Hot Chef: Justin Swain competes in the kitchen

Justin Swain likes to teach cooking classes — but he keeps a few of his recipes secret.  Credit:  Rex 1516
Justin Swain likes to teach cooking classes — but he keeps a few of his recipes secret.
Credit: Rex 1516

Rex 1516 is one of those restaurants that elevates Southern food and makes comfort feel refined. Executive chef Justin Swain is a huge part of what makes this place so successful. If you can’t find him in the Rex kitchen, chances are he’s teaching a class, racing on two wheels, buried in a cookbook or avoiding crowds on a Monday night. The dude stays busy.

You taught your first class at COOK last month. How was it? Do you like teaching cooking techniques?
I do. Because I retain so much minute information about everything I do, it’s nice to pass it on even if it’s just a few tips and tricks. The environment at COOK is great. People get really excited. I try my best to translate to working in the home kitchen. Of course, some of the small things you have to keep to yourself, recipe-wise.

You’ve done a few collaborative and competitive cooking events, too. What draws you to these?
Before I was a chef I was a competitive cyclist, so I’m really competitive at heart. Getting together with other chefs is always something I love doing. You can bounce things off each other. Even if it’s a cuisine you’re not strong in, you can get some great idea or tips from someone who handles that kind of cooking.

You do a ton of Southern cooking. How did you get into that?
When I first started cooking my first job was with Regis [Jansen, chef] at a place called 1601. He taught me a whole bunch about Southern cooking, like what makes étouffée so good, what goes into a gumbo. He passed a lot onto me. And I went through a lot of cookbooks. I have a ton of them. Chefs have a hard time moving because they own so many cookbooks.

There’s still a little summer left. Any quintessential Philly things you want to do before the season’s over?
I like to go to Morgan’s Pier and sit around. Mondays are the best because I’m off and no one’s over there so it’s quiet.


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