George Aviet is a carpenter, electrician, plumber, janitor, cabinet-maker, painter and visionary -- and the owner of Chez TJ in Mountain View, one of only four restaurants on the Peninsula to earn coveted Michelin stars.
Born in Iran to an Armenian mother and a French-English father, life did not start off so promisingly for Aviet. His father worked for Royal Dutch Shell and was trapped in a tanker for days. He suffered psychological issues and withdrew from the family for a decade shortly before his son George was born.
Aviet suffered a serious injury at age 6 when a piece of metal from a toy ruptured his back and exited his stomach. He spent nearly two years in the hospital and many months at home convalescing. During that time, he was immersed in the cooking of his mother and grandmother who hailed from the Caspian Sea area.
His father reemerged when Aviet was 10 and paid for his private school education. In 1979, their property confiscated, the family fled Iran after the Islamic Revolution. Aviet came to the South Bay as an exchange student enrolling at CaĂ±ada College and took a part-time job at the now extinct Pear William restaurant in Menlo Park, where he met chef Thomas J. McCombie.
It was there that Aviet found his life's passion. He loved the restaurant business and worked in every capacity at Pear William. To make ends meet, he also worked late nights at a doughnut shop in Redwood City. In the early 1980s, McCombie proposed that the two should open a restaurant.
The partners traveled to Europe and ate their way around France, absorbing what they both adored about French cuisine -- the menus, the ambiance, the use of local seasonal ingredients -- and came home with a plan. They would offer prix fixe dinners at three price points, depending on the number of courses. With their wives, they scraped together enough money to launch Chez TJ in November of 1982.
Opened on a shoestring, McCombie and his wife lived in the converted 1894-era house on Villa Street. Then, Aviet and his wife moved in. As word spread, the entire space was converted to restaurant, happily evicting the partners.
In 1994, McCombie, aged 44, died of a heart attack. By agreement, Aviet took over the restaurant and needed to quickly learn not only how to run the kitchen, but to devise a plan for buying out the McCombie estate's interest.
That's where the real story of Chez TJ begins. Aviet knew what he wanted from his kitchen. He set the bar high and identified chef and staff that would carry the restaurant to that higher level. In 2007, Chez TJ was awarded one star by the French Michelin Guide, the most dependable and respected of worldwide restaurant critics.
It was chef Joshua Skenes who earned Chez TJ its first Michelin star. Skenes is now co-owner and executive chef at Saison in San Francisco, a two-starred Michelin restaurant. He was succeeded by Christopher Kostow who elevated Chez TJ to two stars. He departed soon thereafter to take the position of executive chef at Napa Valley's Restaurant at Meadowood. Kostow's restaurant and Thomas Keller's French Laundry are the only three-star restaurants on the West Coast.
Next came Bruno Chemel. During his time in Chez TJ's kitchen, the restaurant's rating dropped down to one star. He and Aviet had a very public falling out after the Michelin rating dropped, and Chemel departed with most of the kitchen staff. He moved on to earn two stars at Baume in Palo Alto.
Yet Chez TJ did not miss a beat. Scott Nishiyama, then Joey Elenterio and now Jared Gallagher, formerly of Plumed Horse in Saratoga, have continued Chez TJ's uninterrupted string of eight consecutive years as a Michelin-starred restaurant.
At capacity, Chez TJ's four intimate dining rooms seat about 40. Even at premium prices, the revenue curve is meager compared to most other restaurants. To be the executive chef at Chez TJ isn't a financial windfall, hence, the high chef turnover.
Aviet couldn't say enough about his current star-in-the-making, Jared Gallagher. "I give the chef all the freedom, don't interfere unless I feel we are getting off-track. Jared is a tremendous talent, with him in the kitchen, I think we have a good chance of earning back our two-star Michelin rating."
Not all the talent is in the kitchen. It takes a singular love, dedication, sacrifice and courage to operate a restaurant the size of Chez TJ. Aviet has a unique eye for the up-and-comers, the chefs de cuisine, the sous chefs waiting to be discovered.
To say Aviet is laser-focused is to state the obvious. His love for the restaurant is deep -- it's been his life for over 30 years. He lives in a small cottage behind the restaurant. Aviet has two daughters, both students in the University of California system and he speaks glowingly of them. But paternal love is different than any other kind of love. Aviet has two ex-wives as well.
"Running a restaurant like this takes a toll," Aviet said. "I do not live luxuriously and have had to cut back on my living expenses when times were difficult. I drive a Prius and do all the work around the restaurant."
His daughters recently admonished him for climbing up a steep ladder to hang Christmas lights from the eaves. "I'm getting too old to be doing this," he said, "but I love it."
938 Villa St., Mountain View,