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Chef Justin Warner takes root in South Dakota with Bokujō Ramen

The Food Network alumn moves from Brooklyn to the Midwest

Justin Warner has worked in restaurants for more than two decades, since he was 15-years old, doing an array of jobs both in the front-of-house and back-of-house. Today the self-taught chef and author of three cookbooks (The Laws of Cooking: And How to Break Them; Marvel Eat the Universe: The Official Cookbook; and The Ultimate Ninja Foodi Pressure Cooker Cookbook: 125 Recipes to Air Fry, Pressure Cook, Slow Cook, Dehydrate, and Broil for the Multicooker That Crisps) is best known for his Food Network stints, including a 2010 appearance on 24 Hour Restaurant Battle and Next Food Network Star in 2012. He won the latter competition and launched the show Rebel Eats.

At the time Warner also co-owned a restaurant in Brooklyn, N.Y., called Do Or Dine, which operated for four years. Shortly after it closed, Warner married Brooke Sweeten, whom he met working at a Japanese restaurant, and they moved to South Dakota during the pandemic. Three years ago the couple launched Bokujō Ramen, featuring local proteins like beef and bison. Shortly afterward, they opened a wine bar next door called BB’s Natural.

We visited Warner at his establishments and talked about the big city shift, opening a ramen joint in Rapid City, S.D., using bison, and how he's dealing with the supply chain.

It's a big change going from New York City to Rapid City. What made you want to take that leap?

Brooke’s family lives here and she is from here. We would visit for holidays and summer trips and one of the final times we visited we saw some cats in an RV and thought, “It sucks having to wait until you're retired to live in an RV.”

Brooke Googled how to live in an RV as a Millennial, and then we mapped it out. We bought a used RV in the Poconos, drove it out here [to Rapid City], and were going to use her parents’ driveway [to fix it up].

Things blew up and we were marooned in South Dakota. Then, we slowly fell in love with the place. We did drive the RV around for a year, visiting cities we were interested in. In the end, we were like, “We will either drive through that circuit again or accept we like Rapid City.”

So we found a house we liked; before we were living in the RV on top of a hill in town. We had to grab roots and make it happen. Overall, spending time with family is great, and we got to know the neighbors. Plus, we love the outdoors.

What made you decide to open Bokujō Ramen in 2021?

We were just chilling, living off Food Network freelancing [Warner guest starred on many shows, mainly Guy's Grocery Kitchen] and flying in and out periodically. When COVID hit we realized they weren't going to make TV shows. I got the idea to make a lemonade stand. I wanted to buy and sell a good instead of my services as a talking head on Food Network.

Why ramen?

Brooke and I have a background in Japanese food. She ran Chuko in [Prospect Heights] Brooklyn and I ran Ichiran in Bushwick [Brooklyn], both ramen shops. I was just intrigued. Ichiran was the first American outpost of the chain and it's next to the factory. [Ichiran Ramen started in Japan in 1960 under the name Futaba Ramen and changed its name to Ichiran in 1966, and now there are more than 60 shops in Asia and New York City.]

[When coming up with the concept] I was like, if we do sushi it will come out of the same truck as the other sushi places. Then Brooke found frozen Sun Noodles in a case. We were like, “These are good. Where can we get them? For the first year of the shop's life we could only order Sun Noodles like once a month.

That sounds precarious for planning...

It's like reading tea leaves. Are we going to be busy? Are we not? How much freezer space do we have? That isn't how restaurants run. Normally you are trying to plan a month ahead. The fact we never sold out of noodles was nothing short of a miracle.

You mentioned one of the challenges of cooking in Rapid City versus Brooklyn is the availability of ingredients. How do you deal with that?

If anything else, you recognize you will pay a premium and you accept that. You understand that it makes the dining experience more special. One of the best food experiences I had here: I met a guy that ships caviar and uni. He's just, like, a dude. He sent me a tray of uni packed in seawater. To eat that with my wife at our wine bar with chips, in South Dakota, it was a mind-altering thing. The uni was so fresh, and so of a place. To have it in the middle of the country was so weird. That's what we want to offer customers.

How about general suppliers?

Amazon is one of our suppliers. If a truck breaks down between here and Minneapolis, where else does one get fried garlic? And if you want a sauce like Kikkoman, Amazon aside, we can work with some other suppliers like iGourmet and A Priori, both online wholesalers. Turns out we can get some pretty wild stuff, so it could be worse.

What about sourcing wine for BB's Natural?

For wine, South Dakota has a weird system. It's called the three-tiered system and we only have five distributers. I dream of giant bottles of sake. We can't get those.

Your food also has a local bent. How do you source it?

We are one state away from one of the biggest greenhouse states in the country, which is Montana. Even if we order from Sysco, it's not like we are getting cabbages grown in Chile. It was an unintentionally rad perk, and we didn't have a clue.

Overall we have a very short growing season. In the summer we have a guy growing shishito peppers for us. They are so pungent. When he brings the bag in it smells like shishito dank. They are clearly of the earth. He is turning heads with this paper bag of peppers.

We also have a mushroom dude who has a grow operation up the street. We go through 20 to 40 pounds of his mushrooms a week. Depending on the season, because it's so quick, tomatoes are great here and are all backyard and heirlooms. Our winter squash game is amazing out here. We have kabocha on the menu now. It's not in season, but we keep it in our makeshift cellar.

Are there any other ingredients that really shine in South Dakota?

To me, the highlight is protein and bones. There's something magical about bones, and our meat processor loves that we are buying bones. In general, there are a couple of uses for bones. [We’re not in] a metropolitan area that loves bone marrow, so you sell it to the dog food company, or you can sell it to me. I get about a hundred pounds of each animal — bison, beef, and pork — every week.

I've noticed bison is served at a lot of restaurants in the state.

If you move to South Dakota there is bison on menus everywhere. The question is, is it tourist bison, so a tourist can get a bison burger and check it off their list, or is it bison that is exciting?

Bison and cows are closely related. When we did the beef bone ramen we were shooting in the dark. There are only a few places that do this gyu-kotsu [beef and soy sauce] broth. I had one version in L.A. that I didn't love. I was like, “I am going to do it.”

I was pretty sure we could do this with bison as well. I ordered a sample pack and processed it the same way as the beef. It's not gamey. It tastes like what it ate and it has these rainy field notes to it. Because of that, it needed different seasonings than the beef.

I could find no evidence of bison bone ramen anywhere on the Internet. I have only seen people top other broth ramens with bison meat [not broth made from bison bones].

Which menu item is the most popular?

They all sell really well, though the bison is probably the top. I love it and the ramen is not a tourist trap.

Are there other ramen shops in Rapid City?

There are two that popped up after we did. It's wild: I look at the numbers and it still hovers at 60% first-time diners and 40% repeat diners. It's three years old now and you would have thought we saturated the critical mass. You would think it would be the majority of people that came before, but the cycle of customers goes like this: First time, back in one week, back the same week, back on the weekend, then three weeks away because they realize they have a problem, and then they self-regulate.

Any major perks to opening a restaurant in Rapid City?

It's so incredibly easy to do business here. If I need to get building permits I walk to City Hall and say I need one. Then I get it and can start to build.

Once, when I was on the home version of Guy's Grocery, I pulled out liquid nitrogen. People were like, “Where did you find it?” The answer: at the welding store. We have many because lots of people are involved in trade and do things themselves. So there isn't a regulation on liquid nitrogen.

Another great thing: We’ve got the cottage law so you can home-can. It's dope for people like Alan, the mushroom guy. He doesn't need a commercial kitchen that needs to be inspected. It's progressive.

How did you get people to come try Bokujō in the first place?

I grossly underestimated two things. The first is we have an Air Force base here. A lot of them have been stationed in Japan or Guam, where you have plenty of access to non-instant ramen. On day one I thought we were getting raided because so many people in uniforms showed up. It turns out our first Facebook post about the soft opening went viral on the base.

The other thing is we have six months of winter a year — so, soup — and there are a lot of people who love anime here. If you love anime you will get to ramen eventually. We were so busy the first eight months that we had to make a lottery system. The first week it was just Brooke and I [working], and I would say the daydream of opening a sleepy mom-and-pop ramen shop failed miserably.

Has your television work brought people in?

It adds a lot in the summer when people want to have a special experience. People want to take a picture outside and tick it off the list. We were on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. I think that show is as relevant and as endorsing as the Michelin.

Prices for your ramen range from $15 to $18 a bowl. Has that cost worked for Rapid City residents?

It does work for the area, though I think people have had cheaper ramen elsewhere. We all have to embrace that here it's a pretty cheap cost of living, but we have to spend more on great ingredients. It's big too: If you can finish it all, I'm impressed. We think it's enough food to be full. I can't think of enough places where I am emotionally and physically satisfied, where things are nourishing and thoughtfully crafted for under $20. It's quick too. You can make a date of it, or inhale it.

Aside from your restaurant, what's dining like in Rapid City?

It's tough. I think there are a lot of people who are leading the way in terms of staying relevant and pushing boundaries. When people come here they aren't stepping back in time, culinarily speaking, and there are a lot of goals and desires and itches that haven't yet been scratched. If someone could figure out a New York slice place with two slices and a can of Coke for $8, they would rake it in. People would lose their minds.

Do you see a future expansion or another project?

So far 2024 is looking to be my year to refine what we have and grow and get better at what we have. I say that, but if the right opportunity came I would talk it over with Brooke. We are yin and yang about making decisions, and between the two of us, there are no unwarranted casualties.

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