Features & Columns

Silicon Valley's Michelin Star Machine

George Aviet has an uncanny knack for picking Michelin-star chefs. And when they move on, they win even more stars. What's in his special sauce?
George Aviet Chez TJ's George Aviet. Photograph by Dave Lepori

Chez TJ will turn 30 years old this year. Three decades is a long run for any restaurant, but what's more remarkable is that Chez TJ continues to be a culinary hit maker. The restaurant has become an unlikely training ground for some of the Bay Area's top chefs.

Two thousand and eleven was an especially good year for Chez TJ.

Newly appointed executive chef Joey Elenterio earned one Michelin star. Former chef Joshua Skenes now runs Saison in San Francisco, where he has earned two stars. Ex-chef Bruno Chemel received two stars for his ubermodern cookery at Baume; in Palo Alto.

Christopher Kostow, the chef who garnered Chez TJ its first star, in 2006, held onto his trio of stars at St. Helena's Restaurant at Meadowood—the only other chef in California with three Michelin stars is Thomas Keller of French Laundry fame.

That adds up to eight stars in all for Chez TJ and its graduates—not too shabby for a puny restaurant in downtown Mountain View.

The stars have become increasingly important to Bay Area restaurants. The first Michelin Guide debuted in France in 1900 as a means of promoting travel (and tire sales) to recommended restaurants. It has since grown into what is arguably the premier restaurant rating system in the world, feared and praised alike by chefs. The guide only appeared in the United States in 2005 and covered just New York City. Now the guides rate restaurants in the Bay Area and Chicago as well.

The guide awards one to three stars to top restaurants. One star indicates a "very good cuisine in its category," a two-star ranking represents "excellent cuisine, worth a detour," and three stars are awarded to restaurants offering "exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey." There are only two three-star restaurants in the Bay Area—The French Laundry and the Restaurant at Meadowood. Manresa and Baume; are Silicon Valley's only two-star restaurants. This is the rarified company Chez TJ is keeping.

In many ways, Chez TJ operates like the innovative tech companies in the valley, discovering and nourishing nascent talent—though it does so with cuisine instead of software.

A look at Chez TJ's ongoing recruiting success reveals techniques specific to the restaurant trade yet applicable to any enterprise that thrives on regular infusions of new ideas.

Sometimes, the ability to pick the next innovator out of a crowded field of wannabes is as difficult and important as being a path-breaking creator. In a review of Walter Isaacson's biography of Steve Jobs, Malcolm Gladwell (author of Outliers and The Tipping Point) noted that Jobs' real genius was more "editorial than inventive"; he was a "tweaker" who could see the potential in ideas and people and make them better.

Aviet's track record at Chez TJ is the result of an unusual combination of personal narrative, being at the right place at the right time, intuition and perseverance.

Spotting the next star-worthy chef is as difficult as picking the next great pianist, high jumper or computer engineer. The process probably can't be codified, but Chez TJ's story raises some useful and vital principles behind the art of talent spotting.

chez tj RISING STAR: Chez TJ's chef, Joey Elenterio, is Aviet's latest choice to maintain the restaurant's high-end reputation. Photograph by Felipe Buitrago

Culinary Headhunter

Attracting, encouraging and retaining culinary talent is a challenge, especially with the high cost of living in the Bay Area. High-tech industries can hold out the promise of stock options to young programmers, but restaurants often see their best chefs depart to start places of their own. This inevitable cycle of departure and renewal puts a special premium on the ability to spot talent in the raw.

Jo Lynne Lockley heads San Francisco's Chefs' Professional Agency, a headhunting firm for culinary talent. She tried to find a chef for Aviet once but was unable to uncover someone who would take what he was paying.

Lockley attributes Aviet's knack for finding talent to luck, vision and guile.

"I think he could charm the socks off a baseball player," she says. "But I think he [also] has a sense of what's good. He puts everything into the chef and the kitchen."

Of course, she says that Aviet expects a lot from his chefs: "He hires young chefs who will kill themselves, chefs who will fall dead two inches before the finish line."

It helps to have a large talent pool to fish in, but the odds are running against local restaurateurs these days, Lockley says.

A steady stream of young cooks used to arrive here from New York City, but with the cost of living in the Bay Area on a par with New York that stream has been reduced to a trickle.

Waiters must be paid well, reducing what's available for the kitchen. In spite of record high enrollment, local culinary academies, according to Lockley, aren't turning out enough truly skilled cooks to fill the pipeline that restaurants need.

Aviet himself says he owes his string of good chefs to "luck" and "aggressiveness." While he can't stop chefs when they want to leave, he would prefer they stick around longer. Economics make that difficult.

"Sometimes I wish I had the money to pay them what it takes to live in this valley," he says.

Then there's what Lockley calls the Food Network effect. A new generation of cooks has been raised watching glib chefs yell at hapless staff and preen oncamera. Many young chefs now expect that all they need to do is whisk, chop and look good—and they, too, can be become a great chef, something that Lockley says takes years of work.

"With the Food Network everybody confuses being a chef with being a cook," she says. "It has diluted the pool of available people."

Chefs are made, not born and she says Aviet is doing the right thing by elevating Joey Elenterio from sous chef to chef.

"The way you make a chef is you make a sous chef first," she says. "George is doing the right thing—he's a chef maker."

The Long Road

Chez TJ's success reflects the eye for culinary talent of owner George Aviet. That crucial ability is very much a product of Aviet's biography. Aviet's path to Chez TJ was a circuitous one. He was born in Iran to an Armenian mother and French-English father. His father worked for an oil company, but he left the family before Aviet was born, only to reappear when the boy was 10.

The father paid for Aviet's Catholic school tuition and exposed him to the world of French food, an interest that clearly became part of his life. A psychoanalyst might conclude Aviet is trying to make up for his father's absence by immersing himself in the cuisine of France.

When Aviet was 6, he was severely injured playing with a toy. A piece of metal skewered his back and exited his stomach—another moment rich with symbolic connotations.

He spent 18 months in the hospital and then many months convalescing at home. During that time, he became steeped in his mother and grandmother's Armenian cooking.

Aviet later fled Iran during the run-up to the 1979 Islamist revolution after his family's property was expropriated. He came to the South Bay as an exchange student with the hopes of becoming an engineer.

He enrolled at Canada College, in Redwood City, and worked at a long-gone Menlo Park restaurant called Pear William. That's where he met chef Thomas J. McCombie.

Aviet rediscovered his love for food and service and asked McCombie if he wanted to open a restaurant with him. They named the restaurant Chez TJ, and it opened in 1982.

McCombie invested his savings, and Aviet kicked in all the money he had, which was "not enough money to buy a used car today," he jokes. "I said, 'I don't have any money, but I'll put my life into it,'" Aviet remembers.

He grandmother always encouraged him to take the long view. Longevity is very important to Aviet: "I'll probably die here." The restaurant offered three options: a petit menu for $18, a "moderne" for $22 and the grand menu gastronomique for $38. Today, the menu gastronomique goes for $85. The chef's tasting menu is $120. Tax, tip and wine not included.

At first, McCombie and his wife lived in the house. Then Aviet moved in. As the restaurant's business grew by word of mouth, McCombie and Aviet converted the entire space into the restaurant. McCombie's old bedroom became a dining room; the living room was transformed into a tidy pastry kitchen.

After three decades in the restaurant Aviet, a 55-year-old, voluble man with a thin gray beard and swooped back hair of the same color, says still gets the same pleasure of serving people that he developed as boy.

"I don't feel like I'm working when I'm here," he says.

chez tj MOVING ON: Chef Christopher Kostow put Chez TJ on the map but quickly moved on to St. Helena's Restaurant at Meadowood. Photograph by John Blackwell

Rising Stars

Aviet was playing golf when he got the call. Christopher Kostow, his former chef at Chez TJ, informed him that he had just earned two Michelin stars, making him one of only two Silicon Valley chefs to be so honored—and the first chef at Chez TJ to earn the prestigious designation.

Aviet was thrilled for his skilled chef and for his restaurant. But mostly he was happy for his late business partner and first chef. Thomas J. McCombie, whose initials are enshrined in Chez TJ's name, had died of a heart attack in 1994.

"The first thought that came into my mind was 'Bless Tom,'" Aviet remembers about winning those two stars in 2007. "Because that was his dream. It wouldn't have happened without him."

Kostow had earned one star the year before, and to garner a second star was an emotional moment for the young chef and Aviet.

"It was validation for what he'd been doing for all these years," Kostow says.

For a man who has made it his business to serve people willing to drop hundreds of dollars on a single meal, Aviet lives a simple life.

In order to keep nonfood costs down and give his chefs free reign to order to top-quality ingredients, Aviet does as much work around the restaurant, a building that dates back to 1894, as he can. He makes tables for the dining room. He fixes the stove and unclogs the drains.

His mother planted the kumquat trees in the restaurant's small garden out back. For fun, he limits himself to nine holes of golf early in the morning at Shoreline Golf Links, a public course in Mountain View. "It's like $22 bucks," he says.

Farm Team

When Aviet and McCombie opened the restaurant with their now ex-wives, the Michelin guide did not yet rate restaurants in the United States, but McCombie, who had traveled throughout Europe, aspired to create a Michelin-worthy restaurant, a destination that diners would go out of their way to find.

"We never had the goal of financial success," Aviet says.

The goal, instead, was to provide great food and a memorable dining experience.

"Tom said he would have given his arm for a Michelin star," Aviet recalls. "The poor guy gave his life for it."

After losing his partner, Aviet sought to hire a young chef who could carry on McCombie's legacy. And so began what has become one of the Bay Area's premier farm teams for culinary talent.

Joshua Skenes, who stepped into Chez TJ's famously minute kitchen on New Year's Day in 2004, was one of the restaurant's first prodigies. "I was 24 at that time, which is way too young to be a chef, and how the fuck do you know anything at that level," Skenes says. "It was a very experimental time. It was just off radar enough that it allowed me to really work out my own voice in cooking."

Skenes says the experience helped shape him as a chef. "It was a really small kitchen, and it allowed me to whatever I wanted to do," he explains. "George never placed any restrictions. It was basically do whatever you want and go for it, make it the best. That was a good thing with his attitude, and that's the same way we do it at Saison. There was no limits to anything. It was open book."

Chefs who have worked at Chez TJ say the restaurant provided them with a great opportunity. The restaurant is far enough from San Francisco that talented chefs don't have to compete with a crowded field of competitors and yet close enough to the city that they don't work in obscurity.

Parting Thoughts

Christopher Kostow was Chez TJ's greatest success story. He vaulted the restaurant to fame but left shortly after winning his two Michelin stars. Kostow was too ambitious and too underpaid to stick around long.

Aviet had hired a culinary headhunter who recruited Kostow from San Francisco's Campton Place, where he worked under superchef Daniel Humm.

Humm was leaving Campton Place for New York, and he asked Kostow to come with him. Kostow decided to take the job at Chez TJ, a decision that he says was the right one.

"I wanted to do my own thing, and Chez TJ was a tremendous opportunity," Kostow tells me. "It's a perfect first chef job."

David Kinch, chef and owner of Manresa in Los Gatos, a restaurant with two Michelin stars, introduced Aviet to Bruno Chemel, Chez TJ's next chef.

Chemel, now chef and owner at Baum– in Palo Alto, made a rocky departure from Chez TJ, although both he and Aviet speak of each other with respect.

Chemel took over from Kostow and was charged with earning two stars. Shortly after the restaurant was downgraded to one star in 2008, the maximum a new chef can receive, Chemel announced that he would be leaving to open his own restaurant.

Aviet followed that announcement with a comment that Chemel was "incapable" of earning a second star, a claim that Chemel proved false with his two stars at Baum– in 2011. Chemel's highly technical, avant-garde cooking was out of sync with Chez TJ's antiquated dining room. Baum– has the modern aesthetics to match Chemel's cooking.

Chemel "did what he could do here, and I was very grateful," Aviet says. "But he was ready to leave, and I never stop people when they're ready to go."

A New Cycle

Aviet hired Joey Elenterio, a lanky, aw-shucks 26-year-old who rides an old Kawasaki police motorcycle, to replace the restaurant's last chef, Scott Nishiyama, a veteran of the French Laundry. Elenterio was Nishiyama's sous chef.

"I saw something special with this guy," Aviet says of his decision to hire from within.

While scores of chefs have passed through Chez TJ's kitchen and each has had his own style, there has been a surprising amount of consistency given the high turnover rate.

The food falls well within what has become the defining style among high-end Bay Area restaurants: French, Californian, modern and local. The food is French at its core with a minimalist Japanese aesthetic woven throughout. The presentation and technique are decidedly modern. Gels, foams and sous vide cooking make recurring appearances, but the food draws from seasons and local purveyors.

Chez TJ is in capable hands with Elenterio, but the new chef is still honing his style. His cooking is technically precise, artful and often quite delicious, but he still exhibits a caution and conservatism that separates him from his predecessors.

In any other setting, his cooking would stand apart, but the bar is high at Chez TJ, and his cooking comes off as a bit tame. But that may be a strength.

Aviet has a history of hiring chefs who aren't fully formed and allowing them to grow on the job. A chef who thinks he already knows everything probably wouldn't last very long in Chez TJ's small kitchen.

But all of Aviet's chefs leave sooner or later—it is part of a process that keeps the restaurant interesting. But it might be a boon to have Elenterio buck that trend.

Aviet won't take on any investors because he says doesn't want anyone telling him that his chefs are spending too much money on food. But he is open to the idea of having a chef-partner, something he resisted in the past.

"I'm ready for that," he said. "That's why I gave Joey the opportunity when he was young."

Jeff Cianci contributed to this story.