Born in NYC, Jesse Aghravi began his cooking career while attending the University of Denver, in the kitchen of Sean Kelly. Jesse returned to NYC in 2006 working in various kitchens including Spigalo under Scott Frantgello and at Ciano for Shea Gallante under Duane Clemens.
Tell us a little about yourself. Who or what influenced you to start a career in foodservice?
My interest in food started as a kid. Growing up, dinner was always important. I would always help out with minimal prep. I wrestled in high school, which entailed weight control. Because of this, I learned to really appreciate food and eating. It wasn’t until college that I finally made the decision to pursue a career in the kitchen. I realized I was getting more out of working in the kitchen than sitting in a classroom!
You worked your way up from a busboy at Aubergine (Denver, CO) to handling all of the cold food there, how did that happen? And what did you learn from the experience?
The restaurant in Denver was Clair de Lune (same chef/owner, Sean Kelly). I ate at Clair de Lune multiple times before working up enough courage to ask for a job as a bus boy. After a year of bussing, the chef/ owner decided to change the dynamics of the restaurant and make it more casual. That's when I got my opportunity to go from front of the house to back of the house. It was a great experience because I saw both sides of the business, and despite what most people might think – starting from the bottom is a good thing!
What led you back to NYC after Denver?
New York is where I belong! I've lived in enough places to realize that New York is where my heart is. Plus, where else can you get fresh shucked oysters at 4 am?
What are some of the popular food trends you are noticing and being used at Saul?
Our food at Saul is pretty simple. I've grown very attached to using the smoker, but we find ourselves trying to keep our techniques more traditional than modern.
We can talk about how great a menu is, or how important location is, but in your opinion, how crucial is the surrounding team for the success of any restaurant?
My team is a big part of our success. These guys are hungry and they love what they do. They motivate and inspire me every day.
Walk us through a typical day at work and what are some of the challenges you face each day?
A typical day for me is 12 hours working under pressure, always trying to beat the clock, in front of hot ovens and stoves, handling sharp knives and dead carcasses… and it's awesome. I'd say my biggest challenge would be not getting emotional about a job that I put my heart into. I’m still working on that.
What roles does the vendor community on both the equipment and food supply side play? And in your opinion, is today’s salesperson providing the level of service you need to succeed?
We have vendors that have been doing business with Saul for a long time now. It's a luxury that I appreciate.
The restaurant industry has a very broad range of food, what’s your buying approach? Do you go out to bid on a regular basis or do you look for loyalty from vendors?
Our buying approach is taken according to the season and what's available at the market. Most of our produce comes from there. Our meats and fish come from the best purveyors in the city and due to their strong relationship with Chef/Owner Saul Bolton – we always get top quality!
What type of cooking equipment are you using in the kitchen? What’s your favorite tool to use?
As mentioned previously, I've grown fond of smoking; we have an electric smoker at the restaurant, which I use to smoke anything including meat, fish, vegetables, fruit, salt, flour. You name it, I'll smoke it!
Do you feel that the restaurant industry suffers too much from Zagat, Yelp, and other consumer review sights? Are consumers depending too much on review?
I can't say for everyone, but I base my decisions on where to go eat by word of mouth. Since most of the people in my close circle of friends are in the industry, I usually get great suggestions.
Whether good, bad or a mix of both, what are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen in our industry since your career began?
The good – more educated customers! It’s great that people are now aware of such terms like “confit.” The bad – cooking reality shows. I think these kinds of shows lead the average person to think they’re a “foodie.”
What advice would you give to young chefs just getting started?
The advice I’d give to young chefs just starting out is to find a job where it's dinner only. The reason I say this is because it's a great classroom to learn. You get in early and prep without the distractions of lunch service. Then you move right into work service. As a cook, you have more control over your station. It's an ideal situation for someone just starting off in the kitchen.