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Meet Aitor Zabala of Somni in Beverly Hills

Today we’d like to introduce you to Aitor Zabala.

Aitor, let’s start with your story. We’d love to hear how you got started and how the journey has been so far.
I was born in Barcelona in 1979 to a Basque family. My grandfather was a professional soccer player on the Barcelona team, so they emigrated there. In Basque country, we have lot of culture and heritage around food. I grew up in a restaurant – my grandma and my mom had restaurants. When I was young, my mom would never let me go inside the kitchen, but when I turned 17, I went into the army (it was mandatory in Spain to spend one year in the army), and they put me in the kitchen. I was a cook for one month and I loved it, so when I went back home, I told my grandmother and mother and sister that I wanted to go to culinary school. In Basque Country, the matriarchy is a powerful thing – the women control everything. Once I received their blessing, I went to culinary school and started my career.

While I was in school, I started working weekends at a restaurant, and during the summer, I would stage in Michelin-starred restaurants. In 1999, I finished my culinary studies and I had a feeling that I was a chef… what a mistake; I was still far, far away from becoming one. Someone offered me a position to open a restaurant, which was a really big deal, but it ended up not being what was originally promised to me. So, I started to work in other high-end restaurants, starting with Café de La Princesa in Barcelona. After one year, I called the chef at Akelarre (three-Michelin stars) and flew to San Sebastian to meet him. I asked for a job, but he told me I had no experience, so I offered to work for him without pay for six months, with a promise that if I did well, he would hire me. After six months, he finally offered me a job. After 2 ½ years, I moved back to Barcelona and worked in a five-star hotel. In the meantime, I met with Ferran Adria from El Bulli – my boss in San Sebastian put in a good word for me, so I was able to stage there. I was 23 years old at the time. I waited for El Bulli to offer me a job, but the timing wasn’t right, so I worked at two other Michelin-starred restaurants in Barcelona— Abac and Alkimia. Finally, when I was 27 years old, El Bulli offered me the job of Chef de Partie.

It was a big move for me that seemed like a step down in terms of the position, but the opportunity to work there was so exciting and something inside me told me I needed to be there. For four years, I worked all the stations, as well as in the test kitchen, and helped develop dishes. During the winter break, when the restaurant closed, Ferran [Adria] helped his staff arrange stages in other kitchens. At that time in my life, I wanted to leave Barcelona; I wanted to go see the world. Ferran said Anthony Bourdain was coming to visit with Chef Jose Andres, so he recommended I talk to Jose and maybe he would bring me with him to the U.S. It worked out and I went to Washington D.C. with Jose and saw what he was doing there.

Twelve years ago, it was a much smaller company – The Bazaar hadn’t even opened in LA yet, they were still developing the concept. In March of that year, I went back to El Bulli for three more years in the test kitchen. When Ferran said he was going to close the restaurant, I decided to leave and further my own career, because there was really no way for me to grow there anymore. I was broke, I had no job, I started traveling, and people helped me while I decided what I wanted to do. I sent my resume to Reuben Garcia, the creative director of ThinkFoodGroup and Jose’s right hand. Once Jose found out, he insisted I come work for him. So I moved there in 2010 to work with Jose and help them open new projects in Las Vegas, Miami, Puerto Rico, Minibar, and Jaleo. I was also in charge of E by Jose Andres in Las Vegas. After spending some time on the West Coast, I told Jose I wanted to move to LA to help with The Bazaar. I fell in love with the city, the weather, everything. I became responsible for the culinary component of all Jose’s restaurants on the West Coast and really focused on Saam, which opened right after The Bazaar at the SLS Hotel in Beverly Hills. Somni started with an idea in 2015, and we opened in March 2018.

Overall, has it been relatively smooth? If not, what were some of the struggles along the way?
It was hard – it’s still hard. Being a chef there are always a lot of struggles. Money, family, friends, timing, everything – relationships. You spend so many hours in the kitchen. This industry is painful. You are working so many hours, handling a million problems – your own plus the restaurant. What they pay you is less than what you give to it. But you do this because you love to make people happy through your work.

Somni – what should we know? What do you guys do best? What sets you apart from the competition?
Somni is a small, beautiful restaurant – we’ve put a lot of effort in the last few years to build and evolve the place. The idea of the restaurant is to give the guest an overall experience where they can interact, and not only fill your stomachs but fill your head with ideas. Maybe you leave the restaurant knowing something more. People have a good time, and we feed them well, but they leave with something else – knowledge. For example, we educate them throughout the meal about the ingredients, techniques, and everything they are experiencing.

I’m proud to own a restaurant in the back of another restaurant. We inspire the staff to work hard and follow their dreams and make it true in a really short time. I am proud that the staff believes in us and follow us.

What sets us apart is our team. We don’t have a distinction between cooks and servers at Somni – everyone does everything. We try to be approachable. When you are here, you feel comfortable. We have broken the barriers – you don’t have to come in dressed a certain way. Food doesn’t taste better if you wear a gold tie. We want to take out the formality out of fine dining.

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Image Credit:
Credit Jill Paider

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