At Oakland’s Boot and Shoe, amidst aromas of brick-oven baking and freshly ground coffee, I ask Chef De Cuisine Justin Mauz of two Michelin-starred Coi if fine dining is still relevant. Unequivocally he states, “There will always be fine dining in society, but its place has shifted…I see myself staying in this. Very simply, it allows me to create an unparalleled guest experience which is not present in more casual dining these days.” It’s an intriguing answer, especially given the ongoing trend of fine dining chefs opening less formal, less expensive restaurants.
“Fine dining” evokes images of the white tablecloth and the triple-digit tasting menu, but it goes far beyond an ornate and expensive meal. According to Mauz, what distinguishes fine dining is the deep commitment to deliver guests “a seamless experience of comfort and luxury” from the moment they enter. “One of the many benefits of cooking for fewer people on a nightly basis with elevated expectations is that we have the opportunity to deliver this…If some element of the food or dining experience is not up to our standard, we amend it immediately.” He uses this philosophy to conduct the orchestrations of Coi’s two Michelin-starred kitchen.
There is no pomp as Mauz explains the concept, just clarity. Like many creators, he lets the art speak for itself: “Everyone takes something different away from a dining experience…It’s about hospitality–making people feel welcome and engaged.” His dedication to his craft is evident in the relative level of anonymity he has managed to maintain through his illustrious career. He is completely absent from social media, which is rare in an age when people’s information is so readily available.
His contemporary seafood popup will be an intimate gathering with focused service, encompassing the elements of fine dining and his diverse culinary experiences. In just shy of ten years, he has cooked in a slew of high-profile establishments across the country, like Philadelphia’s La Bec Fin, Joel Robuchon at the Mansion in Las Vegas, L20 and Sixteen in Chicago, and now Coi. He tells me it was always his plan to live and work in the Bay Area, namely because of its proximity to pristine ingredients. Like many chefs, Mauz leverages his creative concepts with what he can source from surrounding areas, saying that “the dishes come naturally when I’m thinking about seasonal ingredients.”
Certain elements, like the foie gras in his current menu, are easily accessible year round, but he is in continuous communication with his providers about seasonal offerings. A chef’s relationship with the farmer or the fishmonger is a sacred one–Mauz always uses the same “fish guy” with whom he has a strong personal and professional relationship: “He has a similar fine dining background to me, and we just mesh in terms of vision. I also like supporting his small business.”
While his passion and career orbit in the fine dining galaxy, Mauz certainly appreciates simple and classic preparations as well. A burger, like the one from Sam’s in San Francisco, does not require an addition of expensive ingredients, like truffles. Hailing from the Philadelphia area, Mauz is fiercely allegiant to the original cheesesteak, not a modern take on one: “thinly sliced ribeye, onions on a soft Italian roll, and most importantly Cheese Wiz.” He adds, “There is nothing highbrow about these foods and any attempt to upgrade them diminishes their quality.”
At Mauz’s popup, guests will enter into a sphere of exquisite cuisine and exemplary service, providing them a unique and potentially limited-time glimpse into the modern world of fine dining. It is an experience to be savored, a rare privilege to not only consume art, but also to view it in the making.