Chef Vartan Abgaryan

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By Robert JohnsonNovember/December 2009
Chef De CuisineAs with any artistic form, good food should evoke emotion. A carefully crafted, simple stew can elicit fond memories and transport a diner back to a comfortable, happy time. The setting in which a meal is enjoyed can also help conjure warm recollections. A Restaurant in Newport Beach offers the best in both atmosphere and food preparation. Seemingly enveloped in wood, the restaurant is dimly lit with dark red leather booths. While dining, one might expect Ol’ Blue Eyes himself to saunter in, Rat Pack in tow, order a round of whiskies and martinis, and sip them slowly while Chef Vartan Abgaryan sautes them plates full of nostalgia. Chef Abgaryan recognizes that food portrays emotion and, upon entering A Restaurant for his shift, will leave anything that is bothering him at the door. He believes that his food will suffer if his head and heart are burdened.For Chef Abgaryan, cooking came out of nowhere. Initially, he dreamt of being a doctor and pursued this dream by attending college in Santa Barbara. Like many college students, Vartan worked at a restaurant waiting tables. He quickly found out that he was not cut out to be a waiter and begged for the manager to let him wash dishes instead; anything to get him out of the dining room. Once in the kitchen, it was not long before he was allowed to work the line. Chef Vartan loved cooking on his own time and this translated instantly to his work on the line. The next logical step for him was to enroll in culinary school. Vartan moved to Las Vegas for two years while he attended Le Cordon Bleu. He decided to go to school there instead of Los Angeles because he felt Las Vegas would be the quickest route for him to acquire the skills necessary for success, due to the much larger restaurant industry.Chef Abgaryan worked for two restaurants in Las Vegas under the tutelage of a French chef before moving back to California: Andre’s Restaurant at the Monte Carlo and Lutece Restaurant inside the Venetian Hotel and Casino. Lutece Restaurant was his first opportunity to work as a Sous Chef. The experience he gained at these two restaurants allowed Chef Vartan to earn a Sous Chef position at the Red Pearl Kitchen in Los Angeles so he could move back to California to be closer to his ailing mother. After only two short months at the RedPearl Kitchen, he was asked to take over the Executive Chef position.Vartan’s big opportunity came when the owners of the Red Peal Kitchen approached him with the prospect of taking the lead in the refurbishment of A Restaurant. Chef Abgaryan hesitated at first, he had never opened a restaurant before and was not sure what he would be getting into. Three months before A Restaurant was to open, Chef Vartan agreed to take on the position of Executive Chef and the task of building a restaurant kitchen nearly from scratch. The restaurant had nothing in it when Vartan first stepped inside, although construction was well on its way. At that point, Chef admits he questioned his decision to take the position but after talking with Shelley Register, who runs A Market next door, he picked up on her contagious enthusiasm and realized the direction the restaurant should take. Given permission to work things out on his own, Chef Vartan strove to help the restaurant improve upon itself and not to abandon the crux of what A Restaurant should be; an American Bistro which takes classic dishes and creates them using modern standards with the freshest ingredients.All of Chef Abgaryan’s success has led to a modicum of fame. He and a fellow chef competed on Iron Chef America against famed chef, Morimoto, in a curry battle. Unfortunately, he and his team did not win. Despite his success and short-lived run at celebrity, Chef Vartan remains quite humble. When tough economic times called for him to return to the line five nights a week, Vartan was up to the challenge. After getting worked over his first night back on the line, he, being the consummate professional, recognized that he was no longer in fighting shape (so to speak) and joined a gym. He worked himself back into the swing of things and now enjoys being hands-on in the kitchen. Chef Abgaryan loves the control this provides him over his dishes and never lets a dish out of the kitchen without it meeting his every expectation.When speaking with Chef Vartan about food, two common themes emerge. The first is an affinity for classic dishes constructed (or possibly deconstructed) in a modern fashion; think of a BLT sandwich as a salad. The second theme is that good food should inspire emotion. His mom used to make a soup which he said tasted different every time she would make it. The flavor of the soup, according to Chef Abgaryan, changed depending on her mood. This aspect of cooking is what Vartan works hard to express. He confesses that of his siblings, he is probably the most content in his profession. It is his passion for inspiring emotion through food and to create food that recalls important memories that lends to his contentment with his job; truly a thing to be cherished.

Chef Vartan AbgaryanWHAT THREE WORDS BEST DESCRIBE YOUR CULINARY STYLE?: Simple, Fresh and FlavorfulAVERAGE WORK HOURS A WEEK: 60FIRST COOKING OR FOOD RELATED MEMORY: Watching my mom bake when I was 6 or 7, maybe younger, she loved to bake and it was always an event as she was getting ready to make me and my brother and sister’s birthday cakes. One year she made a cake with a little train and tracks on it. We ended up fighting over who got to eat the train.FIRST HOSPITALITY JOB: Baskin Robbins, scooping ice cream at the age of 15.FAVORITE KITCHEN APPLIANCE: Pepper MillFAVORITE TYPE OF COOKWARE: Matfet BourgeatFAVORITE CONDIMENT/SPICE: Whole grain mustard, and Moroccan or Indian spicesBIGGEST MYTH ABOUT THE KITCHEN: That there is always yelling and screaming. It’s not always like that. Not that there have not been times when we have both, but for the most part it is always fun and exciting.YEARS OF CULINARY EDUCATION: 2, Le Cordon Bleu, Las Vegas

A Restaurant3334 Pacific Coast HwyNewport Beach CA, 92663949.650.6505www.arestaurantnb.comRestaurant Hours:Lunch: Mon-Fri 11:30am-2:30pmDinner: Sun-Thurs 5pm-10pmFri-Sat 5pm-11pmAverage Cover Including Beverage:Lunch: $20 Dinner: $45

Spicy Tuna-Tempura Eggplant1 lb Sushi-grade tuna ” diced into 1/4 inch cubes2 Purple Chinese eggplants ” sliced into 1/4 inch thick discsTempura BatterChili AioliSweet Soy Glaze2 T Wasabi tobikoChives for garnishTEMPURA BATTER1 C Flour1/2 C Corn starch1/2 t Baking soda1 t Salt2 C Soda waterMix dry ingredients and then add wet ingredients to incorporate ” do not overwork.CHILI AIOLI SAUCE2 C Mayonnaise2 T Sriracha chili sauce1 T Soy sauce1 t Ginger – minced1/2 t Paprika1 Lemon – juiced and zestedMix all ingredients together.TO ASSEMBLEAfter eggplant is dipped in tempura batter and fried,Mix tuna with Chili Aioli sauce.Top tempura eggplant with tuna/chili aioli mix and wasabi tobiko.Drizzle with sweet soy glaze.Top with chopped chives.