LA Chef Vartan Abygaryan

(Originally published January  11, 2013 on Examiner.com).

Note since this article was originally published, Chef Vartan left Cliff’s Edge.

With many restaurant customers becoming more adventurous in Los Angeles due to pop-ups and other new chef driven concepts pushing the envelope, more established restaurants – often with new chefs- are now refining their menus to appeal to these more adventuresome consumers. One such restaurant, Cliff’s Edge at the end of 2012 recently added Chef Vartan Abgaryan to their kitchen. Chef Abgaryan with Cliff’s Edge’s owners’ encouragement is now putting some very distinctive items on its menu (see related story). In his cooking on this menu, Abgaryan’s upbringing and training are reflected in his food which includes seasonally fresh ingredients and things that taste good to him that Vartan believes his patrons will enjoy too.

In 1991 Abgaryan’s entire family moved from Armenian to North Hollywood shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union when Abgaryan was nine years of age. Growing up in an Armenian household in Southern California, Vartan was exposed not only to his family’s cooking but also to the wide variety of cuisine in this region. Thus things that taste good to this chef include flavors from his ancestry and his environment as well as his later training at Cordon Bleu in Vegas and the other restaurants he’s worked in as line, sous and executive chefs including Andre’s and Lutece in Vegas, the late Red Pearl Kitchen, A Restaurant in Newport Beach, and his last prior stop Public Kitchen & Bar at the Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood.

According to Vartan, Armenian food due to a history of dislocation is diluted. His family originally left Armenia due to the Turkish genocide before returning to Armenia after World War II. When they returned, they brought back cooking affected by both Greek and Lebanese influences. Abgaryan incorporates a few of these ingredients like lebni, za’atar and sumac into some of his dishes so his California cuisine centered around fresh ingredients does on occasion have a slight Armenian twist. Though again since Abgaryan has been here so long, he’s been affected by so many different ingredients, flavors, and cuisines.

Immediately prior to joining Cliff’s Edge, Vartan enjoyed working at his last position. as executive chef of Public Kitchen & Bar. This position was one of many he worked at under the direction of Tim Goodell. Given Public Kitchen’s customer base, however Vartan felt he had topped out with what he could do menu wise in this hotel restaurant environment that shared its cooking line with room and pool side service.

So a change of scenery where he could focus, and develop was an opportunity he could not pass up.

After being recommended to, and having several interviews with Cliff’s Edge’s owners, a move for Chef Abgaryan to this Silver Lake destination made a lot of sense. Cliff’s Edge’ owners wanted to raise the level of their cuisine and be more current with what’s happening now food wise, though at the same time didn’t want to jar their existing loyal customer base with too fast of a transformation of their menu. So a month prior to starting last December, Vartan went to work reexamining Cliff’s Edge’s menu to determine how he could improve it. After a tasting with the owners, every one was on board with the refinement Chef Abgaryan wanted to make to the menu.

So after starting, with his refined menu introduced, Chef Abgaryan kept the prior menu’s structure as well as many of the prior dishes key ingredients. He though changed a number of the details particularly with how dishes are prepared. He also introduced a number of specials, one week days, and two on weekends. Many items like rabbit and venison he didn’t expect to sell, have sold well and been placed on the menu. The venison with its higher price point (due to its higher cost) sold twelve covers on its first night offered. Vartan was shocked.

With specials, Vartan gets immediate response from the customers. Vartan also plays close attention to what does and doesn’t sell. As Cliff’s Edge’s menu further evolves other transformations of slower selling items and ingredients like chicken will be replaced with replaced with more distinctive ones like guinea fowl reflecting how much more adventuresome many of Los Angeles restaurant patrons’ palates have become.

Chef Abgaryan dishes also reflect what’s the most fresh and in season switching out many ingredients that don’t taste as good out of season or that have to be sourced from far away. To maximize freshest, Cliff’s Edge is even in the process of turning a large adjacent plot they own into a garden for fresh vegetables. Like many young chefs Abygaryan, inspired by chefs like Noma’s Reni Redzepi, is focusing more on vegetables, thinking of meat as a component or even condiment on his dishes. For example, thinking first what Abgaryan can do during winter with root or other vegetables that are in season and then what meats he can pair with these items. Thus a lot of Cliff’s Edge menu can be made vegetarian or vegan with a subtraction of an item or two.

Cliff’s Edge menu transformation though isn’t limited to the food and sourcing, the transformation impacts also back of house (kitchen) and front of house (serving) operations. In a month or so, Cliff’s Edge will have a new sous chef to help further give direction to the back of house so that plating too will be more precise, focused and consistent. Since everything is still new with a new chef, right now the existing line cooks are still developing some of the finesse required to plate Chef Vartan’s menu.

Serving the menu too is something different for the front of house staff many of whom have been with Cliff’s Edge for years. So the often jovial Vartan has not only been realistic with his expectations, he’s developed methods to get his determined front of house staff up to speed. For example the chef has created a menu log hard copy file with pictures of the plates complete with lists of items and components including a glossary of any word his front of house staff doesn’t understand. As new items are added to the menu, new pages are added to this log

Since Cliff’s Edge is already an ongoing and popular location, Chef Abygaryan didn’t have months to prepare the menu and train both front and back of house staff like he would have had opening up a new location. Though even though he started during the holidays, Cliff’s Edge peak season is not during the winter since so much of its seating is outdoors in its beautiful courtyard. So Chef Abgaryan is using this slower time to get all of his menu items, and training in place to be fully prepared for the spring, summer and other warmer months when he has a lot more covers he’ll need to produce out of his kitchen.

With what Vartan has done thus far, both refining existing menu items and introducing new ones, restaurant goers will not only want to keep a close eye on what comes from Cliff’s Edge’s kitchen, they’ll also want to visit again and again, since the menu will constantly be evolving, especially since Chef Abgaryan strives to make each dish better than the one that preceded it. His creativity, drive and passion, simply won’t let him settle for anything less.

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