around, even after years of not talking to each other.”

If you are a UHS alumni, or would like to nominate someone to be featured in our “Alumni Update,” email Managing Editor Abby Williams at: [email protected]