From Justin & Amy's Kitchen
A fixture among the Memphis food community, Amy Lawrence and Justin Fox Burks are set to bring the rest of the world into their kitchen with the release of their new book — The Southern Vegetarian
WITH LOVE, MARGOT MCNEELEY, KELLY ENGLISH, MICHAEL HUGHES, JENNIFER CHANDLER, ANDRIA LISLE, STACEY GREENBERG, AND MELISSA PETERSEN
Throw a stone and you’ll hit someone who has worked with, been the subject of, or eaten with Justin Fox Burks and Amy Lawrence. Yet, for being so well known, they can walk down the street and not garner any attention for the celebrities they are about to become.
Justin, a professional photographer, and Amy, an eighth-grade teacher, have turned a passion for food into their forthcoming cookbook — The Southern Vegetarian.
You will likely be familiar with the quality behind the stunning photos. Justin shoots for nearly every publication in town. You might recognize the tone and care taken with the language and recipes. Amy is the former food reviewer for Memphis magazine. Or, perhaps you’ll identify with Amy and Justin based on their many contributions to Edible Memphis.
They started a blog, www.thechubbyvegetarian.com, as a place to share what they ate for dinner each night. The blog has grown to more than 600 recipes, each with an attainable approach, a boatload of creativity, and a focus on local (with an amazing photo of course).
Given plenty of freedom by their publisher, Thomas Nelson Publishing, their new book contains more than 100 recipes — more if you include the sub-recipes — to encourage you through the trek of Southern vegetables.
Justin and Amy have been friends for more than 20 years and married for nearly nine. They have always cooked together, through their infamous “dragon bowls” during college, to over-the-top holiday meals with the families, to regular get-togethers with friends. Justin is the experimenter. Amy is the baker. Justin takes the photos. Amy has final say on edits. There’s a nice balance that’s filled with respect as the two cook in their compact home kitchen.
“We love to cook for friends and family… for the talk time,” says Amy. “That’s the important part of food,” finishes Justin. They like doing things together and are willing to try most anything, keeping the cooking and evaluation process honest and supportive.
Each of the recipes in their book is crowd-tested by fans from their blog. “You really lose your ego through testing,” says Amy. But it ultimately makes for a much better book. Testers in other cities raised flags when ingredients, which are the norm here, weren’t available elsewhere, such as sorghum syrup. The connections they made with people from New York, Washington, Texas, and Colorado were half the fun of the process.
A longtime vegetarian, Justin works pretty hard to get flavor components into foods that would regularly be infused by animal protein — such as bacon. But the vegetarian focus isn’t about replacing meat. Each recipe is meant to give the main ingredient its best showing.
They spent every Saturday and Sunday night for nearly five months writing, testing, photographing, and creating. When asked if they ever considered all the extra work drudgery, Amy is quick to say no. Justin simultaneously replies yes. Then he hears Amy’s answer and changes his to no. He clarifies by calling the blog and the book a “jobby.” “A job makes money, but the blog is a hobby, so the two projects together make a jobby.” Not drudgery, but certainly a lot of focused work.
After 15 years of photographing and writing about chefs, the duo have picked up a trick or two. They both have great respect for the creative professionals who inspire them. And though they have done a number of events in restaurants around town, they appreciate the amount of effort that goes into restaurants’ day-to-day. The two seem content to keep their day jobs. Friends made along the way are worked into their recipes: Jason Quinn from the Lime Truck; Michael Hughes, who helped them develop the oyster mushroom Rockefeller; and Kelly English, who graciously shared his Midnight Snack for conversion to a vegetarian version.
Challenged with making vegetarian food that Amy — who is not a vegetarian — would like, Justin’s style has evolved. “We make food that people are interested in eating,” says Justin. “And it happens to be vegetarian,” says Amy.
Asked what their favorite recipe in the book is, Amy chooses her grandmother’s recipes, especially the pound cake (which she admits she has tweaked). “So many of the recipes are connected to our family.” Justin smacks the table and declares, “I know it’s cliche and all, but the pimento cheese is the best!”
Justin and Amy have worked with so many people in the food industry here, it seemed unfair to have just one writer pen their story for this issue. So we invited several regular Edible Memphis contributors to write a note about them. As you’ll read on the following pages, what was turned in ended up being accolades of Justin and Amy’s ethics and friendship. But that’s okay. After all, who better to share a meal with than a friend? Once you’ve got The Southern Vegetarian in hand, it’ll be just like having two talented friends to dinner each night.
a few words from Justin and Amy’s friends...
Justin and I first got to know each other when he photographed for my cookbook Simply Grilling. We laugh about it now, but if he wasn’t such a great guy, I’m not sure we’d still be friends!
We chose to shoot the book in May to beat the heat. But a heat wave landed in Memphis that month, and we photographed eight hours a day, outside, in sweltering 100+ degree temps. Justin showed up that first day in pants and a button-down shirt, looking very professional. The next day, he came in nice shorts and a short-sleeve shirt. By day three, I don’t think either one of us bothered to change out of our gym clothes. Those 12 days were brutally hot — perfect conditions for tempers to flare, just like the charcoal on my grills.
But the experience with Justin was just the opposite. I knew I had hired a photographer that would produce stellar photos, but I was thrilled to discover someone who was laid-back and easy to work with, and who also shared my enthusiasm for food. Justin is just as passionate as I am about making sure that the food looks perfect. His interest in cooking techniques and flavors kept us talking non-stop, exchanging ideas and recipes. Laughter and a lot of cold lemonade made us forget all about the heat. It was, hands down, the most fun photography/food-styling project I have ever worked on.
Justin has since become a good friend, and we have collaborated on several projects. The recipes on The Chubby Vegetarian blog helped me realize how delicious eating my veggies can be.
Amy is just as delightful. I have from a very reliable source (a group of preteens riding in the back of my car) that she is not only one of the coolest teachers at Hutchison School, but she also has some of the best fashion sense of any “grown-up” they know.
--Jennifer Chandler Food Writer and Cookbook Author
I met Justin six years ago at Hooters. In his defense, I was working on a “kids eat free” story for the Memphis Flyer and at the time, the now defunct Hooters on Mt. Moriah let kids eat free on Saturdays. The picture he took of my son, Jiro, flanked by curly fries and cleavage is one of my all-time favorites. Justin and I had a long-term relationship of “I eat it, and a few days later he photographs it.” (I had no idea that he was a vegetarian, which is probably good, because it may have prevented me from fully enjoying all of the meaty dishes I recommended.)
When Justin and Amy started The Chubby Vegetarian blog, I was really jealous. I had no idea Justin was such a good writer and cook. I thought for sure he’d stop taking pictures of the food I ate and instead just start doing his own write-ups for the Flyer. Thankfully, he stuck with the photos, although I do think he snuck in a recommended dish or two when I wasn’t looking. I was also jealous that his blog had better pictures than my blog, but whatever.
My all-time favorite assignment that we had together was covering the local World Kosher Barbeque Championship at the Anshei Sphard-Beth El Emeth (ASBEE) Congregation for The Jewish Daily Forward, based in New York. Despite not being a meat eater, Justin totally got into the assignment. The event is set up like Memphis in May’s barbecue contest, with tents and teams and whatnot. Of course we were offered a bite of barbecue at every stop, and Justin somehow managed to get out of eating any without ever mentioning he is a vegetarian or seeming the least bit rude.
I love working with Justin, and I love hanging out with him — so I really love it when I can combine the two.
--Stacey Greenberg / Food Writer
Justin is one of the most talented people Justin in his home office I have had the pleasure to meet — from his photography to his cooking to his vision for tying the two together. The first time I met Justin, during a food shoot, I could immediately tell his passion for food ran deeper than just photographing it. Justin and I have cooked together several times since, one of which was when he was the collaborative chef for an all-vegetarian brunch (save for the sides of bacon I slipped onto the menu after he approved it) we did a couple of years ago. I will never forget prepping with him that morning; we got to know each other very well. As a chef, Justin has had an influence on our kitchen (Restaurant Iris) and how we look at our food. As a fan of food, Justin has had an influence on how I eat. And as a human being, I am just glad to be able to call Justin a friend.
--Kelly English Chef/Owner of Restaurant Iris
Like many a time in Justin and Amy’s kitchen, it pushed me to think of cooking differently...
My first impression of Justin was through his photography. I went to his thesis show because I was interested in seeing someone else (my now husband), but I recall being really taken aback by his work. Years later, I had that same feeling with his food, and that was definitely something we have bonded over. A few years ago he scored this gorgeous truffle from a friend. We decided to prepare a truffle feast where every course had truffles in it. There was also lots of wine, of course. Since he is a vegetarian, there wasn’t any lamb or duck, two proteins I would immediately associate with truffles. However, like all of his meals, there was never anything lacking. I recall him shaving a ridiculous amount of truffle into our soufflé base — so much so, I remember thinking and perhaps saying out loud, “This is over the top!” Every single bite of food that night was delicious. Like many a time in Justin and Amy’s kitchen, it pushed me to think of cooking differently and to always experiment in the kitchen. Not only are they effortlessly creative, but they are also so warm, friendly, and kind. Justin loves whiskey even more than I do. Likewise, Amy is always so happy and bright. Her laugh always livens us up when breaking bread together. I couldn’t even begin to recite the multitude of fun and delicious times I’ve had with Justin and Amy. I’m incredibly excited and overwhelmingly proud of them. I know that their cookbook will be filled with deliciousness and will look absolutely beautiful at the same time. They do what they love and make it look and taste so delicious.
--Michael Hughes / Joe’s Wines & Liquors
I met Justin five years ago at a photo shoot for the Memphis Flyer. I really dislike having my picture taken and dislike most pictures taken of me.
Justin immediately put me at ease by involving me in the photo shoot instead of just directing me to do what he wanted. That picture ended up on the cover of the Flyer, which freaked me out, but I actually liked the photo — a first!
Justin and I stayed in touch and soon we were both part of the small underground supper club, eaTABLE. Through eaTABLE dinners, many of which Justin and Amy cooked for us; helping test Chubby Vegetarian recipes; and just hanging out with them at events around town, I have enjoyed getting to know Justin and Amy better and am proud to call them my friends.
They are part of what I love about Memphis. We have such a range of talented, smart, and fun people, but everyone is just different enough to keep the city interesting. Justin’s quest to provide unique and delicious vegetarian recipes for people in a pretty meat-heavy city is an impressive undertaking, and he has more than succeeded in doing so. His approach has always been to make eating vegetarian food unique and delicious. He’s never been preachy about being vegetarian, which is why I think he’s been so successful at getting people who might not be interested in trying an entire nonmeat menu, more interested and, better yet, getting them to learn how to cook his recipes themselves.
I am more than excited about Justin and Amy’s cookbook and look forward to digging in and eating well.
--Margot McNeeley Executive Director of Project Green Fork
I’ve known Justin Burks for 25-plus years (so long that when we met during his teenage years, he was called “Bobo”) and his wife, Amy Lawrence, for nearly as long. In a professional capacity — and in my former life as a music journalist — Justin and I have squeezed onto the North Mississippi Allstars’ tour bus; tracked down the late, and often elusive, rock star Arthur Lee; and kicked it in Orange Mound with rappers 8Ball & MJG. But my prized memories of our friendship are far simpler: noshing with family and friends on so-good-you-forget-it’s-vegetarian fare during our Summer of Magical Eating; bonding over the loss of my father and Justin’s mother during one terrible year; and watching Justin and Amy’s confidence — and cooking and writing skills — grow to the point that I see their venture, The Chubby Vegetarian, featured on the Food Network and in the food section of The New York Times.
I’m happy to say that I knew Justin and Amy “back then” — and, even better, that I know them now. No matter how many cookbooks they write, television shows they appear on, or celebrity chefs they get to work alongside, Justin and Amy will remain the proverbial kids next door — regular Memphis folk who garden and craft and walk their dogs on breezy afternoons. It’s easy to forget that Justin has that innate ability to take the perfect shot, or that Amy’s storytelling talents have taken top prize in the Memphis Magazine fiction contest. With the publication of their first book, I’m like the proud aunt hovering in the waiting room, waiting to lay my eyes upon this already-loved newborn child. I’ll have to buy two copies: one to keep pristine on the shelf and another for the kitchen, where it will get dog-eared and water-splashed as it’s put to good use.
--Andria Lisle Public Programs and Public Relations Manager of Memphis Brooks Museum of Art
Buy the book
Due out in late April or early May 2013, The Southern Vegetarian by Justin Fox Burks and Amy Lawrence will arrive just in time for Mother’s Day and Father’s Day gifts — and for summer cooking.
Each of the more than 100 recipes sports a gorgeous photo — a must for good cookbooks in our opinion — and a fully tested recipe. Look for Lemon Zest and Thyme Pimento Cheese (one of Justin’s favorite recipes), Grilled Watermelon and Tomato Salad with Honey Lime Vinaigrette, Okra Fritters, Vegetarian Red Beans and Rice with Andouille Eggplant, Roast Beet Salad with Sea Salt Granola and Honey Tarragon Dressing, and Grilled Peach Ice Cream.
You can preorder now at www.amazon.com. Or wait and support our local independent bookstore — Booksellers at Laurelwood — by purchasing there.
Visit Justin and Amy’s blog at www.chubbyvegetarian.blogspot.com to stay abreast of dinners, book-signings, and additional delicious recipes.
Melissa Petersen is the editor of Edible Memphis and still feels some guilt for sending vegetarian photographer Justin to take photos for a hog butchery story.