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Get to Know the Galleria: Chef Justin Creel of The Oceanaire

Galleria Dallas is a destination not only for fashion and beauty but also for some of the best food in the city. So you can learn a bit more about the unique personalities at our center, we’re starting a new blog series called “Get to Know the Galleria” to highlight the people who keep Galleria going, from the courteous staff manning the ice rink to the retail associates serving up the latest styles.

This month, we’re introducing you to Chef Justin Creel of The Oceanaire Seafood Room. His passion for cooking is just as refreshing as his culinary creations, and we’re proud to call him part of our family.

What do you love most about working near Galleria Dallas?

I love our location because it allows us to see, serve and please so many guests. It’s a destination for many people visiting from out of state and even from out of the country. It gives us the opportunity to put our best efforts forward and show what we’re capable of in presenting our take on such ultra-fresh fare.

How did you know you wanted to become a chef?

My affinity for food and cooking food began at a very young age. I was about 6 years old. My papa had a pool table that he was very protective of. I was very upset one day when I wasn’t tall enough to play, so my nanny (grandmother) invited me into her kitchen. Starting that day and for many, many days to come, she taught me everything she knew. She taught me how to make bread, how to make pasta dough, how to layer lasagna and how to make a full meal. But most importantly, she showed me how to cook with love and spread the love in her heart through her food.

What has been the most rewarding moment in your career?

I have to start by saying that I’m still really early in my career. But at this point in time, the most rewarding part of my career was when I was promoted to Executive Chef of the Oceanaire Seafood Room. I started here as a line cook shucking oysters in the oyster bar. I climbed the ranks, proving myself along the way. Never quitting, never allowing myself to become discouraged and understanding that nothing comes easy. The cuts, burns and long days are what make it just that much better.

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What is your earliest food or kitchen memory?

This one is not so much of my memory as it is everyone else’s. Ask anyone in my family and they’ll tell you I was something to behold at the dinner table. I was the only person who would hum and sing while eating. They say my love for food and eating was so great that a simple “hmm” didn’t cut it. I would hum throughout the entire meal. I would be wiggling around in my chair with excitement and fulfillment, and the happiness I had while eating was not like anything they had ever seen. Not gonna lie — I still hum while eating to this day. I guess my love for food really tugs on my heartstrings.

Who has influenced you most?

I would be remiss to say anyone other than my nanny (she refuses to go by grandmother) Donna Lankford. She was the person who taught me my first few steps in the kitchen and continued to teach me for many years that followed. The lessons she instilled in me are fitting for everyday things and life in and out of the kitchen. She showed me what it meant to bring a family together around a table with food and love. That woman means everything to me and my career. I honestly don’t know where I would be today if I had been tall enough to play pool that day.

Where is your favorite spot to travel for inspiration?

I love, I mean LOVE going on Western Caribbean cruises. Jamaica, Cozumel and Grand Cayman speak to my soul. Cozumel and Grand Cayman really touch my heart because of their flair for simple cuisine that’s just phenomenal. The preparation and execution are just as important as the ingredients you bring in. No New Age techniques, no gadgets, no frills. They give you great food prepared the way their families have made it generation after generation. Jamaica is the same but a bit different of a story. My food and cooking isn’t influenced so much by Jamaica’s food (though it is some of the best food in the world), but more by its positive vibe. It inspires me to strive to have love in my heart and to be the best I can be spiritually and emotionally. In return, my love shines through my cooking and demeanor when I’m cooking, teaching and training.

Who is your culinary icon?

Being from Texas and loving peppers, onions, spicy foods and great proteins and accouterments, I kind of have a culinary man crush on Bobby Flay. He executes his southwestern style perfectly and it just makes me smile. While he can be elegant with some of his dishes, I love the fact that he has no problem being in your face with his flavors. I was lucky enough to dine at his restaurant Mesa Grill at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas when I was 21. That experience will stay with me for a very long time!

What’s your favorite dish to cook?

My favorite dish to cook is one I’ve never cooked before. Recipes are a dime a dozen, but I love the challenge of cooking methods I’ve never tried, and working with produce and protein that I don’t see on an everyday basis. When you go outside your comfort zone and challenge yourself you learn a lot about who you are, good, bad and ugly. But learning is the most important thing a person can do. I get to see what works and what doesn’t, what I can try next time to prevent it from turning out badly or what can be done to ensure that it’s perfect every time.

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What’s the most exotic dish you’ve ever eaten?

There’s one dish that really sticks out. It wasn’t made exotic by the ingredients, but in how it made its way to the table. When I went to Jamaica for the first time, we went swimming with dolphins. On the way back to the port, we were informed that the guides were going to provide lunch when we returned. I watched this little school of red snapper swim alongside the boat we were in. I then watched one of the guides spear about 10 fish flawlessly, one after another. When we got back to the port, he filleted those little guys right in front of us and quickly put them on the grill. The dish was composed of jerk grilled red snapper, red beans and rice, fried plantains and braised greens. Probably the freshest and most incredible meal I’ve had in my travels outside of the country.

Other than The Oceanaire, where’s your favorite place to dine in Dallas?

To be honest, I’m really a simple man. I work hard to make sure people get to enjoy amazing, fresh and delicious food, something that they find picture-worthy or want to invite their friends to enjoy. But for me, the thing that makes me happy, the food that makes me hum, is “roll your sleeves up and grab a handful of napkins” kind of food. Four-star pub and grub style food. But I would be remiss if I didn’t mention this amazing little Mexican food restaurant off of President George Bush Turnpike and Jupiter Road called Casa ChaCha. My mother loves the margaritas, the enchiladas are amazing and the chips are fresh and hot. They make this green sauce that I love! I love it so much that it’s one of the few things I won’t attempt to make. They do it so perfectly that I would never want to have it any other way. They only make one batch of it per day, so if you show up for a late lunch on a busy day or dinner on a Friday they might already be out of it.

What do you typically go home and eat after a long shift?

I eat a lot of things that chefs wouldn’t want to admit to eating. They are guilty pleasures, and I’m a glutton for punishment. Sometimes it’s simply over-medium fried eggs with a generously buttered piece of sourdough bread. Sometimes it’s just a bowl of ice cream. But if I’m in the mood, I’ll swing by the store and go home and make a batch of dough and roll out a homemade pizza. It’s usually about two hours after getting home with all the goodies before it’s time to shave some fresh Parmesan on that piping hot pizza pie, but the wait is well worth it!

If you weren’t a chef, what would you be doing?

If I weren’t a chef, my dream job would be either a sportscaster or pre- or post-game analyst. I love sports. I played sports for about 15 years. Baseball, football and basketball. I love keeping up to date with stats and standings, records and historical moments.

 What’s your favorite current culinary trend?

The whole fusion thing kind of rules the roost right now. The mixing of cultures and ingredients and the blending of flavors and colors is great. It’s a lot of fun. But after coming on here at The Oceanaire, my favorite trend has become serving ultra-fresh seafood to our guests. Some people might say that’s more of a standard than a trend, but not everyone makes it a point to live up to their standards daily. We focus on making it a daily trend so we never lose focus on our dedication to our guests.

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Complete this sentence: “Every kitchen should have…”

A chef willing to lead by example. A chef willing and ready to jump into the fire with his guys and get dirty. A chef that knows — and that his guys know — is not above anyone and will use his work ethic to prove it. Also, good tunes jamming in the background. Without music, our hearts can’t beat together. And last, but definitely not least, LOVE. For the food, for the promise and most importantly for each other. This place is a family. Come on in and have dinner. My family will make you feel at home.

If The Oceanaire Seafood Room at Galleria Dallas wasn’t on your must-try list before, it certainly should be now. Tune in next month for another interview with a Galleria insider!

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