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Grilled in a Minute: Justin Aprahamian

Julie Mautner - November 11th, 2013

At age 12, Justin Aprahamian was hired as an extra set of hands to help assemble fruit platters for his uncle’s catering company in Milwaukee. The small family favor led to “a major intrigue and interest” in all things culinary, and so at 16, Aprahamian applied to work at the chef-owned Steven Wade’s Café. Anxious to learn all aspects of the kitchen, he signed on as a dishwasher and worked up to garde-manger. During his time at Wade’s, Aprahamian graduated from high school and immediately enrolled in the culinary program at Waukesha County Technical College. He graduated in May 2002 with an associate’s degree in culinary management.

His goal at that time, Aprahamian says, was to get enough kitchen experience so that by age 30, he could be considered for a position at Sanford Restaurant, considered by many to be the city’s top dining spot. He achieved that goal a whopping 12 years early and, at 18, was hired by chef/owner Stanford (Sandy) D’Amato as a prep cook. By 2005, he was promoted to sous chef and three years later, he stepped up to chef de cuisine.

In December 2012, at the age of 29, Aprahamian and his wife, Sarah, who runs the front of the house, bought the 68 seat Sanford Restaurant from his mentors, Sandy and Angie D’Amato, who were ready to move on to other projects. (Sandy just published his first book, Good Stock: Life on a Low Simmer, and the couple is building a cooking school called Good Stock Farm in Hatfield, Massachusetts.)

Aprahamian was a semifinalist for the James Beard Rising Star Chef award in 2010 and 2011, while in 2011, 2012, and 2013, he was also nominated for Best Chef Midwest. Today he says he continues to embrace the disciplines, techniques, and traditions he learned from the D’Amatos while working every day to “push the Sanford kitchen forward.”

It’s been almost a year since you took over Sanford. Why did you decide to buy the restaurant? Was this something you had wanted for a long time?
I had always wanted to open a place like Sanford, I just never thought it would be Sanford. I had been working there for years, of course, and the closer Sandy and I became, the more we talked about where each of us was going…in the philosophical sense. At some point, he apparently trusted me enough to see me as the person who could keep his place living on…and I loved the opportunity. Once it was decided, it took a couple of years to work that way and one very intensive year of getting everything together.

What’s the one most important thing you learned—about the kitchen or cooking or running a restaurant—from Sandy?
Sandy taught me so much about food and cooking: approach, balance, editing, seasoning, and on and on. As for running a restaurant, that scope is also pretty huge, and every day I am realizing lessons that I didn’t necessarily know I had learned.

What’s been the hardest thing so far about the transition?
Time management. I was doing a lot before the purchase, in regard to running the kitchen, but the distractions of ownership definitely make time slip away.

What major or minor changes have you made in the restaurant since you took over?
One of the changes I’ve been working on for some years now—and implemented since the purchase—is a cellared beer list. I am a big beer fan and think it deserves a place in fine dining, along with all the great wines. I’ve also expanded the cocktails over the last couple of years. We now incorporate the same great produce into our drinks as we do into our food: cucumber, rhubarb, etc.

What other changes might we see in the months to come?
Nothing major slated but a continual evolution. We have a lot of respect for where we came from and the history before us. Things will change over time, as it seems appropriate. Some of my family pictures will be hung in the dining room, joining the old pictures from the days when the restaurant was a family grocery store, and photos of Sandy’s father, who was like a grandfather to us.

Who or what was your earliest culinary influence?
My mom always making nourishing food that brought the family together. That still resonates with me and is a big part of why I’m doing what I’m doing.

What was your family’s approach to food when you were a child? Are your people food lovers?
My family’s approach wasn’t anything complicated, and we weren't foodies. But food was important, dinner being the most important. Growing up, we always sat down together, and it was always a balanced meal: fresh vegetables, a starch, fruit, some kind of meat. My dad was (and still is) a deer hunter, so we ate a lot of venison. This ties into early food memories and influences. As a kid, I helped my dad break down his deer and grind the scrap meat by hand, so I’ve always had a huge amount of respect for the work involved and the effort to try not to waste. As I got older and started hunting myself, I gained even more respect for the process.

What aspect of the restaurant business do you love the most?
I love the creative process. I love being able to work with the bounty available to us and making people happy with food. It’s a very exciting job, and we always have the opportunity to learn new things.

And what’s your least favorite part of the business?
Easily, the hours. Not because they’re long (and mostly a weird version of second shift) but because of the strain they put on relationships with friends and family who are very dear to me. It’s hard to be working during so many of the moments that are so important to other people, moments I’d like to be a part of.

What’s the one thing in your kitchen you couldn’t live without? So many things! My Vita-Prep blender comes to mind because if it’s out of commission, I’d have a very hard time duplicating the results with another tool.

Best recent meal in a restaurant not your own?
I haven’t been out a lot lately, but a meal at St. John in London continues to stand out in my mind, as does Girl and the Goat in Chicago. Sarah and I ate at Ko while we were in New York City for the Beard Awards this year. Such a cool experience!

What three chefs do you admire and why.
One is such a no-brainer: Sandy D’Amato. He’s been an unbelievable mentor and has given me so much perspective on food, cooking, running a business, building on past experiences, cultivating food memories, and respecting your roots. Sandy’s been in this business a long time and has done it the right way all along.

Next, Grant Achatz. This man has done so much and been through so much! And has inspired me on so many levels. Early on at Sanford, while Grant was still chef at Trio (2003), he came and did a course for a James Beard Dinner we were hosting. Michael Carlson was working with him, and they prepared lobster and wild mushrooms with rosemary vapor. It was something we had never seen before. A couple of years later, in 2006, Sandy and Angie took me to eat at Alinea, and I found inspiration in so many of the dishes. Then, in 2009, I had the opportunity to stage at Alinea and again, great amounts of inspiration. Grant is always pushing and never accepts no for an answer. Failure is part of the creative process.

I’ve also taken a ton of inspiration from Thomas Keller. He’s someone with a vision and a set standard, someone who doesn’t let anything hinder him. And he builds teams of people to move it forward. A very impressive man and an impressive organization.

Where might your next food-centric trip be and why?
I’d love to go to Armenia, to see where part of my family came from and to experience what I’ve read so much about.

What was the best day of your culinary career so far?
Buying the restaurant. It felt very good to know that my family was behind me, that I had proven I could take this on. And I’ll keep thinking that it’s that...and not that they supported me only because they love me!

And the worst day?
Not sure! My wife always tells me to find the silver lining.

What do you know now that you wish you had learned earlier in your career?
Better perspective and patience.

What one character trait of yours is most responsible for your success?
Hard work and dedication. This was a big deal in our family, and I had some unbelievable examples to follow, in my parents and grandparents.

What's the one cookbook you use most often and why?
Aside from having read the French Laundry countless times, I often find myself paging through Giorgio Locatelli’s Made in Italy: Food and Stories. The scope of it is amazing, with awesome recipes, great stories, and insights. It’s more than a cookbook to me.

What’s your idea of late night snacking bliss, or your favorite comfort food?
One of my favorite comfort foods is my mom’s meat loaf. Late night snacking would be tacos, for sure. There’s something about Mexican food.

How do you and Sarah handle the challenges of working together and living together?
I’ve found that if an issue comes up at work, it’s best to tackle it right away and not bring it home with us. It’s very difficult to bring arguments home and have them take up energy.

What haven’t you attained, personally or professionally, that you would like to?
Peace of mind.

What’s your best advice for a young chef just starting out?
Be patient. Pay your dues. Respect where you came from. Work hard and don’t assume anything. Graduating from culinary school doesn’t make you a chef.

If not this, then what? Meaning what would you be doing if not cooking/running a restaurant?
Part of me always thought it would be great to write or do something in the music field. But while I’m a huge fan of music, I can’t actually play any instruments…