News

Upscale in a down economy

Chez TJ owner stays focused on excellence -- and regaining a lost Michelin star

Chez TJ owner George Aviet has been serving world class contemporary French cuisine for nearly three decades. That's hard to do even in good times; but in a down economy, running a business based on luxury is "even more challenging."

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.

Help sustain the local news you depend on.

Your contribution matters. Become a member today.

Join

"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."

Stay informed

Get the latest local news and information sent straight to your inbox.

Stay informed

Get the latest local news and information sent straight to your inbox.

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.

New chef likes it cozy

Chez TJ's new executive chef, Scott Nishiyama, who made his debut Dec. 20, calls his new gig a "great opportunity."

"Chez TJ has a great reputation here in the Bay Area," he said. "Certainly I love the small, cozy atmosphere."

A Hawaiian native, Nishiyama, 35, headed east for college to study chemistry at MIT.

"I enjoyed it there but at the same time that's where I got into cooking," he said. "I did a lot of cooking in college and for the first time it dawned on me that that was something I

could pursue as a career."

After graduation Nishiyama tried out consulting before following his heart into the kitchen of the Hotel Bel Air in Los Angeles, where he helped prepare cold salads and appetizers.

"It was an eye-opening experience for me," he said. At 24, "I had never been in a professional kitchen before."

The young chef went on to train at the Culinary Institute of America in New York, then earned spots at acclaimed restaurants Cello and Town. He later worked under Daniel Boulud at famed restaurant Daniel, and also at Boulud's restaurant at the Wynn resort in Las Vegas.

"It was too big of a restaurant for me personally, a high-volume situation," he said. "That's not my style of dining. I prefer a small restaurant where you can really concentrate on the food and do something nice."

That's why, he said, when Corey Lee, chef de cuisine of the renowned Napa restaurant French Laundry, offered him a position, he headed back to California.

"Everything they do there is perfection," he said, "and that's really what I strive for too."

Nishiyama said his most "pivotal" years as a chef were spent in Napa, and that he will bring all he has learned to the kitchen of Chez TJ.

"A lot of the old staff had left with the old chef, which is pretty normal," he said of the transition. "So (I've been) trying to find a staff, training them, and trying to get them to understand my style of food and what we're trying to achieve."

Nishiyama has also been utilizing local bounty, and shops at the Mountain View Farmers Market every Sunday. There he's found honey for Chez TJ's cheese plate, root vegetables from a Watsonville farm, and most recently heirloom broccoli which are "just phenomenal."

Craving a new voice in Peninsula dining?

Sign up for the Peninsula Foodist newsletter.

Sign up now

Follow Mountain View Voice Online on Twitter @mvvoice, Facebook and on Instagram @mvvoice for breaking news, local events, photos, videos and more.

Upscale in a down economy

Chez TJ owner stays focused on excellence -- and regaining a lost Michelin star

by Kelsey Mesher / Mountain View Voice

Uploaded: Thu, Feb 4, 2010, 4:17 pm

Chez TJ owner George Aviet has been serving world class contemporary French cuisine for nearly three decades. That's hard to do even in good times; but in a down economy, running a business based on luxury is "even more challenging."

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.

New chef likes it cozy

Chez TJ's new executive chef, Scott Nishiyama, who made his debut Dec. 20, calls his new gig a "great opportunity."

"Chez TJ has a great reputation here in the Bay Area," he said. "Certainly I love the small, cozy atmosphere."

A Hawaiian native, Nishiyama, 35, headed east for college to study chemistry at MIT.

"I enjoyed it there but at the same time that's where I got into cooking," he said. "I did a lot of cooking in college and for the first time it dawned on me that that was something I

could pursue as a career."

After graduation Nishiyama tried out consulting before following his heart into the kitchen of the Hotel Bel Air in Los Angeles, where he helped prepare cold salads and appetizers.

"It was an eye-opening experience for me," he said. At 24, "I had never been in a professional kitchen before."

The young chef went on to train at the Culinary Institute of America in New York, then earned spots at acclaimed restaurants Cello and Town. He later worked under Daniel Boulud at famed restaurant Daniel, and also at Boulud's restaurant at the Wynn resort in Las Vegas.

"It was too big of a restaurant for me personally, a high-volume situation," he said. "That's not my style of dining. I prefer a small restaurant where you can really concentrate on the food and do something nice."

That's why, he said, when Corey Lee, chef de cuisine of the renowned Napa restaurant French Laundry, offered him a position, he headed back to California.

"Everything they do there is perfection," he said, "and that's really what I strive for too."

Nishiyama said his most "pivotal" years as a chef were spent in Napa, and that he will bring all he has learned to the kitchen of Chez TJ.

"A lot of the old staff had left with the old chef, which is pretty normal," he said of the transition. "So (I've been) trying to find a staff, training them, and trying to get them to understand my style of food and what we're trying to achieve."

Nishiyama has also been utilizing local bounty, and shops at the Mountain View Farmers Market every Sunday. There he's found honey for Chez TJ's cheese plate, root vegetables from a Watsonville farm, and most recently heirloom broccoli which are "just phenomenal."

Comments

Eli
Old Mountain View
on Feb 4, 2010 at 7:54 pm
Eli, Old Mountain View
on Feb 4, 2010 at 7:54 pm

Maybe some of those well-paid MVLA teachers and MVWSD administrators will get a chance to eat at Chez TJ. :-)


Steve
Old Mountain View
on Feb 5, 2010 at 2:55 pm
Steve, Old Mountain View
on Feb 5, 2010 at 2:55 pm

Teachers and State workers unions have been an unmitigated disaster for California.

It's actually quite ironic that the tax payer pays these peoples' salaries which they then use to pay their union dues, so that they can extort more money from the tax payer.

Unfortunately, many people in this state believe that an endless supply of money comes from the magical money well.

Keep in mind that in 3% of the state's population pay 60% of the taxes (2004 data). I wonder what will happen when they get fed up with the state's grand socialist experiment?


To Eli
Castro City
on Feb 5, 2010 at 4:32 pm
To Eli, Castro City
on Feb 5, 2010 at 4:32 pm

Eli,

Perhaps you'd like to go back to school and become a teacher in one of those school districts ;)


kathy-sylvanpark
Registered user
Sylvan Park
on Feb 6, 2010 at 10:48 am
kathy-sylvanpark, Sylvan Park
Registered user
on Feb 6, 2010 at 10:48 am

When I first moved here years ago I had a few fabulous meals at Chez TJ but now they go for those annoying tasting menus (many courses of small pretentious portions). I know the 'foodies' go mad for this but I would love it if they also offered a regular menu, a few salads and entrees to choose from. Maybe George and Scott will come up with something new that will encourage the locals to dine there more frequently.

Have no idea why the other posts are talking about teachers and unions...let's stay on topic people.


plarenas
Blossom Valley
on Feb 6, 2010 at 1:01 pm
plarenas, Blossom Valley
on Feb 6, 2010 at 1:01 pm

My husband and I love Chez TJ. He proposed to me there seven years ago! It is wonderful to have this level of restaurant so nearby in our community for our special occasions. Their hardworking and dedicated staff always make us feel very welcome and special. That the chef uses local ingredients is also a plus!


Don't miss out on the discussion!
Sign up to be notified of new comments on this topic.

Post a comment

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.