Will Aghajanian and Liz Johnson Take The Catbird Seat
Will Aghajanian and Liz Johnson are no strangers — neither to the kitchen, nor to one another. The two chefs have been cooking together on and off for about five years now, but between the two of them, they’ve amassed more than 20 years of professional kitchen experience. And they’re only in their mid-20’s.
The two first met at Noma in Copenhagen, where they were accepted to work in the two-Michelin-star restaurant as stages. Common in the restaurant industry, a “stage” is an unpaid position similar to an internship in which the goal is simply to learn and gain experience. When it comes to the culinary field, the experience gained from working at an acclaimed restaurant such as Noma is worth a lot more than any paycheck.
Will and Liz wound up working on the same station at Noma — snacks — and have continued to work closely since. “We worked really long days,” recalled Liz, “...but I just felt like, if I’m here, I’m going to work my ass off and get everything out of it that I can.” Day and night, the two cooked side by side, and in doing so, formed a bond. With their shared experience, similar work ethic, and unmatched adoration for cooking and food, it was only a matter of time before they opened a restaurant of their own - together.
In the Fall of 2015, Liz and Will opened Mimi, a contemporary French restaurant in New York City. Although neither had a stake in the spot, it was their first restaurant to launch together, so there was a lot on the line. Shortly following the opening, a glowing review came out, tipping off New Yorkers to their unknown French gem, tucked away in Soho, and soon thereafter countless favorable reviews followed. It was a success, and the two were elated. But eventually, Liz got a new job opportunity...on the other side of the country. In the end, they both decided to head west, sights set on Los Angeles. Will went to cook at an upscale, modern restaurant, while Liz became the chef of Jewish delicatessen called Freedman’s — a gig that earned her the title of one of Food & Wine’s Best New Chefs in 2018.
Two years later and with one more cross-country trip under their belts, the two have made their way to Nashville, where they’re teaming up to cook something tasty and offer a dining experience unlike any other. Liz and Will have taken the reigns at The Catbird Seat, where they’ll put their own spin on Nashville’s premier tasting restaurant, and for the first time in their careers, showcase their culinary prowess in front of watchful diners.
Will Aghajanian — that’s /æ-guh-jay-knee-uhn/ — first started working in kitchens when he was fourteen years old. “I just liked cooking ... and I wasn’t very good at school,” he said. He found his first kitchen job at CityZen, a formal dining restaurant located inside the Mandarin Oriental Washington hotel in Washington DC, and ended up staying there for a fairly extensive time: five years. He had no idea when he began that both the restaurant and the chef, Eric Ziebold (formerly of The French Laundry), would have such a massive impact on what would eventually become his career. Not only was Will exposed to flavors and ingredients that were avant garde for the time — for example, sea urchin, shirako, and Wagyu beef, none of which had even been introduced in the majority of restaurants across the country at that point — but he also garnered the foundation of his culinary training and knowledge at CityZen.
“I think that since I was so young when I started cooking, a lot of my memories are flavors that I had there [at CityZen],” he recalled. “For me, cooking is basically an accumulation of all those different experiences and memories — but CityZen was definitely the place where I learned how to cook.”
After five years at CityZen, Will packed up his knives, bid DC farewell, and traveled around the world, eager to work and continue his culinary education. From Spain, to Japan, to Copenhagen, to France, he found restaurants in which he could continue to expand his skillset. “I was working at a bunch of different restaurants and kitchens, but not all of them were high-end [like CityZen]. Some places would be, you know, a place that grills turbot. And I would just go work there and learn how they grilled fish.”
Liz, on the other hand, learned the foundations of cooking in school. Although she didn’t start working in professional kitchens to distract from her distaste for math and science, she did finish high school early so that she could get to work in kitchens sooner. “It was basically a point of my life when I decided I was either going to go to normal college, or I was gonna cook. And my mom was actually the one who supported me on getting out early, so I doubled up on all of my classes and I graduated in what would be something like halfway through my senior year.”
Shortly after enrolling in a few culinary courses at the community college in her hometown, Liz was accepted to the Culinary Institute of America, and upon graduating with her culinary degree, she moved to Boston. Using a website called bostonchefs.com, Liz had the ability to browse through every chef in Boston, and figure out where — and with whom — she wanted to work. “I remember reading about a chef named Jamie Bissonnette, who was the chef of a restaurant called Toro. I was like, ‘This is so cool. He’s using bone marrow and I’ve never even heard of that before!’” As luck would have it, out of the 15 different restaurants where Liz dropped off her resume, Toro was the only one that got back to her. “So, it was kind of meant to be,” she said.
Following her time at Toro, Liz spent a brief stint in New York City before heading to Copenhagen. She returned to The States thereafter, and continued pushing herself and working to unfold [what has become a relatively short yet extremely successful] career. “Cooking is something I’ve always wanted to do,” she said. “I’ve never truly had any other backup plan.”
What is the best meal you’ve ever eaten? Could you even quantify that?
LIZ: I couldn’t quantify that, because like…literally…I just…?
WILL: There’s definitely...well, I mean...man… That’s really hard. I actually have menus broken down of you know, “This would be the perfect meal.” But it’s made up of different dishes from different people.
LIZ: I’m sorry...I just don’t think I can really answer this.
WILL: Okay. El Capricho is my favorite meal.
LIZ: Oh, wait! I know mine: the turkey leg I ate at the New York Renaissance Fair in 2017. It was perfect.
What would be your death row meal?
LIZ: Oh, something junky. Like, Cheetos or something.
You would exclusively eat Cheetos?
WILL: I would want like a Johnny Bravo-style stack of pancakes. But I need syrup in between each pancake. Because usually in the pictures they only pour syrup over the top, which doesn’t make sense. Because then in reality when you get to the bottom of the stack, you’re eating a very dry pancake. And I don’t want that.
LIZ: Okay, here’s the thing: if someone is preparing my last meal, I would need something that’s mass-produced so that I know it would turn out how I expect it. So I’d just want a massive bag of Cheddar Jalapeño Cheetos, and a Coca-Cola, and… I don’t know what else. I want salty. So, I’d add a hot dog. That’s what I want. That’s like my hangover meal, also. I’d like a Pearl Hot Dog out of Boston on a potato bun, bag of Cheetos, and a Coca-Cola. That’s my last meal. Cause figure like, the prison guard is making your last meal?
WILL: But prison guards make good pancakes, you know?
LIZ: That’s true.
For the record, I’m pretty sure you can request alcohol. Because...it’s your last meal, so I think they’ll be a little bit humane and let you drink booze.
LIZ: Oh! In that case...
WILL: Piña Colada.
LIZ: I’ll add a six pack of PBR.
What’s your go-to fast food?
LIZ: Chick Fil-A. Or I really like Bojangles, too.
WILL: Uhmmm….Liz, what fast food do I like? I don’t know, I don’t eat much fast food. I like Taco Bell — eat it about once a year. And I feel like that’s gross.
What’s your favorite city in the U.S.?
LIZ: I like New York City.
WILL: Yeah, I like New York — but I like visiting New York. I wouldn’t want to live there.
LIZ: Exactly. I do think New York has a buzz about it that you can’t find anywhere else. Like, everybody there is pushing for something greater and I never really felt that [same energy] in LA. It’s like that’s where you kind of go to...I dunno...live.
WILL: LA is less stressful. LA feels like a weight has been lifted, and New York feels like somebody put a 20 pound vest on you and you’re like...grinding.
So, okay then if you could choose one place to retire, where would you retire in the US?
LIZ: I don’t think I would want to retire in a city.
WILL: Maine. Or Chicago. I like Chicago, too.
LIZ: That’s our end goal — Maine — so I’ll stick with that. I also like Boston a lot so shout out to Boston.
Favorite band or musician?
LIZ: Okay, I like a lot of bands and artists. I really like Meshuggah, they’re a death metal band from Sweden. I’ve also been really listening to a band called Animals as Leaders recently.
WILL: I like Bob Dylan. There’s also a kind of ambient band called Russian Circles that’s good.
Wow. That’s quite the spectrum of musical tastes, between you two. So if y’all were to turn some music on while you’re at home, what would you listen to?
LIZ: Neither of these things.
BOTH: Kanye West.
LIZ: Yeah, so that or rap. I think that’s something that we agree on. But we kind of take turns.
WILL: She doesn’t like my music and I don’t like her music.
LIZ: No, that’s not true!
WILL: We will do it sometimes, but we both agree 60% on rap.
Okay, so I’m guessing rap is what you would play while y’all are prepping for service in the kitchen?
WILL: We don’t listen to music while we prep.
LIZ: Yeah, no.
Coke or Pepsi?
Whiskey or Gin?
Wine or Beer?
LIZ: You like wine better, come on.
WILL: Okay, wine…
Still or Sparkling?
Coffee or Tea?
LIZ: I mean, I’m double fisting right now.
*It should be noted that Liz ordered a cup of coffee before our meeting and told the server, “I’ll take it black… like my soul.”
Cats or Dogs?
LIZ: Caaa...Dogs? I don’t like that question! Dogs.
Apples or Oranges?
WILL: Apples. Uhhhh…..where are they from??
LIZ: Well, sometimes apples can be so bad!
WILL: Los Angeles oranges; Maine apples!
LIZ: I would say apples. I’m from New York.
City or Country?
LIZ: Damn, dude! I just don’t have a clarified answer!
Hot Tub or Swimming Pool?
LIZ: Swimming pool.
WILL: Hot tub.
Ocean or Lake?
LIZ: Ocean. Lakes are gross, come on.
WILL: Pool. I like the clean, sterile water.
LIZ: You know, I was just thinking about my last meal...imagine if you ordered something and they screwed it up though? Like if I ordered a grilled cheese and they put the wrong cheese on it? I would be so bummed out.