Meet the Chef: Justin Aprahamian
Chef de cuisine, Sanford Restaurant, Milwaukeeuser rating
In the Q&A below, Aprahamian discusses the return of supper-club dining, dabbling in mixology and the importance of being open to trying new foods. He shares his recipes for his cocktail creation Rhubarb Refresher, pumpkin soup and Manti, an Armenian specialty soup/appetizer.
Sanford’s website lists the cuisine as American, continental, French, international, Mediterranean and vegetarian—contemporary ethnic. Is the menu really this eclectic?
We don’t like to limit what we can make. We take inspiration from a lot. “Contemporary ethnic” encompasses that; it’s modern approach to ethnic food. Sandy and I visited Italy last year and we were inspired by the food we had in Rome and Florence. When we returned we created new takes on many of the dishes we had there. I’m Armenian and I like to take my family’s recipes, refine and upscale them for the restaurant. In the fall, we offered a Russian hearty vegetable soup. It was not the way the classic Russian soup would taste; it had similar ingredients and scents, but a new perspective.
How big of a role do seasonal and local foods play on Sanford’s menu?
We are seasonally and market driven. That was my philosophy from the start; it’s ingrained from childhood and that’s always been Sandy’s philosophy as well. Although our menus are seasonally driven, in my mind, the seasons are not that defined. What looks good at the market will appear on the menu. I love to go to the farmers markets and see the great produce available. I find inspiration there. Our ingredients are locally sourced as much as possible—even the Russian Water trout is local. During the spring through the fall most of our produce is almost exclusively from local farmers markets. All of the pork, duck and pheasant also come from Wisconsin. But not everything comes from in-state. We use only the best ingredients and we want to provide a dining experience at Sanford so items such as foie gras, squab and most of the seafood can’t come from Wisconsin.
You have a daily menu, a four-course menu and a seven-course surprise tasting menu. How often do the menus change?
The a la carte menu does not change daily, but I have the freedom to change it at will. Our four-course menu is an exploration menu; [dishes] are seasonally driven but have a theme. The current four-course menu is a playful interpretation of a classic supper club. Last spring I honored my grandfather with an Armenian menu. We’ve also had Irish, Mexican and Italian-themed menus. The seven-course menu changes daily depending on what’s available—and my mood.
How do you handle having so many different menus available each day?
It’s important to hire the right people and build great staff around you. It’s one thing to dream up fabulous, crazy menus, but you need the staff to execute it. We have a great staff that likes to work on new things and embrace challenges. This is a testament to Sandy—a great menu and staff to implement it.
You are also a mixologist.
I don’t consider myself a mixologist, but I enjoy creating cocktails. Old-fashioned, old-style drinks are coming back, so it’s fun to experiment. I like using farm-fresh produce to create in-season cocktails. Last summer, one of the cocktails I created used rhubarb as the key ingredient—rhubarb juice muddled with candied lemon zest, fresh basil and rum. Another specialty drink was fresh cucumber juice blended with cardamom-infused gin that comes from the local Great Lakes distillery—a great summer drink. I’ve created drinks with infused apple brandy, quince brandy—Armenians love brandy—and Concord grape vodka. This winter, I’ve been featuring a cocktail made with apple brandy, apple cider and bitters.
Do you have favorite ingredients to work with?
They change seasonally. In the fall, one of my favorites is pumpkin. I enjoy presenting it in as many ways as possible. I also try to work apples into the fall menu as often as I can. In the winter, I like to use parsnips.
Is there a special dish you like to prepare?
I’m a big fan of soups in general. I find soup to be soulful—I love making them. In the fall, I created a pumpkin soup with caramelized pumpkin that was sweet, spicy and savory.
What is the one food everyone should try in their lifetime?
I think people should be open to all foods—even ones they think they won’t like. I had a stigma about white anchovies, but I tried them and they opened my eyes to all foods that are out there and gave me a perspective on what food could be. It eliminated the negative connotations I had.—Vanessa Facenda