niche food group director of culinary operations justin mcmillen photo by izaiah johnson

Ones to Watch 2021 // Justin McMillen

A nickname like “the Truth” sounds like a superhero’s alter ego. And indeed, there is something Clark Kent-ish about Justin McMillen, the director of culinary operations for Niche Food Group, whose former employers consistently describe as “humble” and “unpretentious.” McMillen was bequeathed the lofty moniker by his former boss at Overlook Farm, chef Tim Grandinetti. The two first met when McMillen came to extern with Grandinetti at St. Louis’ Renaissance Grand Hotel in 2007. Grandinetti was so impressed by McMillen’s talent and dedication that he tapped McMillen to help him reboot Overlook’s farm-to-table dining program in 2010. For two years, the two lived and worked side by side on the farm with little to distract them besides “tapes of Anthony Bourdain’s and Dave Chappelle’s shows,” recalled Grandinetti.

Collaboration between Overlook and Sidney Street Cafe chef-owner Kevin Nashan on a dinner led to McMillen joining Nashan’s team in 2012. McMillen spent the next five-and-half years working his way up to the role of chef de cuisine, which he took over when Chris Bolyard vacated the position. While some might be satisfied with the top gig at one of the city’s most esteemed restaurants, McMillen was eager to continue exploring. A visit to Sidney Street by chef Kyle Connaughton led to an opportunity to relocate to California to help Connaughton open SingleThread, a Japanese-inspired restaurant and farm in Sonoma County. The restaurant was awarded three Michelin stars during McMillen’s time there.

At SingleThread, the same patience and steadiness that prompted Grandinetti to nickname a young McMillen “the Truth” prompted Connaughton to put McMillen in charge of managing new staff and externs. “People who maybe had a little bit less experience felt really comfortable having him as their mentor … being led and guided by him,” Connaughton said.

Now back in St. Louis after three years away, McMillen is applying his leadership and culinary skills to the Niche Food Group’s diverse portfolio of restaurants, which encompasses Italian, French, Brazilian and American cuisines. It’s a big job; it takes a skilled chef to serve as the connective thread between so many different kinds of restaurants. But Justin “the Truth” McMillen is clearly cut out for the task. We’re glad to have him back in town.

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