Last month, Bon Appétit named AL's Place in San Francisco's Mission District the country's best new restaurant. For chef Aaron London—whose initials comprise the "AL" in the restaurant's name—it's been a long time coming, starting with his stint as a dishwasher in a Northern California town of just 450 people and one stop sign. Sometimes, you've got to lie, get kneed in the chest, and wring a whole lot of frozen spinach to get to where you want to be.
My first job was working in an earring factory in the woods near where I grew up. I'd sit there and take the backings, and I'd stamp them with a little stamp, for four hours a day, that said "Made in Thailand." Grab and stamp, grab and stamp. The other half of the day, I'd go through the earrings, stick them on the backings, and put them in a box.
For a year or so, that's what I did. I was living in Graton. I grew up mostly in a super-small town of about 450 people in west Sonoma County. It's literally a one-stop-sign town. My mom was from Montreal, so we tried moving there for a while, but it didn't quite catch. so we moved back to Graton. And where I worked, the factory outlet, was in the woods outside of town.
I also got my first cooking job there. When I was 14, I got a job as a dishwasher at a Mexican food restaurant in town that was actually owned by my second-grade Spanish teacher, Mario.
He was kind of cheap. He either didn't want me to use the hot water, or the hot water didn't work. So you can imagine dishes that have bright red grease on them—trying to wash them with ice-cold water while it congeals. It's hard. I'd just crush on dishes as hard as I could so that as soon as it got clear, I could hop in and chop tomatoes for the pico de gallo guy, or I could help to form tamales. I could maybe even jump into the front-of-house and bus some tables. Interacting with guests—even if it was just bussing a table—was awesome for me. Then I got a lead for a dishwasher job at a fancier Greek restaurant.
I mean, they had hot water and shit. It was an upgrade.
I would do the same thing—crush the dishes as fast as I could, then jump in and see if I could do something like pick up prep, learn recipes.
Luckily or unluckily, the chef there at the time really liked to party … all the time. Service would start and I'd be doing dishes, and I'd be like, Where is that guy? I'd look, and he'd be lying down on the ground under the line, totally passed out. We'd all say, "Fuck, he's passed out again, we've got to do this," and I'd jump in and start working on the line. I pushed myself into a prep position because I had gotten really interested in cooking.
So after some time, I was like, "Look guys, can I not be a dishwasher anymore? Chef's on the floor again."
That place isn't open anymore.
As a Greek restaurant, we went through a lot of frozen spinach there. I would spend a couple of hours a day just thawing and wringing out frozen spinach. You just squeeze it and squeeze it. My hands were super cold, and you'd be literally ripping through towels. I would also fold phyllo rectangles all day. I was always doing the same shit, but I learned attention to detail.
So then I heard about this restaurant that was supposed to be the best restaurant in the area. It was in Santa Rosa, the big city near us, about 30 minutes away. The restaurant was called Mixx, and I went there for dinner with my girlfriend at the time.
It was kind of life-changing. Because growing up, that wasn't the food I was eating. My mom would make brown rice, tofu, no salt, no oil, none of that. I once claimed to be vegetarian for a year because all I ate was French fries and Jolt cola.
At Mixx, we ate a bunch of stuff I'd never had before. Steak with blue cheese compound butter, roasted bell peppers, fingerling potatoes, and a Bordelaise sauce. At that point, I didn't even have the conception in my mind that food tastes good; I just thought it was something you had to put in your mouth. I was like, "Oh my god, this is incredible." Right then and there, I set my eyes on working there.
I eventually got my way in there, which took a considerable amount of lying, straight up. How I went about it—I was 15 or 16 at this point—was that I went to the local junior college and they had a relatively decent culinary program there. I showed up and looked at what they had to offer, and they had an "Intensive Advanced Culinary Class," with all these pre-reqs. Even though I was a prep cook at the time, I said, "I'm the sous chef at this great restaurant, and I've been working there for so long." Somehow, I lied my way into this advanced class.
Everyone else in the class was in their 30s or 40s and had been cooking for a long time. I totally sucked. I was the worst in the class. I burned everything and screwed everything up, barely passed, but still thought that I was good somehow.
Anyway, we went and did this Meals on Wheels event in Santa Rosa as part of the class. There was a bunch of restaurants involved, and I saw a guy with a Mixx shirt in. I came up to him and said, "Hey, do you work at Mixx? I really want to work there!" And he looked at me and kind of laughed, and said, "Yeah, I'm Dan Berman. I'm the chef-owner of Mixx."
So I started talking to him, and I kept telling him these stories like, "Oh, I'm the sous chef at this Greek restaurant, really fancy, and I'm about to pass in the top of my class in this intensive culinary program, and I want a job." So he was like, "Alright."
So he took me in and gave me a chance, and that was my first actual line cook position. That was my first time following ticketed orders, using my brain to remember things, having to actually finish dishes. You build them, you put them up, they have to be good.
I still sucked really bad, but the sous chef, Lawrence, really took me under his wing big-time. He had been around the block, had cooked in New York for a long time. He saw that I sucked, but that I was passionate and driven and energetic and really wanted to be there. There weren't a lot of other cooks that were like that.
He gave me all his old cookbooks: Charlie Trotter books and L'Art Culinaire, which he had read a million times, and the French Laundry cookbook when it came out, which was super influential. I was going to this continuation school, and we didn't really have to do anything. I'd bring in cookbooks and read them in my chair and not cause any trouble, and it made my teachers happy, so I passed school even though I wasn't doing any schoolwork.
In two years, I was 17 years old and had moved up to being sous chef at this restaurant, creating my own dishes. I had my first review where it actually had my name in the article. The reviewer gave us five stars, and that led me to my experience at Daniel.
After two and a half years, I left Mixx and moved to New York, went to culinary school, and went to extern at Daniel. On my first night, they put me on the canopy station, and I was like "Hey, this canopy station's fine, but I was a sous chef at the last restaurant I was at. You should put me on grill station." And that was when Alex Lee just looked at me and started laughing. I think he thought, I'm gonna fucking kill this guy.
For no reason. I'd be minding my own business, and he'd look over and yell, "Calm the fuck down!" Then he'd come over and start kneeing me in the chest. This was, like, every day. He would knee me in the chest like a muay thai fighter. He would get in my face and just start yelling louder and louder until he was screaming.
After dinner, I'd just feel like a used-up tissue. I was 18. I think it was important that it happened then, because if someone tried to pull that now, I'd be like, "Fuck you." But I needed to hear it. I had potential, but I was confident that I was good, and maybe I needed to be thrown in the dirt. I was young, cocky, and undisciplined. After that, it set things in motion.
I look back and think that as shitty everything was, it was necessary for things to fall into place. Along the way I was like, "Was this the right choice? Should I have done something different?"
But when it comes down to it, now I have my own restaurant. I love it so much. It's my baby. It feels like and smells like and looks like what I want it to. I have to say now that the shitty times I've gone through were all part of the butterfly effect. If I had done one tiny thing differently, maybe it would have changed everything. If every decision led to this, they must have been the right decisions. It kind of gives you a sense of invincibility. I want to say thank you to everybody, thank you for everything. This is what I always wanted.
As told to Hilary Pollack