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Meet Justin Aprahamian
Recent James Beard Award winner talks about his life passion and carrying on the tradition of a Milwaukee icon

Photos by Dan Bishop

December 2014

Justin Aprahamian had big shoes to fill when he purchased Sanford from legendary chef Sandy DíAmato in 2012, but the Waukesha County Technical School graduate has filled them well. Earlier this year, Aprahamian won the James Beard Award for Best Chef: Midwest (DíAmato became Wisconsinís first winner in 1996), and he sat down with M Magazine to talk about his culinary roots and Armenian family, his latest brewery endeavor, and his thoughts on raising his newborn son to be an adventurous eater.

M: What dish or ingredient inspired you to be a chef?

JA: I donít know that anything spoke to me that clearly at an early age. Inherently, food was important in the family. One of the most important family traditions was the lamb shiskabob and rice pilaf. That Armenian meal was always part of our celebrations. Itís very inspirational, very soulful, very simple cooking. The recipe my mom had for rice pilaf came from my great grandmother. You would toast off noodles in butter and then develop chicken stock and toast the rice. It was simple, but very nuanced. Weíve done some versions of it here at Sanford.

M: What ingredients are you looking forward to using this winter?

JA: Iím a sucker for fruit in general so apples and pears are generally rampant on the menu. And parsnips. I love working with parsnips. They have a great sweetness, and I love roasting them to bring out more sweetness. You can go sweet with roasted baby parsnips and roasted pickled pears or go really savory with mushrooms and truffles. Pumpkinís another one that we start using now going into winter. We always get a lot of great squash that cellars really well. I like pickling pumpkin, roasting it and making soup with it, and we actually did a dish a while back using pumpkin in several ways ó pureeing it, pan roasting some of it and adding some pumpkin seeds and pumpkin seed vinaigrette. Itís fun using an ingredient like that and showing its versatility.

M: What are your favorite kitchen tools?

JA: We have these kitchen shears that are amazing ó Joyce Chen is the brand. We use them for cleaning lobster, but theyíre also great for petite herb garnishes and can be used in the gauntlet of things. I also love our Vitamix blender for making soups and purees, and no other blender can really match the quality of that. Itís definitely worth it. Ours has taken some abuse in the kitchen, so when itís being fixed, we definitely miss it.

M: What are some pantry staples you have?

JA: Thatís changed over the years. I have a newborn son, so cooking at home has gotten more rare. Some staples are always olive oil and vinegar. I usually try to keep easy starches like pasta, rice noodles and lentils.

M: What do you hope to teach your son about food?

JA: I hope heís more adventurous. I was a very picky eater as a kid. To the point that when my dad used to make this great spaghetti sauce I would put plain noodles on my plate, and Iíd pick out all the diced onions before I would slowly mix the sauce with the noodles. The irony of that now ó I donít think there are many things we make without onions.

M: How did your palate evolve?

JA: I worked at a place called Steven Wadeís Cafť. I was washing dishes, but Steven knew I wanted to go to culinary school and tried to get me more involved. One day he was garnishing a risotto dish with white anchovies and asked if I had ever tried them. I said, "No, thatís disgusting." He said, "Well, you want to be a chef, so you have to try everything. Whatís the worst that could happen?" So I tried them, and they were amazing. Ever since then Iíve tried everything.

M: What would you want to tell people about Sanford ó people who have never been there and people who havenít enjoyed a meal there in a while?

JA: There actually are people who have never heard of Sanford, but many people who have but havenít been here think that itís the hardest restaurant to get into and that they need to be calling months in advance or that itís a stuffy dining room. Itís certainly not the stuffiest, nor is it the most expensive place in town. Appetizers actually are around $10 to $18, and entrees are in the $30 to $40 range. Fridays and Saturdays are the busiest in terms of reservations, and our 7 oíclock time fills up first. But if we can seat somebody, we donít turn them away. We also have great food. They should give us a shot.

But for people who havenít been here in a long time, I would like to assure them that we care about where this restaurant came from. I worked for Sandy for more than 10 years, so the quality they were doing and the mission of what they were trying to accomplish is what weíre still working at.

M: But you have expanded the restaurant in some new directions, especially in beer.

JA: The restaurant turns 25 this December, and we finally have draft beer. If Iím making beer, I want to be able to sell it at our restaurant. My friend and I have started a brewery called Like Minds Brewing Company. We started making beer with an outside the box perspective, taking my approach to food and putting it into beers. The first beer was a rhubarb saison, and we processed 1,000 pounds of fresh rhubarb. Then we did a cucumber pilsner, and the third one is a wheat pale ale with black currents and lemon verbena called VeríBeena. The fourth one is going to be a Mexican-inspired coffee stout.

Creative Suds

Besides the draft line at Sanford, you can get Like Minds brews at Rayís Growler Gallery at Rayís Wines and Liquors, Storyhill BKC, Goodkind, Burnhearts, Sugar Maple, Odd Duck and Romanís.

To make the beer, Aprahamian processes the culinary ingredients and then he and his business partner John Lavalle drive up to Green Bay to Hinterland Brewery, where the beer is brewed. "Technically, they make the beer, but we are involved in writing the base recipes. Then we drive up on brew days to work with them, and we process the extra ingredients," he says.

"Itís definitely another thing on my plate to do, but itís nice to have a creative outlet like that," says Aprahamian.



This story ran in the December 2014 issue of: