photo courtesy The Kitchen at Atomic
Justin Kingsley Hall has cooked just about everywhere. Since arriving in Las Vegas in 2011, he’s cooked on the Strip, in popups, in the woods and desert and now helms the Kitchen at Atomic.
Less than a year old, Kitchen at Atomic is a standalone restaurant next to the venerable Atomic Liquors and recruited Hall in the fall. He revamped the menu in less than a week and is now trying to reshape how people think about food in the Downtown area.
Along with his full-time gig, he also puts on the annual Whiskey in the Wilderness, bringing chefs, bartenders and guests together for an evening of open fire cooking, whiskey and camaraderie.
How does your career all come together to influence your cooking style?
It’s definitely always evolving. I think if you stop evolving, you definitely lose out on a lot, stop learning, stop being creative. Everything has taught me something different. Teaching taught me how to be a better human being as a manager. Times to coddle and kick them in the ass and how to communicate with people. That was great. Catering and popups, there’s always something weird that pops up that you have to handle.
I wanted to be back in restaurants because there were a few things I wanted to prove to myself and some other people. But I do love the ability to plan an event and be outside and cook for people. That’s probably what I love the most; it really allows me to get a group together. At times, you lose that interaction and community in a restaurant.
How are popups different than a stationary kitchen?
I love the ability to be at a restaurant and know what the building is, the troubles we typically have and know what I’m going to cook. Popups, where are we going to be? Is that location coming through? Is the oven going to work? Is there an oven? It’s a fun stress, but you can be anywhere. If you give me a space, I can create a kitchen, find a heat source and cook. That’s the cool thing about doing the popups and the fact you do get to change it. If something isn’t working, you do something new.
It was a quick menu turnaround here at Atomic. How’d you do it?
It was part about being smart: Half the menu is from my popup at SLO-Boy. I knew people Downtown enjoyed it. It was stuff I could execute to a good quality and had either recipes for or knew what I could do so anything I added on I could take on and get that set and done quick. It’s a good menu, definitely not the best I could do and at the time, I didn’t have the time to conceptualize the true vision and where we’re going. That was the thing, having the pressure of making a menu so many times, I knew I could put it together and execute.
What is the vision here now?
One of the biggest things was developing a place that is a dining experience. We have tons of places to eat Downtown, but very few dining experiences that aren’t sitting in a hotel. A neighborhood sense of dining, you’re missing that place you go to sit for a few hours and have three courses. Originally the menu was almost bar food focused, or quick service. You have a bar next door and a restaurant here, with one of the best craft beer lists in the state, easily, work hard on cocktails, alcohol selection is great, it’s a place you should sit around and enjoy all that. That’s the first idea is make a menu that’s about sitting around the table and spending more time.
You’ve been a little bit of everything, where is Las Vegas food going?
Las Vegas dining is definitely pushing more toward neighborhoods. You have a lot of chefs trying to get away from the Strip, because their hands are tied between two major companies. It’s heading toward a much better neighborhood dining scene, which means more of an actual Vegas culinary scene, rather than importing everyone else’s from New York, Japan, L.A. That’s really the coolest thing that we’re seeing and some chefs coming back and opening stuff. It’s a push, between food and hockey, soccer, football, you’re seeing Vegas being its own place rather than a mix of everyone else’s stuff.