In the midst of a New York blizzard, nothing warms the soul quite like the comfort of southern food in an inviting, cozy nook. Luckily, I found just the refuge I was craving with chef Janine Booth in her southern restaurant Root & Bone and conjoined apartment upstairs. In typical southern hospitality, Booth greets me with a huge smile, looking refreshed and flawless despite having just put Sunny, her young daughter, down for a nap. I wonder aloud, “How does Janine appear so well-rested given that she is raising a toddler while running four restaurants across numerous cities?”
“Oh, I find time to sleep,” she assures me.
While Booth’s sunny demeanor perfectly fits with the southern theme of Root & Bone, she was born and raised in Perth, Australia. Growing up in a family of restaurant owners, it was the backyard barbeques of Booth’s childhood that taught her the power of food to bring people together. Her passion for cooking would eventually take her on an eight-month culinary sabbatical through a diverse assortment of countries. From Spain to Italy, France to Thailand, Booth’s adventures expanded her palate to the flavors and kitchen techniques of some of the world’s most sophisticated cuisines. After her travels, she pursued a culinary degree at Le Cordon Bleu in Miami and launched her professional career as a chef at Gigi’s restaurant shortly after. It was here that she met chef Jeff McInnis, her current partner in both work and life.
It was McInnis, with his childhood spent on his grandparents’ Alabama farm, and his culinary training in Charleston, South Carolina, who ignited Booth’s reverence for southern fare. Booth first started working under McInnis at his Miami restaurant Yardbird Southern Table and Bar in 2011, where she devoted two years to refining her southern cooking techniques. In 2013, Booth competed against 18 other chefs on Bravo’s Top Chef and in the same year, was named a James Beard Foundation Semi-Finalist for Best New Restaurant as a part of the opening team at Khong River House. With these numerous accolades under her belt, her and McInnis opened Root & Bone in Manhattan’s Lower East Side one year later.
In a city where southern food is not usually the cuisine of choice amongst average diners and food connoisseurs alike, Root & Bone could not be more of a success. Four years since its inception and there are still lines down the block. Perhaps it is the lack of relaxing southern comfort options in an often cold and impersonal city that has made this 45-seat restaurant, with its pressed-tin ceilings and mix-matched, vintage plates, such a hit. More likely, it is the soul-soothing dishes crafted by Booth and McInnis that explain the often hour long wait for a table. Each creation is imbued with their esteem for Southern cuisine as well as their respect for farm-fresh ingredients, and it shows.
Awarded the Eater title of “Best Fried Chicken in New York” and rated one of the city’s best spots for fried chicken by Thrillist, a large part of Root & Bone’s popularity can be attributed to its signature dish, the Sweet Tea Brined Fried Chicken.
Brined in sweet tea for a day with just the right amount of sugar and salt, what sets the chicken recipe apart is its innovative use of lemons, which are cut thin, dried and then pulverized into a dust that is sprinkled over the finished bird. The perfectly juicy yet crispy meat is paired with a honey Tabasco sauce for the requisite southern heat. The same care and artistry given to their most popular dish is applied to other Southern classics on the menu. Take for example the Shrimp and Grits; Carolina shrimp sautéed with bacon, beer, tomato, and onion are poured over creamy Trumansburg stoneground grits. Other dishes showcase a contemporary take on traditional recipes, such as the Drunken Deviled Eggs; a vibrant pink version of the original topped with pickled beets, fresh herbs and root chips. While the menu pays homage to the classic recipes of the South, dishes are elevated with conscientiously-sourced, fresh ingredients and the occasional modern twist.
With Booth’s latest Miami venture, Stiltsville Fish Bar, already a success and her recent nomination as a James Beard Semi-Finalist for Rising Star Chef, she is clearly a force to be reckoned with. It is easy to overlook the fact that this successful restauranteur prioritizes her young daughter despite her hectic international schedule, and that she manages to perform this balancing act with remarkable ease. We spent an afternoon with Booth and chatted over fried chicken to find out how this powerhouse does it all.
What prompted you to collaborate with chef Jeff McInnis to open Root & Bone?
Jeff was born and raised in Niceville, Florida; a true Southern boy who taught me a lot about Southern food and hospitality. We worked together for many years and always talked about how amazing it would be to open a Southern restaurant together with a major focus on root vegetables.
Tell us about how you and chef McInnis first met.
I first met Jeff in 2010 while I was dining at Gigi’s, an Asian BBQ restaurant in Miami. I was in culinary school at the time and I ordered the short rib meatloaf dish that was life-changing! After a little coercing, I was able to meet the Chef (Jeff!) to ask him about his recipe for this dish. He was very charming, but unfortunately wouldn’t give me the recipe unless I came and worked for him in the kitchen. He took me under his wing and taught me a lot about Southern food and has been a great mentor to me ever since.
What does ‘Southern Hospitality’ mean to you?
I am originally from Australia and ‘Southern Hospitality’ to me is very similar to how life is in Australia. Everyone is super polite, very accommodating and welcomes you with open arms.
Why did you decide to bring southern cuisine to New York City rather than remain in the South?
New York City is the food mecca of the world and it was always somewhere both Jeff and I wanted to take a stab at opening a restaurant, because if you can succeed here you can succeed anywhere! Diners are extremely open to almost anything and they especially love the genuineness of the food and service we offer at Root & Bone. There are also a lot of people living in New York that are from the South who love coming to eat with us to remind them of all the treats they miss from back home.
How did growing up in a family of restaurant owners shape the way you approach entrepreneurship?
My dad is probably my biggest inspiration to this day. He always showed me that finding something you are passionate about makes all the blood, sweat and tears that are required to make a business successful worth it. In other words. it feels less like work and more like living.
What has been your experience running a business with your life partner? How do you both separate work from life outside of work?
After knowing each other for eight years, being in a relationship for five of those years and recently becoming engaged, we have had plenty of time to work out the finer details of how to work together. We are blessed to share the same passion and spend lots of time together in the kitchen creating. We both have individual strengths and weaknesses, and we really balance each other out well and make a great team.
Between running three restaurants and raising a baby, how do you stay balanced?
We recently just opened a fourth restaurant and our daughter just turned 16 months so we are definitely kept on our toes! We wouldn’t be able to find any balance if it wasn’t for our amazing team within each of those restaurants who work tirelessly day in and out to keep our visions alive. In our down time, we try to go for strolls with the baby, do yoga together, and spend a lot of our time in the backyard with close friends.
Do you have any go-to self-care practices?
I personally try to take four hours out of the week to do Pilates class as I feel it helps stretch, balance and tone my body and mind after standing all day at work and holding a chubby baby 24/7. I try to keep up my vitamin B12, drink tons of water and though I will never be vegetarian, I like to eat a largely plant-based diet as it feels really good for me and the environment.
Can we expect to find you eating southern food most days? What’s your go-to dish?
Everyone loves Southern food and I do eat my fair share of it, especially when the cravings kick in! A lot of people assume that Southern food has to be heavy but there are plenty of ways to eat Southern food in a healthy and satisfying way. As a snack, I love eating crisp crudités with pimento cheese, honey butter-glazed biscuits, and of course I love a good shrimp and grits. As much as I love Southern food, I also love to experiment with a lot of different ingredients and cook interesting recipes from all kinds of cookbooks.
We’ve heard you make homemade beauty and baby products. What are you crafting these days and do you have any plans to expand your business ventures beyond restaurants?
There are so many amazing ingredients found in your home that you can use for your body. My favorite is this coconut oil and sea salt body scrub which is absolutely divine for moisturizing and exfoliating. Right now, we sell this in our market at our restaurant Stiltsville Fish Bar in Miami and people love it… I would love to one day build a brand based on things you find in the kitchen.
Photography by Anna Haines