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Rookie chef

Photos by Matt Haas

May 2015


"Hellís Kitchen," "Top Chef," "Chopped" ó you can get a glimpse into restaurant kitchens with the click of a remote. But if you want to get off the couch and into a professional kitchen, Sanford Restaurant will put you there. Despite the $500 price tag, which includes a seven-course tasting, A Day in the Kitchen at Sanford has a popular following among chef wannabes. Sanford chef/owner Justin Aprahamian welcomes "a few people a month" into the restaurantís East Side kitchen.

"A Day in the Kitchen provides a connection to the meal ó people see things on the menu, and they see our attention to detail and how things come together in the kitchen," says Aprahamian.

I recently had the opportunity to take on this individual, three-hour experience with Aprahamian and his cohorts ó Jenny Lee-Adrian, Joe Burton, Nancy Nelson, Dave Bruss and sous chef Adan Franco.

Aprahamian outfitted me in a crisp, new Sanford chef coat (which I got to keep), and I confessed that I expected insanity similar to "Hellís Kitchen." Aprahamian laughed. "Itís all lies. Itís all made for TV. Itís nothing like that." Then Aprahamian gave me some words of advice. "Youíre going to feel like youíre in the way, but youíre not."

I did feel in the way, and I hope I wasnít. The Sanford kitchen was smaller than I expected but quiet and controlled. "We try to be as calm, collected and focused as we can, so we can pay attention to details," Aprahamian explains.

Attention to detail is a theme at Sanford; from the delicious amuse-bouche (complimentary, meal-starting, perfect bite) to the artistic cappuccino. The Sanford chefs tried to infuse me with this obsession for details.

But no such luck. My first confession ó my go-to chicken is topped with a few swirls of Italian dressing and a random sprinkling of paprika. Clearly attention to detail is not my cooking strong suit. Secondly, spending a day in a restaurant kitchen was a bit intimidating. Iíll admit Iím a pretty decent, but nowhere near gourmet cook. Merely observing the pros at work was an option, but for the full experience, Iíd have to jump in. Fortunately, the Sanford team was there to guide me.

Each of Sanfordís chefs receives a to-do list depending on the dishes for that eveningís menu. On this particular day, Lee-Adrianís list included prepping duck breasts for an entrťe, while Franco created red onion vinaigrette for tapenade with snapper. Aprahamian was working on a coffee reduction for a duck tongue that would appear on an upcoming menu. Everyone focuses on his/her own tasks, but in the spirit of collaboration, the chefs taste each otherís work. "Needs more salt" is a frequent suggestion. "We use lots of salt because nothing we use is processed," explains Aprahamian.

Each chef shared a skill with me. Lee-Adrian taught me duck breast prep. Right out of the package, the duck looked clean to my untrained eyes, but Jenny used a small, sharp knife and forceps to trim thin remnants of fat and pry out hidden quills. After a quick lesson, she handed me the forceps and a pair of gloves. I attempted to de-quill some duck breasts and sort of succeeded, but duck probably wonít be appearing on my familyís dinner table anytime soon.

Nelson showed me how to peel and thinly slice orange and lemon skins for garnishes. Bruss let me work on a garlic/olive oil puree, a Sanford kitchen staple. Burton showed me how to put the finishing touches on amuse-bouches. Since none of my work went into the trash, I considered it a successful day.

My favorite thing about A Day in the Kitchen is that it ends with A Night in the Dining Room. Participants return to Sanford to taste the food they helped prep, along with seven courses (with wine pairings, of course) of food made solely by the pros. Itís easy to see and taste why Aprahamian won the 2014 James Beard Award for Best Chef in the Midwest. The food is impeccably plated and delicious. And the best part? Not a drop of Italian dressing anywhere in the mix.


This story ran in the May 2015 issue of: