Step out of your box and into a place of fresh, flavorful and dynamic cuisine. Enter ZZest restaurant, and you will find Chef Justin Schoville not just overseeing, but hands-on crafting a phenomenal menu.
Schoville is a Wisconsin boy who began working in restaurants in his hometown of Dodgeville at the age of 14. To say that this was the start of his culinary career is a bit of a stretch, though. Truth be told, in those early years, he didn’t really enjoy the business — but who does when faced with dishwashing and other repetitive tasks.
He moved on to other aspects of the restaurant business, serving both as a pizza delivery boy and a saute cook, first actually cooking at the age of 18. Things changed the day he decided to join a couple friends and go on a 32-day backpacking trip to New Zealand.
That trip brought new insight and new direction for Justin. In New Zealand, he was introduced to a world of local and fresh, which resulted in creative cuisine unlike anything in his Midwest upbringing.
Upon returning to the U.S., Justin enrolled in culinary school. During the 18 months he was in school, he continued to work at restaurants.
Participating in both apprentice positions and “staging” — unpaid internships — proved beneficial. He discovered the importance of quality local ingredients and learned new culinary techniques.
Justin joined the culinary team at ZZest in February 2011, after several years as executive chef at Sontes. He oversees the ZZest kitchen with passion and inspiration, daily challenging himself, and the other chefs, to be creative and produce the best possible from a small, though well-organized, kitchen.
Hanging above the open kitchen are three chalkboards. These serve to open communication. The board titled “Tasting Ideas” lists ingredients the chefs are working on incorporating into a dish — items such as burnt barley jus, malfatti and urfa sausage, any one of which could spark curiosity and conversation. “Composed Ideas” are completed dishes. The “Burger” board describes the current offering.
Schoville reads extensively as he strives to stay on top of culinary trends and all aspects of the business side and operations of a restaurant. His menus are seasonal, and he is known to support local and small farms.
Given that ZZest is a smaller restaurant, it is able to utilize things other restaurants cannot. Whole animals often are brought in from nearby small farms such as Tangled Bank Farm near Wabasha. Schoville is careful to utilize all parts of such animals after butchering, finding creative ways to incorporate various cuts in unique dishes. These cuts often are used on the Chef Tasting, a unique three course “surprise” meal offered for parties of four or more. For the restaurant, it offers an opportunity to experience dishes that can’t be produced in volume or incorporate ingredients that are available for only a short period of time. For patrons, it is an opportunity to taste unique dishes.
Also not to be missed is the hand-cut pasta. All are fresh, handmade and egg-based. I recently had the Veal Bolognese served with the house ricotta gnudi. Indeed, it was anything but your cheese-filled pasta. Better yet, I sat at the kitchen bar. As a “galley guest,” patrons can see their food being prepared and engage in conversation with kitchen staff.
Typically, Schoville puts four pasta dishes on the menu at any time — a lighter pasta, one that’s vegetarian, a heartier one and a “simply unique” dish. Patrons can always find a steak, a burger and fish dish on the frequently rotating menu.
Schoville believes seasoning properly is critical in the kitchen. “It changes the whole aspect of cooking,” he said.
Kitchen items that he can’t be without include a tasting spoon, a fish spatula, a utility knife, a tamis (or drum sieve) and, yes, salt and pepper.
Schoville’s goals at ZZest for 2016: to maintain and improve interactions with guests and to expand to new, unique pasta styles. His wish for Rochester is that as it continues to grow, we see more small, independent restaurants emerge and find success.
Margo Stich is a Rochester freelance writer.
ZZest Cafe & Bar
1190 16th St. SW, Rochester
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday , 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
The restaurant also offers the ZZest Downtown Lunch Counter in the First Avenue Food Court, 11 a.m.-6 p.m. daily. The adjacent market is open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. daily.