By Martie Duncan, ContributorThe first time I laid eyes on Justin Warner was in a holding room at B Square Studios in Atlanta. Justin had on a crazy multi-colored skeleton tee shirt, red socks, and a rapper style baseball cap. We weren’t supposed to talk. Of course, I did anyway. “Nice socks” I commented. “Thanks” he replied. That’s where it began. We were both to audition for Alton Brown’s team for Season 8 of Food Network Star. It was pretty apparent that Justin is a guy who marches to his own beat. Believe me, nobody else looked like Justin. Certainly, nobody else had his swagger or confidence about food as he knows it. When the cast was assembled, I was not the least bit surprised to find Justin on Team Alton. There’s nobody like him in food television.
Fast forward to the first episode...Team Alton was tasked with opening a restaurant we called Do South. Justin labeled himself a rebel after his high school mascot and it stuck. He simply sees things differently. Show him something completely normal, like fish, for example, and the next thing you know, he has whipped up a batch of fried fish skeletons describing them as “potato chips of the sea.” While Justin has no formal culinary training, his knowledge of food is vast and it includes a lot of stuff I’ve never eaten-- nor heard of for that matter. Dates stuffed with duck breast, peanut butter and bonito flakes? Yes, Chef. And they were pretty good, too!
During filming for Food Network Star, we became friends-- “besties” he terms it. Believe it or not, we have more in common than you might think. We both love music and have a great passion for food. We both want to use our platform to do good things. We do a killer rendition of Don McLean’s American Pie and he knows all the words. It is not shocking that I know the words to this 70’s classic but Justin Warner wasn’t even born when it hit the charts. Justin Warner raps about wine and lives in Brooklyn. Justin not only knew the words, he told me a sweet and sentimental story about his first grammar school dance and that song.
America watched as our friendship grew week by week. In an emotional moment, Food Network executives granted both of us the opportunity to represent Team Alton in the final episode. Even the typically stoic and grumpy Alton Brown let a few tears flow that night. In the end, America voted and Justin won his own show on Food Network.
I ran into Justin wearing a bright orange vintage suit at The Q event at the South Beach Wine & Food Festival. Here’s what he had to say:
MD: Soooo, you are really living the rock star life! Love the orange suit!
Justin: Yeah- cool, huh? I’m trying to keep it real, keep it tight. You know me.
MD: Yes, I’d say this retro orange suit looks very you. Very Miami Vice. What’s on your schedule here in Miami?
JW: Fun and games. Lots of meetings. I’m going to host a cooking demo at the hotel… go to loads of events and parties. I’m also playing in a beach volleyball tournament with Jeff Mauro, Curtis Stone, Spike Mendelsohn and some others at the James Royal Palm Hotel.
MD: I’m hearing lots of buzz about your new show. Are you just over the moon?
JW: Yes, it is finally done and we have an air date for Saturday, March 30 at 10pm Eastern time.
MD: I’ve read that it’s not the same show concept you created for your pilot.
JW: No, not exactly. We are calling it Rebel Eats… They gave me $300 and a mini-van to find people like me… culinary rule-breakers who are doing their thing their own way. I have some adventures and do a little cooking along the way. Jellyfish Pasta… that sounds like me, right?
MD: Yes, chef. Jellyfish Pasta sounds just like something you would cook. So we have Justin-style food with a road show format?
JW: I’m really happy with what we have done with the show. I travel and I cook on this show and there will be recipes. In primetime, no less. Groundbreaking, huh?
MD: Well, you are the first Food Network Star winner to get a primetime slot since Guy won six seasons ago. I think that says something about the confidence the network execs have in you.
JW: Well, we are throwing the dice on one primetime special instead of six episodes on Saturday morning but it is a better fit. Rebel Eats is the best food TV I’ve seen in a long time. I’m biased of course, but if Food Network lets this slide—welcome to the new “new”…
MD: I expected nothing less, Chef. We’ll all be glued to the TV on Saturday, March 30 to watch your show. I’ll throw a viewing party with some rebel eats. For me rebel eats is barbecue and bourbon, you know. Maybe some deviled eggs.
JW: I expected nothing less, Chef. Party on.
Tune into Justin’s show Rebel Eats on Food Network on Saturday, March 30 at 10pm Eastern/9pm Central time.