Featured chef: Sanford's Justin Aprahamian
Local boy done good.
That could easily have been the headline for this featured chef profile. Born and raised in the Milwaukee area Justin Aprahamian -- chef de cuisine at no less than Sanford Restaurant, 1547 N. Jackson St. -- started out working in his uncle's catering business.
Last year, Aprahamian was a semi-finalist for his first James Beard Award. This year he appeared among the initial nominees in two categories -- Rising Star Chef of the Year and Best Chef: Midwest -- and has advanced to the finals in the second category. Winners are announced on May 9 at an event at New York's Lincoln Center.
The day he learned he moved to the next level last week, he was speechless.
"All I can say is, well, I don't really know what to say," he told me. "Lots of excitement."
Luckily, a few days earlier, he wasn't quite so lost for words when we asked him about what drives him to such appreciated work in the kitchen, about how far he's come and about where he thinks he might go.
OnMilwaukee.com: Tell us a bit about yourself. Are you a Milwaukee native?
Justin Aprahamian: I was born in Milwaukee and grew up in New Berlin.
OMC: What kind of experience and training brought you to Sanford?
JA: My training was a lot on the job as well as going to Waukesha County Technical College. I started in the culinary field helping my uncle's catering business when I was 12 or 13. While in high school I got a job at Steven Wade's Café in New Berlin. I started as a dishwasher and worked there through my time at WCTC. With graduation approaching, I was prodded by some people at school to go and apply at Sanford. It was the place I wanted to work, but at the age of 18 didn't know if I was ready. Despite my age I thought it was worth applying for and as it turns out, they hired me. Right place and right time maybe, or meant to be ... who knows?
OMC: Do you sometimes feel you hit the jackpot and are at the pinnacle of fine dining in Milwaukee working at Sanford?
JA: That sounds like a loaded question. I most definitely feel as though I hit the jackpot landing the job at Sanford, as well as working my way through the ranks. Pinnacle of fine dining is subjective, however. I am very proud of what we do; working to keep and even try to exceed the standard (owner) Sandy (D'Amato) has set for us, and the public expects from us.
OMC: Having said that, where does one go next, when you're nearly at the top in a city? Are we destined to lose you at some point?
JA: Lose me? Does that mean you guys appreciate having me around? I have often thought of that question. After my time at Sanford, what would be next, especially after working into the position I am in. It's also hard because I have a lot of love for Milwaukee. It's my home and my family is here, which means the world. There are a lot of positives in the culinary world here as well as a bright future. So, no plans yet, you're still stuck with me.
OMC: Speaking of being very close to the top, the Beard nominations this year and last must be quite satisfying. What was you reaction when you heard you were nominated the first time?
JA: It is definitely satisfying. It's not the point of what we do, but it's most certainly accepted. It's quite the group of people to have your name mentioned with. As for my response last year to the first nomination, Sandy told me over dinner, and all I could say was "Are you f-ing kidding me?!" It was a strange feeling, like somebody is paying attention, and perhaps even enjoyed what we were doing.
OMC: Do you have a signature dish?
JA: I guess a signature dish of sorts is a lamb dish I've done. I'd call it a signature as Sandy is quite fond of it and had me cook it for the restaurant's 20th anniversary dinner. It is cocoa and malta glazed lamb ribs with miniature lamb mole tacos and tomatillo relish. Also a dish of lamb coppa, pickled fennel and golden raisins.
I love working with lamb, you can tell I'm Armenian, right?? Some inspiration came from my grandfather, who asked if the next time he was coming in I could cook lamb a bunch of different ways for him. So I started getting in whole lambs and breaking them down, learning different ways to use the whole thing.
OMC: What do you like most, and least, about your job?
JA: I think the one thing I would say I like least isn't even so much the job specifically but the profession I have chosen. I feel out of touch with good friends and family at times. It's sometimes difficult with the long hours and nights and weekends.
The things I like most are plentiful. Making people happy and providing memorable dining experiences. Being in a position to be creative with some of the best ingredients around. Understanding that where I am, anything is possible; not being confined or restricted to certain cuisines or recipes. Sandy being supportive of always pushing forward and being open-minded. Working with a truly professional staff that is also very serious about what we are doing.
OMC: What are your favorite places to eat out in Milwaukee?
JA: My favorite places to eat in the city: Coquette Café, Tutto, Haute Taco.
OMC: Do you have a favorite cookbook? What do you like about it?
JA: Favorite cookbook is a tough question sometimes, but there are a couple that are always at the top of my list. One that I have favored for the last 10 years is "The French Laundry Cookbook' by Thomas Keller. It is a gorgeous book with essential lessons and disciplines for all cooks to learn and understand. It's one of the books I always go back to.
Another one is "Made In Italy: Food and Stories" by Giorgio Locatelli. Again, this is a great read. Beautifully laid out and great recipes. There is also a lot of great information and perspective laid out between all the recipes. There are a lot of memories from the chef growing up, as well as very good product information. It's more than a cookbook.
Also the "Alinea" cookbook (by Grant Achatz). The scope of that book is amazing. "Cooking By Hand" by Paul Bertolli. I could actually go on and on with answers for this question.
OMC: Do you have a favorite TV or celebrity chef?
JA: TV or celebrity chef would have to be between Marco Pierre White or Mario Batali. Not so much because of their TV work but because of the scope of their restaurant work.
OMC: What's been the biggest development in the culinary arts over the past 10 years?
JA: There are some very obvious answers to this question. The rise of "Molecular Gastronomy," is one that comes to mind. It has given way to some interesting innovations in cooking. Some of them don't necessarily apply to the way I look at food or seem appropriate to the setting I am in. At the same time you have to be smart about it and apply what makes sense so you don't miss out on an opportunity to grow.
OMC: What kitchen utensil can't you live without?
JA: Aside from all the very obvious, it would be between two. A really good bench scraper, essential in my production of ravioli, amongst its countless uses. The other is Joyce Chen kitchen shears. While staging at (Chicago's) Alinea, we were using these things for intricate herb garnishes and they are great for cleaning lobster.
OMC: What's the next big trend in food?
JA: Trends in food are an interesting question. They kind of come in cycles, but good food never really goes out of style. That's kind of our focus at Sanford, just making good food. It stands the test of time.
Something that's become important to me is tapping into my Armenian background. I made an Armenian dish for a cooking class that Sandy really liked. He said there's something about food like that, it's something visceral, coming from the heart. It just makes for better food. More interesting. So, for me it's not so much about looking to trends but digging deeper for inspiration sometimes.
OMC: What's the toughest day or night to work in the restaurant biz?
JA: We are lucky at Sanford to not be open on Sundays. It's always been important to Sandy to have those days to spend with family. I would say there are certain Mondays that are rough after coming in from a Sunday off. Recently, the Monday after the Packers won the Super Bowl comes to mind.
OMC: What is your favorite guilty dining pleasure?
JA: Kopp's or Qdoba.
We were at Sanford's a couple weeks ago, and dining at Sanford's is heaven on earth. The food was outstanding, the service was impeccable, and the chef even came out to talk with us. Justin is an awesome young man who has worked hard for everything that has come his way and yet is humble beyond words. Milwaukee is lucky to have such a fine young man.
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