Friday, September 30, 2022 Sep 30, 2022
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Celebrity Chefs

The Incredible, Unsurprising Story of Dallas’ Dining Community Rallying Behind a Chef in Need

When chef Justin Holt of Salaryman shared that he was diagnosed with leukemia, the community showed up to support him.
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chef Justin Holt and his crew in the Salaryman kitchen.
Kevin Marple
The week before Thanksgiving, when many of us were busy considering our smaller gatherings and hunting for family pecan pie recipes, word spread that Justin Holt had recently been diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a cancer of the blood and bone marrow. Salaryman, his Oak Cliff izakaya and ramen shop, closed immediately. The dining community reeled.

Call it the times. The news of the closure and Holt’s diagnosis galvanized chefs and devoted diners in a way that points to something that’s true of the Dallas dining scene: that it supports its own. In this tumultuous year that has made us painfully aware of what is broken—the absent safety nets, the missing precautions—the camaraderie of the culinary community hasn’t waned. Indeed, it’s grown. And in these moments, it becomes something beautiful to see.

Trina Nishimura, Holt’s partner and an integral part of the Salaryman team, expressed her gratitude for the outpouring of support, finding herself “so fortunate to be part of the Dallas dining community.” A GoFundMe immediately set up by one of her closest friends began with an initial $25,000 goal. It rapidly rose more than $75,000 and counting.

Then came another fundraiser spearheaded by Meat Fight’s Alice Laussade, Jeff Bekavac of Zoli’s NY Pizza, and fellow chef Danyele McPherson, with “mystery boxes” for sale, filled with goods made by chefs and culinarians, available for pick up drive-thru style. The sign-ups began last Monday morning, and by midday that day, Laussade says they had sold 148 of 200 boxes to the public. The rest of the box sign-ups whisked away in short order, raising more than $25,000 for Holt. Laussade updated me later that evening: “We have officially sold out. [Six] hours and they flew.”

“Honestly, I don’t know if that would happen anywhere else,” says Nishimura, noting the “incredible, heartwarming efforts on all sides…. People have given not only from their hearts, but from their pocketbooks—a bright spot in the otherwise dumpster-fire of a year.”

But gratitude at the deluge of donations hardly seems to encapsulate it. Donating was matched by small kindnesses of a more intimate kind, like “little notes that people leave on the GoFundMe page [which] are inspiration” or “the funny texts that Justin gets from other chefs, just giving him shit,” says Nishimura.

Large kindnesses, too, soon came.

In the hospital, Holt and Nishimura were pulled out of their lives and placed in the surreal experience of a vulnerable isolation. By the time the public was informed, Holt, who was diagnosed in early October after severe pain, had been battling the aggressive form of leukemia for weeks.

The couple is known for being especially quiet people, and it surprises no one that they hid the news for more than a month. Among those in the know were David and Jennifer Uygur, the founders and operators of Lucia and Macellaio and co-owners of Salaryman, who were clued in from the first week.

“We did keep it on the down-low until we knew how things were gonna shake out,” Nishimura says. But after the first 10 days in the hospital, Holt was stable. “It was a little touch and go, but he made it through,” she says, “because he’s tough and stubborn and strong and wonderful.”

They both embody a fierce determination. While he underwent treatment, she was beside him.

Nishimura, who is a professional voice actor, was allowed to set up a recording booth in an unused hospital room nearby to work on a job the studio had delayed while they figured out how she could record. While Holt underwent tests and rounds of treatment, she recorded in a makeshift sound-booth, a “sound blanket fort” her friend had devised. Meanwhile, her best friend created a sound room in Holt and Nishimura’s home to facilitate her commercial recording gigs when they returned.

Two weeks ago, when I talked with Nishimura, she said it had been uncertain whether Holt would be let out of the hospital when he was. The couple’s reality plays out week by week as Holt follows an aggressive out-patient treatment plan, which entails gradual treatment and monitoring—rounds of treatment interspersed with check-ins—to see how his body is responding.

“We can’t say for sure this is the date when we’ll be able to see our families and friends,” Nishimura says. He could at any moment land back in the hospital; he did last week, in fact.

Once home after the month-long hospital stay, Nishimura took on the cooking, bringing elements over to have Holt smell or taste them. He would then instruct her to adjust—perhaps rising for a few minutes and then sitting back down, but enough to oversee the making of what she was glad to report was always “edible.” Given Holt’s immuno-compromised condition, his fellow chefs couldn’t feed him or send over salumi or chicken pot pie. And so the most obvious avenue of love was cut off. But that didn’t stop them from shifting to fundraisers. “Because everybody wants to do something. Because everybody loves Justin,” Nishimura says.

Lucia David Uygur Jennifer Uygur
Jennifer Uygur, of Lucia and Macellaio, stepped up to help her friend and colleague Justin Holt after his diagnosis.

As Jennifer Uygur points out, it’s Holt’s character that makes people want to do things for him. This is the chef who, under normal circumstances, would have been running the Thanksgiving Freebird event at Slow Bone, where anyone in need is served a free plate at the Design District barbecue joint. Last year’s fed over 1,000 people.

“Justin has always been someone who gives back to the community,” Uygur says. “That’s his Thanksgiving tradition, is he’s taking care of other people.”

Holt also launched Connecting People and Plates early in the pandemic, spearheading a program whereby patrons could order meals through participating restaurants (Salaryman was first) and donate one to someone in the hospitality industry, without the burden of arranging the delivery. “He’s just always looking quietly for ways to help folks,” Uygur says.

Fellow chef Joel Orsini, who has known Holt for years and has been talking to him almost every day since the news, says he is not surprised at the response, not just in the chef and restaurant community, but also regulars at the various restaurants with which Holt is associated. (Holt was chef at the Uygur’s intimate Italian nook Lucia before opening Salaryman.) “It spread like wildfire,” Orsini says of the GoFundMe initiative. Because the message immediately was “donate, spread, donate, spread.”

“It’s been a wonderful thing seeing what’s been pouring in from folks we know and have known for years,” Uygur says. “I think our hardest part was to nudge him to let others help him this time. He’s just a very private, very quiet, very humble, amazing person. But we’re grateful to be able to help someone who’s so awesome and caring.”

“People have given not only from their hearts, but from their pocketbooks—a bright spot in the otherwise dumpster-fire of a year.”

Trina Nishimura

For Bekavac, a former team-mate of Holt’s at Meat Fight, and Laussade, then, came the idea for a fundraiser: an all-star chef’s basket of sorts, like a progressive dinner in a box, sold to the public, with all proceeds benefiting Holt. She knew she could count on Holt’s fellow Meat Fight participants, chefs who had known him for years. But she wasn’t expecting the ready response as she, Bekavac, and fellow chef Danyele McPherson spurred the fundraiser. The roster swelled to more than 30, leading to boxes brimming with what became an assortment of delicacies, like the most extraordinary grab-bag from burnt ends from Lockhart Smokehouse to Tiffany Derry’s banana pudding to salumi from the Uygurs.

A tantalizing mélange of specialties, with Chefs Produce involved in the storing of things at Sharon Von Meter’s 3015 at Trinity Groves. It was a massive operation, like an air drop and a fundraiser all at once. “We’re looking at this [team] as the Avengers of Dallas,” Laussade says.

“And we’re just lucky to have people like Alice, who is willing to laser-focus her years of amazing fundraising skills and say, ‘How can I help? Let’s do this!’ And my god, that’s awesome,” says Uygur, who lent what she calls her “ridiculous fifth-grade artistic skills” to the fundraiser illustration: a unicorn, cookies, stars, a box on a cloud, a ham marked “We [heart] Justin,” and the words “Lazy Sunday Dream Box.” It was the ultimate COVID-19 enticement—good food and good deeds from the comfort of your own home, complete with Netflix quips and references to sweatpants.

A sketch of a unicorn with the words Lazy Sunday Dream Box
Jennifer Uygur lent what she calls her “ridiculous fifth-grade artistic skills” to the fundraiser illustration: a unicorn, cookies, stars, a box on a cloud, a ham marked “We [heart] Justin,” and the words “Lazy Sunday Dream Box.”
They increased the number of boxes they offered from 100 to 200, and so resulted the mystery mix of 16 or more items. It wound up being enough food for two people “depending on your current anxiety level and how much you use food to cope,” Laussade quipped. (Those wanting to contribute to Lazy Sunday can keep the momentum going with t-shirts and sweatshirt sales now that the box sale has closed.)

It was, for Laussade, a way of coping. “I think the Dallas community is a bunch of fighters,” she says. “If there’s a problem, they go towards it.” It was also something they could do—now. “This is how the DFW chef community rolls.”

More industry folk talked about holding other events. (So much so, that Nishimura sometimes found out about them second-hand.)

Diana Zamora, a pastry chef whom the pandemic has turned solo, didn’t need to know Holt. She was ready to help “whether that’s food or emotional support or financial donations.”

She has a mother in treatment for cancer. As soon as she heard about Holt’s predicament, she launched a bake sale she dubbed the Fuck Cancer Bake Sale, with curbside pickup the day before Thanksgiving and 50 percent of sales benefiting Holt. (The rest covered her costs.) She brought her happy spot to bear, with assortments of pecan snickerdoodles, white chocolate-raspberry cookies, dark chocolate pepita tarts that placed her in the role of supportive den mother. The event’s moniker was a reminder that the language of kicking ass is the chef’s love language.

She and Holt have never cooked together or been more than social media-connected. “But it doesn’t matter. It’s just a fellow chef who put his heart and soul into everything. Why not be the community?” Zamora asks.

“I don’t even know him personally—but I don’t need to… I watched him. I followed him before Salaryman was a brick-and-mortar,” she says. “I followed him and his pop-ups. He inspired me so much. Just the hard work [that went] into opening Salaryman. He was just determined to do his brick-and-mortar. It really hit home when I found out he was sick. I was like, fuck. I understand what his family is going through.”

“I think our hardest part was to nudge him to let others help him this time.”

Jennifer Uygur

The day before her pick-ups, she confided to me, “I like the idea of an old-school bake sale for a cause.” And every $100 or $200 can mean a bill paid.

“Are we in a position where we can help someone who might need a little more than we do?” she asks.

“We just gotta help each other. We’re one big family. We’re in this industry because we put our hearts and souls into it. But let’s be honest, [usually] unless we work in corporate or hotels, we don’t have insurance.”

It’s important to note that while Holt had insurance coverage—a rarity in independent restaurants, but he and the Uygurs have made it a priority at all of their restaurants—the izakaya’s closure left Holt and Nishimura in flux. They will be covered through the end of the year, per an emphatic decision by the Uygurs, but after that will have to seek out coverage through the government’s COBRA (Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act) plan or other options.

Holt was off to a stellar year. After rafts of local love poured in after Salaryman’s opening in 2019, which had taken Holt and his tiny team two years to achieve, national entities were taking note. In February, he was named a James Beard semifinalist for Best New Restaurant. He joined the lists of best new restaurants for D Magazine and Texas Monthly.

Nishimura says in no uncertain terms, “Salaryman is done. It’s over. The doors have been closed. It’s really unfortunate and heartbreaking,” but that’s the way it is. The restaurant saw the whole skeleton crew put energy into making it successful, producing Herculean efforts for weathering the last few months. As many have.

“We have people who are having a pretty tough year, are struggling, yet didn’t hesitate to say, ‘What can I do? What can I do right now? Can I donate time?’” says Uygur. “That’s what’s so amazing.”

“And I think it just speaks to the heart of the kind of people who are in our business—those in the business of taking care of people. And when one of our own, especially one of our own who is so giving and so talented [needs help], it makes us feel like, ‘Oh, in a year where we can’t control anything, this is where we can do some good, maybe.’

In this year of years, we have seen vulnerabilities. We also saw spontaneous outpourings of mutual aid, the initiatives by industry people feeding each other (look to Family Meal, Staff Meal and other programs) now seem indicative of and in keeping with the times. They also set a precedent. Now that need has taken on a bigger dimension, it can feel as though the groundwork for such solidarity was laid precisely because the pandemic’s repercussions made so many feel so vulnerable—and forced them to see the vulnerabilities of others.

“When this pandemic hit, we had nothing else but each other to help each other out,” Orsini says of the restaurant community. “Because there was nobody to help us out. Nobody got what was happening to us. But when it came to push comes to shove, we only had each other to help each other out.”

The safety nets are not in place. This is a story about a microcosm of a greater reality. It’s “where we are right now,” Zamora says. At a time when they’re facing down the uncertainty, asking themselves, “Are we relevant anymore?” they couldn’t be more so.

Do we hope Salaryman will come back, in some form? Yes, I do, and I am not the only one. In the meantime, we also see that the Dallas culinary community is resilient. In this year of precarity, they don’t face hardship sitting down. They give their time, their goods. And they know how to hold a bake sale.

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