New Haven’s Accidental Eatery

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The Colombian chef  who found surprising success on College Street

" /files//#here">IMG_0046Avi Szapiro, 34 is the chef and co-owner of one of New Haven’s most ambitious new restaurants, Roia, at 261 College Street. Szapiro grew up in Bogota, Colombia, then relocated to France at age 18 to apprentice in French restaurants with the goal of attending a French culinary school. Eventually he would chose a U.S. cooking school instead — the renowned Culinary Institute of America in " Park, N.Y. After jobs at restaurants in Colombia, California, London and India, Szapiro decided to start a new restaurant in New Haven serving a menu ‘with currents flowing through both the French and Italian traditions,’ he explains. Roia opened in March in a large renovated space that once housed the dining room of the Taft Hotel. The initial reviews of the food and the space have been very positive by patrons and the media. We asked Szapiro his still-young career and why he chose New Haven.

You knew at a young age you wanted to pursue a career as a chef. Was this in your family background?

No. My grandfather had a well-known bakery but I guess people really liked cooking in my family. My brother use to be in to cooking when we were growing up. Then I started cooking for friends, and friends really enjoyed it.  And at 15 or 16 I took a job at a hotel prepping [food], and I enjoyed it. I went back "/files click here I graduated high school. [The hotel] had a lot of great chefs and it became clear that was what I wanted to do.

Where did you get your formal training?

The Culinary Institute of America. My brothers were living in New York, and I would go every weekend to New York and I would go to the restaurants and ask the chefs if I could ‘trail.’ That’s a term "site//mbien">cheap use in the industry — you work for free — and I got into some really great kitchens that way.

Were there evident qualities that these successful restaurants had in common?
Absolutely. There is certain kitchens that had a particular kind of discipline and focus. Everyone is there because they really want to be there, and understand youÂ’re there to provide a top quality and people [there] were committed to that. There is a common agreement about standards.

You mentioned that in California you learned the value of sourcing food locally. Is that harder to do here in Connecticut?
I don’t think it is hard, but like any relationship it takes time and effort. We are establishing good relationships now with Starlight Farms [in Durham], with the Yale sustainable farm [off Edwards street in New Haven] and a new relationship we’ve been establishing with Darling Farms, a small, up- and-coming farm in Woodbridge. And we go to the farmers market regularly.

Is this a new approach by restaurants?

Yes and no. It has been around for a long time, restaurants [chefs] going to farms for our products. The farm-to-table movement has gotten a lot more attention lately. You get to know [farmers] and they teach you so much. Now there are many events that are taking place between farmers and chefs; I am still get just getting my feet wet. But I have heard from other chefs in the area that there is a great network.

At one time you also had a truffle import business. How did that come about?

My visa was expiring after CIA, so I worked in London. Eventually I came back to the U.S. and [started] a consulting business and worked at the Interlaken Inn [in Lakeville, Connecticut] and also established with some friends a truffle business. We starting bringing truffles in; we would source them in Spain. We would go with our backpack, and three changes of clothing, we had a connection [with a truffle hunter]. We would come back with a several kilos of truffles. Our whole intention was not to make a business out of it but to get into great kitchens. It is a tricky business: There are people that control it, and they don’t want newbies coming in. But it was fun.

Running a restaurant business requires very different skills than just being a good chef. How did you learn the business side?

I worked for a not-for-profit that teaches mediation globally. I started working in the food service [industry]. There I learned to cook volume and logistics. That was my most forming experience in my career — what I learned about business, what I learned about teamwork, treating people, leadership.

So it wasn’t just the glamour of being a chef and creating great food?

It’s the team that creates the success. I learned about cost control because I was able to share how to purchase. When you’re not doing it for profit, managing your cost becomes critical, and the tools [you learn as well]. Because everyone truly worked together for the success of the organization. It was very open, and in that openness there was rigorous elements to make sure you were doing best. No one got offended when you were questioned, you could go into the question — ‘Why did this happen this way?’ It came from the true intention of ‘How can we make this better?’ One of the things I learned is to think beyond the immediate and [about] what is the success of the long term.

At a certain point you said, ‘I want to do my own restaurant.’ And that would eventually lead you to New Haven.

More than what type of restaurant, I was thinking where [to locate it]. I was thinking back to Colombia, another option was Miami, where my brothers are and we [with wife Meera, the company’s chief operating officer] were thinking Brooklyn, and thought California. We were exploring different ideas, and what type of restaurant. I had been working with Indian food for the past seven years so I was thinking Indian food, and we thought French because this was a passion. But more than the type of food it was what we wanted to achieve as a life goal — something sustainable and that was economically feasible.

But why did you choose this exotic place called New Haven?

We tend to think New Haven picked us. I was doing a consulting job in Portland, Me. and was traveling from Brooklyn [to Maine]. A friend said I have this place [restaurant space on College Street]. He said, ‘We’re about to launch a new venture — check it out.’ So on my way to Portland I stopped at the restaurant, which is this one [before it was renovated]. Before I really got started [his group] dissolved their effort. I was enjoying the consulting, going to different restaurants, it was well-paying. My friend [partner Francis Moezinia] said, ‘I’m going to take over the space; do you want to come in as the operator?’ I liked the space, it has its benefits and challenges. We committed to a full renovation — in my eyes the most economically viable option]. Usually when you do a restaurant, you have a concept and then you find the space. This was the opposite: Here’s the space first, then put together the concept.

How did you get comfortable that New Haven was a good place to make this personal and financial investment?
My first impression was right after the St. Patrick’s Day parade [in March 2011]. I came into New Haven and saw many places that were boarded up. [But] I saw opportunity. There was a sense of fear — ‘Will this place turn around or go down?’ The more I talked to people and did my own research I realized there was a renaissance going on.

This is a very large space for a first restaurant, though, and several restaurants have failed in this space before you.

When I brought someone here to this space, [they] would say, ‘What are you thinking?’ It is a huge undertaking and I had never done construction [management] before. With construction my partner was standing there with me. It took about nine and a half months, total.

At some point you had to decide to return this space back toward its original design. The first restaurant in this space, Hot Tomatoes, was in a modern style. What drove that decision?

I think the space was what directed the concept. In my personal opinion you can’t come to a space that is 101 years old and has a tradition and not pay attention to it. You can see the bones of this. You have to talk to the space and see what the space wants. You become a steward of the space — not ‘Here’s what I’m going to do’ and tear everything apart. It was a dialogue with the space. As I got along we contact Grayling Design in New York City. We couldn’t afford to do the project with them A to Z, but they helped us with a layout.

You opened in March. How do you feel about the reception you’ve received?

People have said we’ve done an incredible job. People [in city government] said they were grateful how we honored the space and made it a place people would want to be in. People in the industry were amazing. Glen [Greenberg] from the Owl Shop, Bun Lai from Miya, Jason [Soboconski] from Caseus have been incredible supporters. Same as Donna [Curran] from Zinc, John Ginetti from Crown 116, Jason and Tim Cabral from Ordinary. I couldn’t say enough.

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