The Spice of Atlanta Living

How The Shed’s Justin Dixon found his inspiration—and his notoriety

When Justin Dixon talks about his past, it’s laced with an attractive humility—a simple collection of stories and happenstances that led, ultimately, to his place at the helm of The Shed at Glenwood. But Dixon’s story paints a picture not just of his own journey, but of Atlanta and its dynamic culinary growth through the years. DiningOut sat down with the veteran chef recently for a little of our own inspiration—and a peek into the future.

DiningOut: Some chefs claim that they found the kitchen as infants before they could learn to walk. Is that your story?

Chef Dixon: [Laughs] Not quite. I started cooking when I was seven, largely because I grew up in a family of cooks—my mom, my dad, my aunt. My mom would cook daily meals, but my aunt was the one in charge of big feasts like those for Thanksgiving and Christmas. I started washing dishes and chopping vegetables for her early on. What was the first complete meal you made
by yourself? I dabbled in breakfast before any other meal. So, my first creation was scrambled eggs, sausage, and Eggo waffles.

And after you had moved on to other meals, what was your repertoire?

Well, as it turns out, my mom worked two shifts, so I began cooking for the family out of necessity when I was about 11 or 12. And my meals weren’t gourmet—canned veggies, pasta, macaroni and cheese. Stuff a 12-year-old could handle.

When did you finally venture out into restaurant kitchens?

I started off at Subway in high school, but after graduating and moving on to the Art Institute of Atlanta, I took a job at Pano’s and Paul’s—a French restaurant with a loyal following.

I’m assuming you moved beyond sandwich making there?

Eventually. I started making sandwiches and desserts, then eventually moved up to the fry station, where I fried lobster tails. Lots and lots of lobster tails.

Did you eventually move to a different station?

Actually, I moved to a different restaurant. I needed new challenges. So, I started at Spice Market in the W Hotel. It was an Asian fusion concept, and I was able to work every station. The whole restaurant was completely different; Pano’s and Paul’s was French, and Spice Market was this medley of Thai, Vietnamese, Cantonese, and Indian cuisines. It was an 180-degree shift.

Was there something in particular about that experience that spoke to you?

We were cooking Asian cuisine, but we were using a lot of the French techniques I learned at Pano’s and Paul’s. I enjoyed that combination. I also got a good sense of cleanliness and organization. And while I loved it, they let me go in 2010 because the economy was tanking.

What did you do to get yourself back on your feet?

At that time in Atlanta, there were probably 100 cooks for every job. And as I didn’t have much experience, things were really tough. So I bounced around casual restaurants until I finally started working at Yeah! Burger. At that time, burger joints were all the rage—Yeah! even had a line out the door when they first opened. One thing I learned there was that food doesn’t have to be so serious. You can still put out top-notch food without sending it out to white tablecloth dining rooms with tuxedo servers.

From there, I moved to Alabama for a bit to get away, and to find some new inspiration. I worked at a restaurant called Roux—a Cajun-Creole concept. It reinvigorated me so much—the fresh ingredients, the culinary creativity—that I decided to move back to Atlanta and pursue my dream of being a chef in my own kitchen.

At this point, you had enough experience to land some serious positions in Atlanta, I imagine.

Yeah, I was much more experienced. I started working at a restaurant called Local 3. I think every chef has that one restaurant in their careers where they experience an “ah-hah” moment about cooking—the revelation that you’re no longer a cook, but a chef. For me, that was Local 3. I couldn’t tell you what it was, but that’s when it happened. So I got serious about food and immersed myself—I read books, visited different restaurants. I ate, slept, and breathed food. The trouble was, I couldn’t climb the ladder at Local 3. So, through a series of events, I ended up briefly at a restaurant called Spence run by a former chef of mine. When he left and the owners reconcepted the restaurant, I decided to move on again.

This time, landing at The Shed.

Yep. But I didn’t know Cindy [the owner]. I actually posted my resume on Craigslist, and she called me the next day. I started in November 2015, and the rest is history.

Tell us about the concept.

Our guiding goal is to be a neighborhood restaurant, so I just try to cook food that I think people will enjoy. I want this place to be a meeting place for friends, a showcase of true Atlanta food, a home away from home. That said, it’s important to know that everyone in my kitchen has a seat at the table and contributes to the menu. All our names are on the menus we print because everybody has a say in what we create.

Would you say, loosely, that the food is American comfort fare?

It’s a hodgepodge. I’m still trying to figure out exactly how to define our cuisine, to be honest. So far, we’re just focused on making good food. I mean, there are at least six different cuisines represented on our menu at any given time, so I guess it’s a global menu?

[Laughs] That’s fair. But if you’re not pulling from a specific tradition, then what’s your inspiration?

What’s in season, what’s cool, what I eat. Sometimes, I’m inspired by food trends or what other restaurants are doing. Or, maybe it’s a dish I made at another restaurant and I want to reintroduce it with my own spin. Or it’s a meal from a TV show or cookbook. Sometimes, we even make dishes that are suggestions from guests.

Does that mean the menu is constantly changing?

Oh yes. We have a new menu every day. But not everything changes—we have four or five core dishes that remain because diners love them. For example, we have a Steak and Eggs feature that’s a new take on deviled eggs—beef tartare tucked in a hard-cooked egg white topped with whipped yolk. Then, of course, we have our Burger, the Kale Caesar, and for dessert, the Chocolate Ding-Dong with cream filling. They’re all popular.

And what does the future look like at The Shed? How do you build on these signatures?

We just started a housemade charcuterie program, actually. It’s in its maiden voyage, so we’ll be building that up over time. One of my line cooks is also starting to make batches of fresh pasta in-house. And we have a new pastry chef on board, so there’s lots happening. Oh, and we’re also going to be launching a pantry program on our website, where people can order typical kitchen pantry items—like chicken stock, soup, cookie dough, pie crusts, and so on—and pick them up at the restaurant.

With such a hectic schedule and constantly changing culinary offerings, do you get any time away from the kitchen?

I have Mondays off, and I usually spend those days at other restaurants—trying food that’s new and different. There are a lot of smaller restaurants opening in the city now, which I think is pretty cool. They’re casual, but the food is outstanding—Michelin-quality in some cases. Plus, Atlanta is going through a generational change. Our well-known, older chefs are leaving the kitchen, and younger chefs are taking over. It’ll be exciting to see how that plays out.

You can visit The Shed online at theshedatglenwood.com, or take a peek at its sister concept, The Pig & the Pearl, at thepigandthepearl.com.