Justin Aprahamian

F&W Star Chef

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Chef: Justin Aprahamian

Restaurants: Sanford (Milwaukee, WI)

Education: Waukesha County Technical College

Who taught you to cook? What is the most important thing you learned from them?
Sandy D’Amato, the former owner of Sanford, taught me the most, but it would be hard to limit it to one thing. I worked for him for over 11 years. He taught me a tremendous amount about balancing dishes, and acidity, and just making great food. He also taught me about running a kitchen, running a business, how to stay calm in a stressful kitchen.

What was the first dish you ever cooked yourself?
Probably a simple rice pilaf. That was a big thing in our family. I come from an Armenian background, so pilaf was a staple at damn near every meal. I remember my mom teaching me the ratios.

What is the best dish for a neophyte home cook to try?
Maybe a simple roasted chicken. You always read that from Thomas Keller, how a simple roast chicken can teach you a lot about cooking.

Favorite cookbook of all time?
Giorgio Locatelli’s Made in Italy and Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry Cookbook. They’re both much more than just cookbooks. They offer great stories and good insights, so you’re not just learning recipes. In The French Laundry, you’re learning about discipline and handling ingredients. In Made in Italy, there’s a lot of great info about ingredients, and fantastic stories from the chef.

What's a dish that defines your cooking style?
The first dish Sandy [D’Amato] let me get on the menu was a lamb coppa, kind of like a pork coppa, a cured meat made from a single muscle at the back of the neck. We make it with lamb neck. We would get whole lamb in every other week. I served it with cooked fennel to go with the fennel seeds in the coppa. We layered it, so at the bottom was glazed orange fennel, slices from the bulb sautéed with powdered sugar, orange juice and lemon juice. Then the slices of the coppa, and over that, shaved pickled fennel with golden raisins.

We’ve also done a fair amount of Armenian-inspired dishes, like plaki. Traditionally it’s fish baked with a bunch of vegetables and white wine. I’ve tweaked it so we’re doing a sweet-sour vegetables soup, then we grill fish and finish it with candied lemon and mint. So we’re taking the flavors of plaki and refining them a little bit.

What's the most important skill you need to be a great cook?
Discipline and attention to detail.

One technique everyone should know.
Good knife skills. Even cutting is really important.

Is there a culinary skill or type of dish that you wish you were better at?
Lahmajoun, a really good Armenian flatbread. It’s served with spiced ground lamb and vegetables, a great combination of flavors and textures. I’d like to get the dough down.

What is your current food obsession?
Sorrel. We grow a ton at my parents’ house—it really took off after we planted it—and I’ve embraced it. It’s a big ingredient in Armenian cooking. I made a lentil soup and blended the fresh sorrel into it; it was just a great combination. It’s been showing up on the menu a lot this year. Like right now we have a sorrel horseradish dressing for a grilled halibut with roasted radish and a wine potato salad.

What are your talents besides cooking?
I’m a big music fan, not playing but collecting records. I’ve got a lot of classic rock and blues, and old jazz. I’m also a big fan of reading. Aside from cookbooks, lately I haven’t read anything. But I’m a big Hunter Thompson fan, and a big David Foster Wallace fan. I buy up everything he put out. I haven’t read all of it yet, but I still think Infinite Jest is one of the best books I’ve read.

Name one secret-weapon ingredient.
Aleppo pepper flakes. We put them in our plaki. That adds a lot of great depth. It’s nice to use a chile that has more flavor than just heat.

What ingredient will people be talking about in five years? Why?
Hopefully more vegetables.

Best new store-bought ingredient/product, and why?
We’ve been getting this Wisconsin maple sugar from one of our spice purveyors that’s pretty awesome. The Spice House is based out of Milwaukee. It’s the same family that owns Penzey’s. We make a maple pound cake with it in addition to maple syrup. It’s nice that it doesn’t get as wet, so we can control the ratio that goes into the cake.

What's the best house wine, beer and why?
I have a lot of favorite beers. Since I bought the restaurant in December 2012, I’ve expanded the beer list, especially aged beers that we’re aging ourselves. We handpicked some stuff that we thought would age really well. We do what people used to do with wine—buy cases and sit on it for a while. One of my favorites is a barrel-aged Gonzo porter from Flying Dog that’s from 2007 that we bottle-aged. It ages almost like a port: The sweetness gets more concentrated, and the burn of the alcohol falls off a little bit. On release, it’s a 10 percent [ABV] beer.

If you were facing an emergency and could only take one backpack of supplies, what would you bring, what would you make and why?
The fixings for tacos: Some really good tortillas and fresh tomatillos, and some kind of pork product to grill or braise.

What do you eat straight out of the fridge, standing up?
Cold pizza.

Favorite snack?
Dorito’s Cool Ranch chips. I feel guilty admitting that, but I also love potato chips.

Who's your chef idol and where would you take him or her to dinner?
Marco Pierre White, but I don’t know where I would take him. It would be very cool if he’d come to eat at Sanford, though I doubt he’s done much traveling in the Milwaukee area.

What is the most cherished souvenir you've brought back from a trip?
A pasta extruder from Bologna and some ravioli cutters I got in Italy. The extruder is a little handheld crank-powered one that came with a couple of dies. We’ve used it at the restaurant to make passatelli, a pasta that you make with breadcrumbs. You usually serve it in a broth. We did a morel mushroom broth with passatelli made with crumbs from a country wheat bread.