Ever since the recession hit Silicon Valley, Aviet says, he has been operating with many fewer customers, down by as much as 60 percent some evenings. For a restaurant with so little seating to begin with — as much as fits in the intimate rooms of a small historic house on Villa Street — that doesn't afford much revenue.
"We are living in one of the most expensive landscapes on the surface of the Earth," Aviet pointed out. "How do you maintain a fine level while not being able to pay large amounts to staff to stay? How do I do this?"
One way is the do-it-yourself route. As it turns out, besides restaurateur, Aviet is an electrician, plumber, gardener and all-around handyman.
He points to the colorful light fixture hanging from the ceiling — a vintage lamp he wired and hung like a chandelier.
"The key is recognizing your ability to cut down your overheads without sacrificing quality," he said.
The dishwasher needs fixing? The pastry chef needs more storage? The wine cellar must be expanded?
"Learn how to do it," Aviet says. "It's like running a family. This restaurant is my family."
He attributes much of his survivor mentality to his upbringing. Aviet, who is Armenian, grew up a minority in Iran watching his grandparents work as dentists. He learned from them how to be "frugal, conservative."
Armenians, he said, "are a generation of people who have always been under some kind of attack. The survival skills of my culture have helped me."
Those skills and attitudes have paid off, if critical acclaim is any indication. Chez TJ is among the few fine dining restaurants in the world, and one of a very small handful in the Bay Area, to be honored with a Michelin star — and for a brief stint, under former chef Christopher Kostow, it held two.
"For me, success wasn't only how much you have in the bank, but something people appreciated," Aviet said.
The most recent guide, in which Chez TJ is awarded one star, describes the restaurant as "quaint," and "nostalgic" before commending its fare.
"The prolific chef, Bruno Chemel, masters traditional French technique and crafts contemporary cuisine with exceptional ingredients and refined flavors," it reads. "The food here is delicious and complex, if at times fussy."
The Michelin ratings can vary from year to year, and are especially tied to the success of the head chef. In December, Aviet brought on Scott Nishiyama after a reported disagreement with Chemel over what it would take to earn back that second Michelin star. "The last staff in the kitchen had lost their love for the food in my restaurant," Aviet said.
The Michelin rating, he added, is extremely important to him, "because we're in that track, and we're being monitored." To him, the stars aren't about reputation as much as they are about the "level of excellence and professionalism" that he shoots for.
"Even though I am small, my dreams and ambition are big," he said.