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 Cañada 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.
Chef Jarad Gallagher
Jarad Gallagher is a second-generation chef whose early introduction to cooking began with a profound interest in his father’s trade. He nurtured this curiosity by studying an endless procession of cookbooks and taking advantage of any opportunity to learn from professionals around him, though it was his Seattle roots which .exposed him to the incredible way in which fishing, farming, hunting and foraging coalesce into remarkable food. This knowledge aided him in becoming an expert in selecting the finest products available, from an opulent assortment of the rarest ingredients around the world to local goods at the peak of their season. His immense appreciation for food’s social aspects, particularly its extraordinary ability to bring people together, has hugely impacted what he considers his purpose as a chef. With his cooking he strives to create a symphony of highs, lows, and middles that invokes emotion in guests and keeps them actively engaged in not just their meal, but their company as well. Integral to Gallagher’s success as a chef, as well as his passion for food’s social aspects, was his time spent in Europe employed at many of France and London’s most elite restaurants, where he began to view food as a representation of culture. In the past ten years every restaurant Chef Gallagher has worked at has earned a Michelin star, including Michael Mina, One Market and Plumed Horse. For four years he has dedicated endless time and determination to continuing the tradition of maintaining Michelin star standards at Chez TJ.
Sommelier Erika Szot
An Arizona native, Sommelier Erika Szot’s passion for wine began with a trip to Germany when she was thirteen. The German monasteries and hillside vineyard immediately mesmerized Erika and her interest sparked. It was there that she realized the importance of food and wine in cultural identity. She returned stateside to study biochemistry and physics and took breaks to backpack the world for more inspiration including France, Portugal, Hong Kong and Chile.
A brief tasting from a mutual friend introduced her to the Northern Michigan wine industry in early 2014. After some further research, she took a winery internship at Left Foot Charley Urban Winery, in Traverse City. Winemaker Bryan Ulbrich mentored her from daily cellar work to tasting room representation. The mentorship in the region was incredible, and she cannot thank the regions wine tastings and dedicated community enough. She learned the importance of soil and weather and the conclusive decision of vinificiation style. Intensive studying allowed her to pass the Certified Sommelier exam from the Court of Master Sommeliers.
In 2015, she returned to California to be mentored by the prior Beverage Director, James La Mar at Chez TJ. She is proud to be the current director and to bring her story full circle: offering appreciation of food and wine for cultural identity.