Friends of Graza: Telly Justice and Camille Lindsley

Friends of Graza: Telly Justice and Camille Lindsley

The couple and chef-sommelier team behind HAGS NYC, on their "queer first, restaurant second" approach to fine dining, the classic southern staples you'll always find in their pantry, and their Sun Chip flavor of choice.

Q: How do you describe yourselves?

A: We're just a couple of HAGS having a good time with a restaurant that is way too nice for us! But seriously, I am a trans femme executive chef, who stumbled into opening a Queer centric fine dining restaurant in the 2020's. I'm an ex-punk, ex-vegan just trying to make yummy food for my community. The rest I'll leave to the rumor mill hah! 

Q: Finish this sentence: Cooking for me is…

A: Cooking for me is personal. It's restorative, therapeutic. Cooking for me is how I relate, it's how I show and share love. I have learned so much about myself and the people I care about through cooking. And, as it relates to HAGS, cooking for me is the hill I die on. It is where I fight—for myself and folks like me—to be seen as whole and worthy people with meaningful things to say and important, tasty gifts to share.

Q: What are your pantry staples and why?

A: I spent a lot of my career down south and so much of my pantry go-tos are quintessential southern items. Like sorghum syrup. Corn grits. Benne seeds. Gumbo file. Laurel bay. Also, being raised on Italian food, I use a ton of high quality tomato paste, calabrian chiles, and (of course) excellent olive oil!

Q: What's your current favorite grocery store find or obsession?

A: HAGS is right around the corner from H Mart. It's one of my favorite places to go and explore. Sometimes we invent reasons to go, just so I can come back with a bunch of new snacks, condiments and ingredients to munch on in the kitchen. My latest obsession from there has been garlic bread Sun Chips. They're incredible, I can't get enough! But I know in another week or two I'll find something new and crave-worthy to binge on. That's the magic of H Mart!

Q: What's your go-to crowd-pleaser meal?

A: Lasagna. It's a very nostalgic dish for me, we ate it a ton growing up. And it's very simple to feed a group with it. The composition of a lasagna is so brilliantly simple that the quality of ingredients and the technique really shine through. And it's such a meditative practice making a lasagna. Kneading and rolling the pasta, stirring the sauce, getting the ratios of the layers just right, baking it perfectly and letting it rest just long enough... there are so many small moments to add just a bit of extra care and attention, what a magical process!

Q: Who do you turn to, watch, or follow for food inspiration?

A: Honestly, because food is so personal to me, I don't find a lot of inspiration for my cuisine from other chefs or food outlets. I am more inspired by John Waters and Divine, or Nickelodeon slime, or a Charles Mingus album than by what's happening in the food world. Instead, I find cultural inspiration from chefs that push the boundaries of what a "chef" is. People like Paola Velez, Jenny Dorsey, Mavis Jay Sanders, Natasha Pickowicz, Tony Ortiz, Maricella Vega- these are the people I look to that are setting a new path for what a modern chef is and I am always so in awe of their efforts!

Q: Favorite place to grab a bite (besides your own)?

A: Dang this is a hard one, I am very passionate about my favorite spots! It might be cheating but I need to shout out more than one!! Definitely 63 Clinton, they are absolutely the most hospitable folks in the game right now. I love our neighbors Yellow Rose and Superiority Burger with my whole heart. They have been so supportive of us and quick with sound advice or a plumber's phone number. And where would any of us lower Manhattan food workers be without Wu's Wonton King!.

Q: What’s one piece of advice or a practice you see in the food world you think is overrated, overly aspirational, unhelpful, or is otherwise just not the vibe?

A: I don't think it is helpful to encourage people to sacrifice and grind their way to the top. There are other ways to get where you are going than through grueling hours and huge personal sacrifice. Don't devalue yourself! Don't push yourself to the point of burn out! Instead, find the right working environment for you and advocate for your development. If your interests aren't taken seriously, move on!

Q: What are your all-around life mottos, mantras, philosophies that guide you in the kitchen?

A: At HAGS I always say "stick the landing". We all work in our own ways, and we all have unique ways of getting a task accomplished. So long as your work meets our standard, that's what counts. How you get it done doesn't matter as much to me. It alleviates the pressure to behave like, or work like, some one else. You be you, just stick the landing and we're good.

Q: What led you to opening HAGS and your own space within the restaurant and food world?

A: The way that I felt I had to come up in this industry, I don't think anyone else should have to deal with that. Some of the kitchens I worked in were hard places, abusive and demeaning, and there was no place at all for folks with difference of opinion. Certainly there was no space for people's identities. When it came time for Camille and I to consider what our restaurant would be, we needed to stitch space for freedom of expression into the fabric of the business model. Not just for us but for the staff and diners too. I feel comfortable at HAGS in a way I've not felt many other places, and I think that's true for a lot of the folks that come to spend time with us.

Q: What does it mean to create a restaurant and space centering queerness and accessibility?

A: It means building a space for people rather than just customers. It means comfort and quality over profit. It means care and intentionally in place of indifference, or worse. It means using our craft to feed and enrich rather than transact. It is such a feat to have and hold space in a place like New York City and because we are lucky enough to have that opportunity, we have a responsibility to build something meaningful and functional for our community. I wouldn't dream to do it any other way!

Q: What's on the horizon for you!

A: Oh geez, we've always got so many irons in the fire. Our next moves with HAGS are to start getting involved in more community oriented work. Collaborations and benefits with people and organizations we love. We're also starting to work a bit on a follow up restaurant to HAGS, but the details are still too early to share! And maybe a cookbook?? If you know any publishers, send them our way!