Nutbush to Paris

Justin Hughes is the French pastry chef you never knew you needed

Photography by Andrea Morales

He likes his cuisine French and his Air Jordans first edition.

Justin Hughes, 23, is a certified sneakerhead, but he will never drop pastry dough on them. His demeanor, suave. His eyes, wide and dreamy. His toothpick, tucked neatly behind his left ear. His vibe is James Dean, hip hop and Nut Bush, a North Memphis neighborhood where he grew up and stacked up a sizeable sneaker collection. His ascension in the Memphis restaurant scene is poetic justice. It’s gotta be the shoes.

As a rising star at Cafe 1912, his pastry specialties have kept foodies coming back for more. Regulars are seeking out his honey walnut tart or just another spoonful of his orange and lemon curd with a champagne orange marmalade gelee and vanilla chantilly. Hughes has been trained by the best in Memphis, and it’s high time his fancy footwork in the kitchen is noticed.

Hughes credits Jackson Kramer, the former executive chef for Interim Restaurant and Bounty on Broad, for launching his career in 2014 and acknowledging his versatility in the kitchen. His dad, Rickey Pirtle, works for a local food distributor and told Hughes about a spot at Interim. It was Kramer who gave Hughes his first opportunity.

“I spent two summers looking for a job after high school and he [Kramer] hired me to just be a dishwasher,” he says.

After seeing his multi-tasking skills on two washing stations, Kramer added in prep work within Hughes’s first three months. He immediately moved him to garde manger, a cold plate station responsible for salads, appetizers and desserts and which, at Interim, could have up to 12 items.

“Everything is from scratch. It is one of the busiest stations and one of the most challenging. I still think it’s one of my favorites,” Hughes says.

For two years, he worked under Kramer and studied the grill while still working garde manger, but once the executive chef left to launch Bounty On Broad, Hughes felt his training stalled and his talent was overlooked. With a recommendation from his friend Chef Jason Dallas, a former executive chef at Interim, he eventually left to become a room service cook at The Peabody hotel in 2016, sharing the same space with restaurant Chez Philippe staff.

h2>“That’s how I got my foot in. I took any position that was open in cooking,” he says. “I got there, and it was one cook every eight hours. I learned the entire menu in three days.”

He cooked to the broad delights of guests wanting eggs Benedict to filet mignon. After a strenuous night of completing 70 tickets, Hughes decided to help the pastry kitchen make 800 duck-shaped cookies in three hours.

This pivot changed the course of his career and tested his love for dough, literally.

“After baking all the cookies, letting them sit, piping eyes and bow ties, and dipping them in chocolate and then bagging them all, it was probably the most strategic thing I’ve ever done with a cookie and I didn’t have much patience at all,” he says. “It irritated me and I thought, ‘I hate pastries!’”

But he earned the attention of executive pastry chef Konrad Spitzbart, who quickly brought him on with the pastry kitchen where he prepared mignardises, a bite-size confection, for The Peabody’s high tea. He learned about the meticulousness of following recipes to the letter, the knife skills that involved the precision of a ruler, and the necessity of garnishment and design.

Justin Hughes, 23, the pastry chef at Cafe 1912, presented his take on a Black Forest cake. 
Photo by Andrea Morales

“Doing pastries gave me patience and relaxation. It brought me to a new adventure,” Hughes says.

“I never thought I would be making marshmallows from scratch.”

After a year, he left The Peabody and joined his friend Chris Ellis at Paulette’s Restaurant with promises of being promoted to sous-chef. Hughes was promoted only after Ellis resigned to take care of his ailing wife, but it did not inhibit the quiet influence he already held over the kitchen.

“Before I became the sous-chef at Paulette’s, I didn’t demand anything of anyone,” he says. “I came in and got to know my workers and I wasn’t even a chef. I found out what they needed and I went out and got everything they needed to make the work environment easier. And then when I got the position, they already had respect for me.”

He left Paulette’s in less than a year, but his solid relationships with industry veterans took Hughes to the next level. He was invited to work alongside chefs Erling Jensen and Dave Krog for a farm-to-table themed event this past spring.

The affirming experience made Hughes yearn for a space that recognized his depth of experience.

When he took a meeting with Glenn and Martha Hays, owners of Cafe 1912, he was recognized by a former coworker from Interim, Josh Dowdy, now the sous-chef at the French bistro. A new interim was to begin and the rest is history in the making.

As the pastry chef at Cafe 1912, Hughes whips up new dessert items weekly like his citrus curd topped with an orange gelee. According to him, it’s all about imaginative presentation, a lesson reinforced while at The Peabody.

“When your eyes see something creative that you’ve never seen before, you say, ‘Man, it’s so beautiful. I don’t want to eat it.’” he says.

“When I look at customers and they are staring at what I sent out, I see them embracing it and I think, ‘Yeah, I did that.’”

Melonee Gaines is the owner and lead maven of MPact Media Group, a digital media and public relations consulting firm. She is an oxtail enthusiast and cures her insatiable wanderlust with frequent road trips inspired by her growing restaurant lists in her Foursquare City Guide. Follow her food exploits on IG @meloneedg.

Andrea Morales is a producer with the Southern Documentary Project at the University of Mississippi. She’s Peruvian-born, Miami-bred and Memphis-based. After years of existing in spaces heavy with the constructs of socioeconomic binaries, her work moves with the hope of observing the things in between.