For the first time ever, we're celebrating one local culinary dynamo. Read about Sanford's Justin Aprahamian.
Chef/co-owner of local paragon, Sanford Restaurant; 2014 James Beard Award winner – Best Chef: Midwest; Culinary whiz with a flair for making any food shine; all-around nice guy!!!
In late 2012, a group of excited, nervous and relieved people gather inside an office at the Downtown law firm Foley & Lardner to sign the papers turning Sanford Restaurant over to new owners. Among those present are restaurant founders Sandy and Angie D’Amato; the new-guard chef Justin Aprahamian and his (longtime Sanford employee) fiancée, Sarah Mudrock; Justin’s parents, Len and Nancy; and his grandmother. During this pivotal event for Justin, Nancy looks at her 29-year-old son and says, “Justin, remember when you said you wanted to work for Sanford before you were 30? You own Sanford before you’re 30.”
The young D’Amato disciple cooked his way into our city’s consciousness in a quiet but indelible fashion, with his ability to coax flavor from the most unusual ingredients (birch bark, for instance) in surprisingly approachable ways. His dishes are commanding but nuanced, bold without being arrogant. An off-night at Sanford is a true rarity.
Chef Dan Jacobs has cooked alongside Aprahamian at chef dinners everywhere from the old Roots Restaurant to Jacobs’ prix-fixe place EsterEv inside the Third Ward’s DanDan. There’s more camaraderie than competition at these events, Jacobs says, and yet it’s always clear to everyone whose dish eclipses the others. “He’s consistently the best. And it’s not just the dish, it’s the thought put into it. I’ve learned so much about [plating and garnishing] a dish from him. We copy that every weekend at EsterEv.” Although Aprahamian, an often bearded man whose dark features favor the Armenian side of his family, has spent nearly his entire career at Sanford, this doesn’t seem to have hindered his growth. “You can knock on the fact that he’s only worked in one restaurant,” says Jacobs, “but he’s staged in other kitchens, and I have never seen anyone research like he does. I think he’s a great example for chefs coming up of how to be and how to act.”
What Sanford’s chef has in talent is equally matched in humility. In him, the D’Amatos saw someone who respects the Sanford legacy and has confidence in his abilities as a chef to make Sanford his own. It’s what Sandy D’Amato calls a “humble strength.”
Aprahamian was only 18 when he mustered his courage and went knocking on the back door of Sanford, the local restaurant that put Milwaukee on the national culinary map soon after its 1989 opening. He was skating through his last semester at Waukesha County Technical College (WCTC) and “the writing was on the wall” at his other job (New Berlin’s Steven Wade’s Café, whose executive chef/co-owner had recently passed away).
With some prodding from his instructors at WCTC, he threw on a shirt and tie, grabbed his portfolio of work – which consisted of menus and photos of dishes he’d made – and headed down to the 1874 building on the lower East Side that had operated as the D’Amato family grocery store decades before and where the James Beard Award-winning chef/co-owner had lived for part of his childhood.
Retired instructor Jim Holden taught Aprahamian in three different culinary classes at WCTC. Despite his age, he was “far more advanced” than his peers, says Holden. Much of that his teacher attributes to working under the exacting standards of Steven Wade, whose cafe was among an elite group of restaurants (Grenadier’s, Sanford) serving the area’s foodies in the 1980s and ’90s.
“It didn’t matter what you threw at him. He aced it,” says Holden. “It was challenging to me to keep him challenged. But it was also fun!” Once he realized he wanted to pursue a career in cooking, Aprahamian says, his focus was on making the most of his time. “I felt like if I was paying the money for school, while I was there, I would go above and beyond to get the most I could out of it.”
Standing at that restaurant back door, the young chef eventually caught the attention of Sanford’s office manager, who ushered him into the calm, intimate dining room. Then-chef de cuisine Dave Swanson – who was running the Sanford kitchen while D’Amato focused on the couple’s second restaurant, Coquette Cafe – came out to meet him. After a brief chat, Swanson (now owner of his own place, Braise in Walker’s Point), told him to come back and stage (pronounced “stahj,” it means to intern unpaid) for a night.
He did, and a week later Swanson gave him a job. “I was freaking out,” Aprahamian remembers.
He reported the news to Holden the next day. “‘Chef, it’s unbelievable!’” he told Holden. “‘For him [D’Amato] to take a chance on somebody like me. I’m so young.’” Holden told him, “You’re at the top of your class. Where else are you going to go?”
The job was as entry-level as expected for a new recruit, and he relished it. He was assigned kitchen grunt work, did “remedial things” and trained on the pastry station, a spot that includes salads, amuse bouche and breads.
The “old soul” – as D’Amato would later call him – absorbed every culinary task given to him. For his part, the young apprentice came to think of his mentor as the “Jedi Master.”
From that moment, he was hooked on the brisk pace and the tangible, physical quality of cooking. When he was 16, his parents suggested he apply for a job at the closest – and most respected – restaurant to their home, Steven Wade’s Café.
Our selection process
For this, MilMag’s first Chef of the Year, Dining Editor Ann Christenson took into consideration factors including skill, innovation and consistency, with a goal of celebrating the efforts of a local culinary professional whose leadership extends beyond expert cooking skills to making an impact in our community.
Aprahamian had already accumulated enough credits to graduate, so the plan was to skip his senior year and start his culinary education at WCTC. This, he believes, appealed to Wade, who was known as a giving but iron-fisted perfectionist. When he landed the position, he was perhaps the most enthusiastic dishwasher on the planet, a “kid so excited to be there. I’m going to be a sponge, not ‘just’ a dishwasher,” Aprahamian says.
From 2000 to about mid-2002, he used Wade’s as his second classroom. “Steve was very encouraging; he understood what I wanted to do,” he says. Working for Wade was actually the ideal preparation for Sanford. Wade coached him on what to read – for example, the venerable culinary encyclopedia Larousse Gastronomique. He dove into Michael Ruhlman’s The Soul of a Chef, Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry Cookbook and the Dornenburg and Page books (Culinary Artistry, The Flavor Bible).
“[Wade] would say, ‘How much can you be absorbing? You’re in school, but that’s not enough.’ He’d ask me, ‘What do you want to do? You have to work [here, anywhere] like it’s your restaurant: make decisions, don’t cut corners. You can’t just half-ass your way to open a place.’” Aprahamian took the advice to heart: Even at that age, he knew he wanted his own restaurant.
When Wade died of cancer, his young employee knew it was time to move on. But for the two years he worked at Wade’s, Aprahamian banked everything he learned. Ironically, the most life-changing impact Wade may have had on him was in prying the pickiness out of his palate. Growing up, both his parents worked full-time, but the family of four – Mom, Dad, Justin and his brother, Matt – still sat down to dinner every night. “My parents are both good cooks. My mom always included some fresh veggies but it wasn’t the fanciest meal.” His dad made a meat sauce of venison and “a nice spice mix,” serving it over spaghetti. Justin rewarded him by meticulously picking the onions out of the sauce before eating it.
Wade shook him of that unadventurous habit. “There wouldn’t have been any room for that in Steve’s kitchen,” D’Amato says.
As a newbie at Sanford, “I was always nervous. I had the fear of God. Everyone in the kitchen was well older than me,” Aprahamian says. When chef de cuisine Swanson left Sanford in 2004, D’Amato returned full-time to the kitchen, and Aprahamian observed the master in action. D’Amato “had a patience and calm about him. No yelling. It was all about the process. How methodical he did things. He could do Jedi mind tricks. The way he could talk around things. He’s sharp and didn’t overreact.”
D’Amato remembers returning to Sanford while the staff was making test dishes for a dinner at the James Beard House in NYC. “I noticed that Justin was doing the bulk of what was going on, and was keyed into getting feedback,” he says. “And then he went along to New York to do the dinner. He was great. Just an incredible attitude.” The combination of talent and equilibrium impressed D’Amato. “There’s very few people who get it. He was one of the first who was the whole package.”
The Jedi Master admits to learning a few things from his apprentice, including Aprahamian’s habit of taking very detailed notes on dishes. (He keeps those notebooks, often referencing the old ones, Aprahamian says, as “jumping off points to work on new things.”) “I was always the one with five pieces of paper in four different pockets,” D’Amato says. “He inspired me to organize the recipes. I am sure to this day that he has more recipes of mine written down than I do.”
By 2005, Aprahamian had moved up to sous chef, and the more time he spent working in a kitchen where feedback flowed freely – where he was able to jump from station to station, pick up new skills and work on recipe development – the more he knew he was where he wanted to be. Aprahamian was never hesitant to ask questions. “He always wanted to know the why and what and the history of a dish,” D’Amato says.
Meanwhile, Aprahamian was doing his best to treat the business like his own, as his old mentor Wade had urged him to do. “There were definitely things I wasn’t great at [but] I tried to think like Sandy. As we started to have meetings, I’d write down tidbits of managerial wisdom. I understood the weight of the restaurant. I didn’t want to mess that up.” And with that growing weight came the anxiety of contributing dishes to a restaurant run by a chef handpicked to cook for Julia Child’s 80th birthday. “It took a long time for me to get comfortable with a dish,” he says, before being ready to present it to his boss. He’s saved not only all the menus from when he was sous chef: “I have all the [Sanford] menus through yesterday.”
Unbeknownst to the young recruit, the D’Amatos were planning their exit from Sanford. They wanted the restaurant to carry on – without children of their own, they had nevertheless created a family – but they knew it would take time to fully prepare the right chef to take over the reins. Three years after bumping him up to sous, the D’Amatos asked Aprahamian to take the role of chef de cuisine. And they asked him about buying Sanford back when their protégé was only 24 or 25, D’Amato says. Aprahamian told him it was just the size restaurant he’d want to run. “But you know I’m not ready,” D’Amato remembers his future successor telling him. “We said ‘Yes! We know. It’s a process.’”
As Aprahamian reflects on it now, the Jedi Master was also taking steps to prepare Milwaukee for his understudy. Food writers who called the restaurant in those days to talk to D’Amato about his menu were perhaps a bit surprised when he’d give the phone to his chef de cuisine. “Justin worked on that. Let me hand the phone over to him,” D’Amato would say. And little by little, Aprahamian’s name became synonymous with Sanford’s. In both 2010 and 2011, he was a semifinalist for the James Beard Rising Star Chef of the Year award. Then his name started appearing as a nominee in the Best Chef Midwest category (an award D’Amato won in 1996). Aprahamian picked up the award in 2014, telling the crowd in New York City when he accepted the medal that “It was surreal to see chefs I’m inspired by on a daily basis.” He also said shortly thereafter that the awards were a good reminder to “not rest on our laurels and not take it for granted.”
Part of D’Amato’s ownership schooling was to encourage Aprahamian to have a partner – whether it was Mudrock, to whom he was then engaged, or someone else. “You need someone to run it. You can’t do everything,” D’Amato told him. Mudrock was the perfect choice in ways beyond their personal partnership. After starting as a hostess at the restaurant in 2002, she was going to quit to focus on studying graphic design, but Angie D’Amato convinced her to take the manager job at their then freshly minted Harlequin French Bakery. She stayed there for three years (it closed in 2009), then returned to hostess and serve at Sanford, working her way up to assistant manager.
The first time Mudrock “met” her future husband, it was shortly after she started working at Sanford and the staff was going on a dining trip to Chicago for a night-off excursion. She learned later that a female chef at Sanford had tried to orchestrate a “love connection” between the two young Sanford staffers on that trip, but it didn’t happen. Not then. But years later, when Mudrock was working at Harlequin, Aprahamian “started showing up.” She had recently had a breakup. Uncertain of whether she was ready to move on, she hung back. “I didn’t want to potentially hurt him. But a week went by, and I decided, ‘Why am I being so stupid?’ So I called him back and we went out. Once we were together, it felt inevitable.” They married in 2013. Their lives outside of Sanford revolve around their young kids, Sebastian, 4, and Aurelia, 2.
The thought of being married to a chef conjures up fantasies of three gourmet meals a day. But according to Mudrock, her husband is of the opinion that “any meal he doesn’t have to cook is the best meal!” She admits feeling intimidated by her husband’s cooking talents (“Still, to this day!” she laughs), making it clear he is the only chef in the family. “I’m not a cook. I don’t find joy in it,” she says. With small children, she does prepare meals, but when the chef is home, she sometimes makes him cook. Or he feels compelled to. “He’ll watch what I’m doing and take the knife out of my hand. ‘We will never eat until 9:00 if you keep at it like that,’” she says with a smile in her voice.
And being a chef doesn’t ensure great eating habits, Aprahamian reports. Although he says he’s not a breakfast person, he’s trying to set a better example in the morning when he feeds his kids. At Sanford, he tastes food all day and doesn’t sit down to eat until “staff meal,” which has to be ready by 4 p.m. (dinner service starts at 5:30 during the week, 5 on Saturday). It’s sometimes pasta, often tacos, and they try to include a salad. “It’s good face-time for the staff. There’s a lot to learn and a lot to get out,” so staff meal is also an important internal function of the restaurant. And a learning tool. The cook who handles it has guidelines and a budget.
Before parental responsibilities entered his life, Aprahamian indulged in his passions for brewing beer and collecting music (from David Bowie to King Crimson). Back in 2005, he bought a guitar, intending to give it the same intense focus he’s given cooking. But he was made sous chef the same year and decided he couldn’t do both. Yet “anytime I can fit in reading or perusing, it’s all one and the same – cookbooks, literature, music. Anytime I can get into a record shop, I’m happy.”
For a time Aprahamian co-owned a small brewery called Like Minds, but he sold his ownership stake in 2016, saying he wanted to focus on his family. As for any second businesses down the pike, he seems content with the way things are.
The humility that everyone who knows him mentions is partially a hard-wired quality, but he also believes in the example his predecessor set at Sanford. And he says his staff does, too. “We understand what we’re working for. There’s no ego. That’s a Sandy thing. We’re all working toward the same end. No one station is more important than another.” He says that’s only grown since he took over. “I have a tremendous amount of respect for what Sanford is. I know this restaurant is bigger than me. That’s why we didn’t change everything. It’s a slow evolution.”
Sanford’s Ballet-like Service
Sanford Restaurant has become a haven for diners who want an experience like no other.
For that, co-founder Sandy D’Amato gives much of the credit to his partner-spouse, Angie. The couple originally met at Downtown’s former beacon of elegant dining John Byron’s, and when they opened their own place in 1989, D’Amato was focused on cooking and running the kitchen. The front of the house was all Angie. Traveling and dining at restaurants in Paris and New York City developed Angie’s sense for the type of service she wanted at Sanford – a kind of dance where the diners’ needs are seamlessly taken care of in a way that’s barely noticeable to them.
It also seems so effortless, which is exactly how it’s supposed to seem, confirms Sanford’s Jeff Zastrow, who started as a server in 1999 and now manages the dining room. He was trained by Angie; now he “helps with fine tuning and correcting,” he says. Experience is of course an asset, but what they look for more in a server is personality: “We always try to see it – that spark. We look for a sense of humor and humility in that person.” Sarah Mudrock, who now owns Sanford with her husband, Justin Aprahamian, takes that sentiment further: “You get a feel for them. Are they a personality you’d want to work here? Sometimes a fresh slate is more ideal because we can mold and shape. You can teach skills, like serve from the left and clear from the right,” she says.
The rules of etiquette are only part of it. This front-of-house staff (of 18) works as a team. Says Zastrow: “No one is ever in the weeds. Servers will bus tables. Managers will deliver food. We all just want the night to go well.”
And a dose of self-deprecation goes a long way. When a couple comes in looking a little unsure they will pull off the etiquette rules for fine dining, Zastrow lightens the tone. “I have purposely dropped an ice cube from the water pitcher on the table and just said, ‘Oh, very clumsy!’ The mood changes a little bit” and puts everyone at ease.
The server’s appearance also plays a fundamental role. When he first started at Sanford, Zastrow says the servers wore suits and ties. Now the uniform is a black dress shirt and black pants. “Simple, simple, simple. We need to blend in. Quiet, humble,” Zastrow says. “We’re not the stars. It’s the guests – it’s their night.”
Zastrow hasn’t been there the longest. That honor goes to Ralph Selensky, who’s been on staff since Sanford’s beginning and worked with the D’Amatos at John Byron’s. And of Zastrow, Mudrock says, “If we could clone him, we would. He knows how to make people feel welcome.”
Aprahamian and Mudrock consider the D’Amatos another set of parents. “We call them all the time to bounce ideas off of them,” she says. “Every time I talk to Angie, I tell her she has to write a book [about service]. There are so many nuggets people would benefit from.”