On the second floor of the culinary school in the Art Institute of Las Vegas, you’ll find one of Henderson’s more interesting and inspiring bargains: a teaching restaurant called Opus Too. Every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, in a small, nicely decorated dining room with a wonderful view of the Strip in the distance, the school’s students take control of both the front and back of house.
Sure, the Valley is dotted with a handful of these learning institutions, on both high school and culinary school campuses. But Opus Too is probably the best and most ambitious I’ve come across. On any given day, the three-course lunch might include pâté, vichyssoise or braised oxtail—and all with generous pours of wine (glasses run about $7). While the young chefs don’t always hit the nail exactly on the head, at a mere $12, it’s a hell of a lot better than anything that was offered on my college campus. For that, you can thank chef-instructor Justin Kingsley Hall, who oversees the kitchen at these events.
What Hall brings to the classroom is professional cooking experience—including at Comme Ça, both in Las Vegas and Los Angeles, as well as various restaurants in Florida and California—and a growing star status within the Las Vegas culinary underground. In recent months, Hall has catered events with the Goodwich’s Josh Clark, lent a hand with the food at UNLVino, cooked at the Further Future festival and joined chef Brian Howard at Life Is Beautiful and New York’s James Beard House. According to local food impresario Jolene Mannina, “Justin is behind the scenes but is known in the chef community, and has been the go-to person when chefs need additional hands.”
But what Hall has not been able to do lately is run his own professional kitchen. The cause is a medical condition. Damaged cartilage in his breastplate, undiagnosed and untreated for 18 months when he was in L.A., began to imitate a heart condition and eventually led to his collapse on a kitchen floor. The chef doesn’t blame fate for sidelining him. On the contrary, he blames himself for not addressing the issue early. “I didn’t take the time to say, ‘Hey, I need a few days off’ or ‘I should go see a doctor.’ I chose to ignore it for quite a while. And then by the time I was on the floor, aching, and could barely breathe, my managers were like, ‘Well, maybe we should just call it right here.’”
Ironically, it was a similar set of circumstances that led a young Hall into the kitchen in the beginning. His first career choice was the military, and he landed a role as a paratrooper straight out of high school. But when he suffered an injury that barred him from jumping out of airplanes or any other combat position, it convinced him to leave the service. It was only then that he turned to cooking as a career, first catering with high school friends in California, and eventually getting a bachelor’s degree in culinary management at The Art Institute of Tampa.
But the chef is philosophical about his injury-prone past. “It pushed me in a lot of directions for sure,” he says. “It’s a bit of fate and a bit of stupidity. That’s how I land in a lot of places, and sometimes I end up on the good side of things.”
While Hall has no plans to abandon teaching, which he loves, he’s also planning to resume a more regular restaurant role. He’s joined forces with Howard, his former Comme Ça boss, in planning Howard’s delayed new restaurant, Harvest & Larder. They’ve already collaborated on charcuterie recipes. And when the restaurant finally opens, Hall tells me, “I told Brian, ‘If I’m available, I’m on board with you, buddy.’”
When and if that happens, it’ll be a return that many will be watching carefully.