Just a few short months after being named Eater Dallas’ 2017 Chef of the Year, Josh Harmon decided to part ways with Junction Craft Kitchen, the restaurant where his focus on fermentation and fusing flavors earned accolades from critics and diners alike. Needless to say, the decision caused major waves.
Leaving Junction behind was an interesting, and in his own words, “heartbreaking” choice for Harmon, but it’s a decision he’s convinced was the right one. “A lot of people told me that leaving lost me a possible nomination for a James Beard award because of all of the drama,” says Harmon. “But I knew if I stayed, the new direction they were taking it would have killed me.” Now, he’s striking out on his own with an exciting new pop-up dinner space and market with fellow Chef of the Year Misti Norris.
A former child actor who trekked out to L.A. during high school to work in commercials and TV — he booked gigs for Sprite, Apple, and Radio Shack, among others — Harmon is nothing if not focused on going his own way. After trying to study film for awhile, Harmon says that he couldn’t stop thinking about cooking. He started his career at an Auntie Anne’s pretzel kiosk in a mall, working his way up to an opportunity to cook in (and eventually, earn permanent positions at) vaunted New York City restaurants like Buddakan and Le Cirque, before ending up at the Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives-featured Chef Point Cafe inside a Wautaga gas station.
He landed a stint at Kitchen LTO, the now-shuttered Trinity Groves restaurant incubator that eventually evolved into Junction Craft Kitchen with Harmon at the helm. “I didn’t have a walk-in refrigerator, so I couldn’t order a case of anything,” Harmon says. “I had to get all my stuff from local farms, and had to order a fish per week straight off a boat — they’d FedEx it to the restaurant.”
Harmon sourced only top-notch, locally grown ingredients for dishes at the restaurant. He made up for the lack of cold storage space by fermenting fresh ingredients into pickles, hot sauces, and other foods, which typically don’t require refrigeration. Things were going well until new partner Cody Neathery bought into the business and reportedly wanted to transform Junction into more of a “bar with food” than a restaurant to fit in with Deep Ellum’s bustling nightlife culture.
According to Harmon, Neathery also wanted to step away from using small and locally-based producers and instead contract with a large company like Ben E. Keith to supply all of the raw ingredients for the restaurant. Neathery disputes those claims, and says that it was actually Harmon’s idea to make the transformation. Either way, Harmon walked away.
“If you want me to stop using the food and ingredients I use, then I can’t be here,” Harmon explains. “That’s what I do — I forage, I ferment. The food I do takes a lot of work and it’s not just from me. We were making our own American cheese, mustard, vinegar, miso, and fish sauce. I push myself and I push the people around me really hard. I was changing the menu every two months, based on the farms and the seasons. It became a hassle for them to do that style of food.”
After his complicated departure, Misti Norris, another Chef of the Year alum from 2016, reached out to Harmon to ask if he’d help her launch her existing pop-up, Petra and the Beast, in a brand new brick-and-mortar space in at 601 N. Haskell St. in East Dallas.
In exchange, Norris offered Harmon the opportunity to use the space in its off hours to host his own pop-ups and to sell his koji and ferments in the standing market that she plans to launch this spring along with a new noodle bar and charcuterie eatery. Harmon jumped at the chance. “She is my best bud and one of my mentors and she wanted to let me keep creating,” he said.
The pair originally bonded over their love of fermented foods and foraging, and their collaboration in the new space will allow Harmon to continue the pickling and fermentation projects that he became so well-known for at LTO and Junction, but under new branding. He’ll be selling them in the pop-up space come March and an online store will follow. “I’m really excited. It’s my whole collection of ferments, plus we’re launching a line of year-old fish sauce that’s been smoked. It’s pretty stellar,” he says.
The name of the line, Store Brand Cultivates, is a nod to Harmon’s mother from whom he inherited his love of Southern cooking. “When I go to the store for my mom, I have to get specific brand names or she’s really upset with me. She never wants the store brand of anything. I always thought it was funny and thought it would be funny to name my ferments that.”
Harmon and Norris will occupy the East Dallas space for at least five months, but what happens after that is anybody’s guess.