Milwaukee-Based Chef Justin Aprahamian Of Sanford Restaurant In Milwaukee
Physically and gastronomically, chef Justin Aprahamian never strayed far from the Milwaukee environs where he was raised. So, it seemed fitting in 2012 when the wizardly native son assumed the helm at Milwaukee’s top-rated restaurant, Sanford. Not long after commandeering the prize-winning eatery, Aprahamian celebrated his Badger State roots by concocting a haute cuisine tribute to the Wisconsin State Fair, featuring a virtuosic salute to the great American corn dog.
“I made duck sausage and a foie gras mustard to go with it,” Aprahamian says. “Taste, memory-wise, we like to bring in things that are familiar to people but be playful with it. It’s a little corn dog, but it’s still Sanford-level food.”
Some five-star chefs might grimace at the mere suggestion of an epicurean corn dog, but Aprahamian revels in paying homage to the no-nonsense Midwestern foods that helped shape his culinary sensibilities. After all, this is a man who started his food-service career at age 12, learning the ins-and-outs of the dining biz working at his uncle’s catering company. So while Aprahamian may describe Sanford’s menu as “modern ethnic,” closer inspection reveals a dining program that is still quintessentially Wisconsin.
Employing locally sourced ingredients, Sanford’s nuanced fare is often inspired by peasant food favorites familiar to Milwaukee’s diverse Eurasian communities. In a nod to Wisconsin’s reputation as America’s dairy land, Sanford offers an artisanal-cheese program showcasing state-cultivated varieties like Martone, Driftless, Pleasant Ridge Reserve and more. The restaurant recently adopted a cellar beer program through which regionally produced drafts are allowed to mature before being introduced to the menu—a shout-out to Milwaukee’s ranking as a top American beer producer. “It’s good to know that we can spotlight the farmers and artisans we want to work with and bring the attention here,” Aprahamian says. “It gives us a great sense of what’s around us.”
Aprahamian’s fealty to his home state has paid off handsomely. The 34-year-old father of two is the 2014 regional winner of the James Beard Foundation Award, the world-renowned “Oscars of Food.” The honor placed Aprahamian in the rarefied company of celebrity chefs like Emeril Lagasse, Wolfgang Puck, Mario Batali and Aprahamian’s very own mentor, Sandy D’Amato. Under D’Amato’s founding leadership, Sanford ascended to global prominence, earning fawning write-ups from influential publications such as Gourmet, Food & Wine, Bon Appétit and Esquire. The trailblazing chef even cooked at the request of dignitaries like the Dalai Lama and pioneering celebrity chef, Julia Child. “Sandy and his wife Angie laid a lot of great groundwork for us,” says Aprahamian.
D’Amato was a tough act to follow, so when the chef sold Sanford to Aprahamian and his wife Sarah, the new owners found themselves mulling a vexing question—how do you reinvent a Milwaukee dining institution?
The Aprahamians shrewdly elected to retain Sanford’s most popular daily menu items, which meant keeping heritage fare like the grilled pear and Roquefort tart, the provincial fish soup with rouille and the grilled rare marinated tuna with cumin wafers, among distinguished other classics.
Having preserved D’Amato’s legacy, the Aprahamians set about putting their own unique stamp on the Sanford menu. Today, the restaurant offers a seven-course surprise-tasting menu where Aprahamian and sous chef Casey Davison improvise expressly prepared dishes a la minute. In honor of Milwaukee’s sizeable Eastern European community, Aprahamian introduced refined comfort-food items like duck pierogi with roasted beets and horseradish sour cream, and a Sanfordian interpretation of borscht with seated sea scallops and lobster beet broth. Aprahamian’s own Armenian heritage is represented in the form of a beef basturma. The chef slices it thin, complementing it with asparagus, brandied apricots and toasted walnuts.
Those Eurasian creations are complemented by decidedly American appetizers and entrees that evoke the folkloric Wisconsin sportsman. Aprahamian’s smoked elk tenderloin with elderberry preserve is a conceptual masterstroke, a culinary meditation on the state’s iconic game and forestry. “We make it with some different wild mushrooms and a spruce reduction that reminds you of the woods,” Aprahamian says, “The idea being that the elk spends its time in the woods, and these are things that would be in its habitat.”
Having earned the most prestigious award in U.S. cooking, one would assume that Aprahamian could rest on his laurels, but a recent explosion in new upscale restaurants has transformed the Milwaukee dining scene into a wild-west shootout. As he approaches his 5th anniversary as Sanford proprietor, Aprahamian insists he’s as driven as ever.
To quote the chef himself: “I still stress the details.”
Images provided by Sanford Restaurant.