Jemiko L. Solo of Senza Gluten: “When in doubt, believe in yourself ”

When in doubt, believe in yourself — This is the best advice I can give. If you don’t believe in yourself, who will? During difficult times or when you are doubting yourself, think about the many people that have tasted your food and smiled. As a chef, you make so many people happy each and every day. […]

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When in doubt, believe in yourself — This is the best advice I can give. If you don’t believe in yourself, who will? During difficult times or when you are doubting yourself, think about the many people that have tasted your food and smiled. As a chef, you make so many people happy each and every day. Remember that your customers are your supporters and they trust you and believe in you.

As part of our series about the lessons from influential ‘TasteMakers’, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Jemiko L Solo, Executive Chef and Owner of Senza Gluten.

He began his culinary career as a teenager in Tbilisi, Georgia, where he learned from and cooked alongside some of the most talented chefs in the world. From a young age, chef Jemiko’s dedication to the culinary arts was evident in his handwritten recipe books, where he kept dozens of notes and techniques to perfect dishes that he learned or developed himself. Moving to the United States with the goal of pursuing pastry art professionally, chef Jemiko graduated from the Art Institute of NYC in 2005 and found work in various Manhattan restaurants, where he further honed his skills and developed a deeper love for Italian cooking and pastry. In 2014, chef Jemiko opened Senza Gluten, the first 100% gluten-free, full-service Italian restaurant in New York City, which was met with international acclaim. In 2018, chef Jemiko opened his second location, Senza Gluten Cafe & Bakery — a platform to showcase his love of pastry arts, with an extensive selection of certified gluten-free desserts and fan-favorite baked goods, which launched a nationwide online shop in 2020. Chef Jemiko’s motivation to cook gluten-free fare stems from a genuine feeling of kindness and a desire to help people rediscover their favorite dishes and flavors.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to ‘get to know’ you a bit. Can you share with our readers a story about what inspired you to become a restauranteur or chef?

Thanks so much for having me! Cooking has always been a passion of mine. Growing up in Tbilisi, Georgia, I loved cooking in the kitchen with my mother and father (who was a chef himself) and that is what inspired me to first begin my culinary career. As a teenager, I began working in various restaurants in Georgia where I was cooking alongside very talented chefs. It was there where I became really passionate about cooking — I remember that I carried around an old beat up notebook full of new dish ideas, recipes, and techniques I was learning! I came to the United States in the early 2000s and graduated from the Art Institute of NYC in 2005 with a focus in pastry arts. From there, I began working in various Manhattan restaurants before opening up Senza Gluten in 2014.

Do you have a specific type of food that you focus on? What was it that first drew you to cooking that type of food? Can you share a story about that with us?

I focus on gluten-free Italian comfort food. I became interested in gluten-free cooking when I realized that I have several friends with Celiac disease. Through this, I have seen firsthand the difficulties that they experience while dining out at restaurants. My friends would tell me about all of the foods they missed the most (especially Italian favorites like pizza, pasta and pastries) so I began surprising them with homemade, gluten-free variations. Seeing the spark of joy on their faces was incredibly rewarding and it reminded me of what I most love about cooking — the joy it brings others.

When I decided to open Senza Gluten, I wanted to create a welcoming, relaxing environment where people with food allergies (and of course, anyone!) can enjoy delicious, wholesome and comforting food without worrying about their dietary restrictions.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you became a chef or restauranteur? What was the lesson or take away you took out of that story?

Funny things happen very often, but I think launching our online shop has been one of the most interesting experiences I’ve had thus far in my career, since I’ve been learning to operate an ecommerce platform and business, which is a bit outside of my comfort zone!

As the COVID-19 crisis started, we began to receive countless requests from our appreciative and supportive customers who were no longer able to make it to our brick and mortar bakery. My customers and team suggested national shipping with an online store, so we took the leap! It was a difficult adjustment at first, introducing an entire new set of logistics into the day-to-day, but we came together as a team to pull it off and it’s been very successful so far. The best part is hearing words of gratitude from our gluten free customers across the country and feeling like we’re able to bring joy to even more people.

The lesson I took away here was the value of teamwork. My team worked hard to implement practical solutions as we launched national shipping — from finding the right packaging to coming up with a streamlined schedule for shipping. I would never have been able to execute this launch without them and their invaluable input and support.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? How did you overcome this obstacle?

I remember my first time arriving in the United States — it always puts a smile on my face. I was 25 years old and had already spent a decade working in the kitchens of various upscale restaurants in Georgia but when I came to the U.S, I knew that I still had much to learn. When I first began culinary school, it was difficult and overwhelming but I was young, energetic and ready to take on anything. My passion and eagerness to learn motivated me through culinary school.

While I was in culinary school, I left late almost every day, spending hours trying to perfect my skills. It was there where I began to learn about the cuisines of other countries. I found it so fascinating and I wanted to learn more about other styles of cooking, especially Italian. Once I discovered Italian cooking, I started to reach out to Italian chefs — ask them questions and learn classic Italian recipes. My love of Italian cooking was what inspired me to open Senza Gluten.

In your experience, what is the key to creating a dish that customers are crazy about?

I think the key to creating a dish that customers are crazy about is asking them directly. Customers are very opinionated and in a good way! Ask your customers what they want to see on your menu, not only will they appreciate you taking their feedback into consideration but they also may come up with something really delicious.

Personally, what is the ‘perfect meal for you’?

The perfect meal for me is one that’s spent in good company — specifically with my family. My most cherished memories are from watching and learning from my mom and dad (who was a chef himself) cooking at home. My dad taught me about every ingredient he used — its flavor, history, why he was using it, and how to prepare it. As he seasoned, he would have me taste each dish before, during and after the seasoning, asking me to taste the food as it evolved and explain what was different and why it had changed.

Now, I do this everyday with my darling daughter. She reminds me of myself at her age — asking questions, the same way I’d ask my dad. To me, this is the perfect meal. Every time we get together as a family, everyone has their own role in preparing the meal, and at the end of the day we end up having the perfect meal, no matter what’s on the plate!

Where does your inspiration for creating come from? Is there something that you turn to for a daily creativity boost?

A lot of my inspiration comes from our customers! In fact, many of Senza Gluten’s signature dishes and specials have come from customer requests and feedback. I’m so fortunate to have fostered such a strong community and really value their feedback.

Before we opened the Cafe & Bakery, I’d have customers make suggestions such as, “My favorite dessert as a kid was red velvet cake! Could you add that to your menu?” and I would add it to our menu the following week as a special. It’s my goal to bring joy to others and recreate the dishes that they miss the most in a 100% gluten-free way. We’re also very active on social media (Instagram and Facebook) and regularly engage with our community to hear what they want to see next at Senza Gluten.

Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? What impact do you think this will have?

Yes! Right now, we’re focusing a lot of our energy towards our online shop.

One of the silver linings of 2020 was that we were finally able to open up an online store where we can now ship our gluten-free baked goods nationwide. Over the years, we’ve received many requests for shipping, but it wasn’t until the pandemic started where we began to receive countless requests every day, so we decided to speed up the process.

For many, eating gluten free is a necessity and finding safe-to-eat, delicious gluten-free foods was becoming much more difficult during the pandemic. We’re thrilled with the impact we’ve had so far — by making gluten-free eating more accessible. It’s been incredibly rewarding to be able to connect with even more gluten free individuals across the country and help bring a taste of Senza Gluten to their home.

What advice would you give to other chefs or restaurateurs to thrive and avoid burnout?

This is a great question! In my experience, the best way to concentrate on your work and develop new dishes is to be relaxed. In those instances, I rely heavily on my team. A restaurant or kitchen is nothing without its team. My advice to restaurateurs when just starting out is to spend a lot of time selecting a quality team. Once you have a team that is just as passionate as you are, teach them as you would like to be taught. Be a leader and a good friend to your loyal team. Take the time to share recipes and explain each dish. In this case, if you teach them well, you will feel confident in the success of your team and will have to worry less. Therefore, you can spend more time working on new menu items or on the business of your restaurant.

That said, it is inevitable that you will be stressed at some points. At times when I’m feeling overwhelmed, I like to remind myself that I love what I do. I would always encourage fellow chefs to believe in themselves and remind themselves that their dish is going to be loved by so many people. And most importantly, remember that you are not alone — your team and your customers are with you in all you do.

Thank you for all that. Now we are ready for the main question of the interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Started as a Restauranteur or Chef” and why? Please share a story or an example for each.

I think that there is a big difference between being a chef and restaurateur. While I started my career as a chef at a very young age it wasn’t until much later in my career when I became a restaurateur. That said, there are five things that are true in both cases and would be the advice that I would give to those just starting out in their career.

  • Get started — The first step, in my opinion, for any aspiring restaurateur or chef is simply to get started. Learn and understand the business as well as you can but know that it will be a learning process.Go into the process thoughtfully and with a full heart. If cooking is truly your passion, you can’t lose.
  • Identify your goal — Once you decide to get started, take a moment to write down your goals. What do you hope for? Think about your dreams and write them down. Having your goals on paper is incredibly important. Look back on those goals when you’re uncertain or need motivation.
  • Believe in your success but always be alert — Don’t get so caught up in your success that you begin to lose sight of ways in which you can improve. Listen to your customer’s feedback and ask them what else they want to see from your restaurant. For even the most successful chef, there is always room to learn and grow.
  • Hire the right people — A restaurant is nothing without a strong team of professionals. Look for those who are kind, true to themselves and truly love their profession. When you find those special people, teach, value and cherish them. That will make all the difference.
  • When in doubt, believe in yourself — This is the best advice I can give. If you don’t believe in yourself, who will? During difficult times or when you are doubting yourself, think about the many people that have tasted your food and smiled. As a chef, you make so many people happy each and every day. Remember that your customers are your supporters and they trust you and believe in you.

What’s the one dish people have to try if they visit your establishment?

Can I say everything? I’m only kidding… If you had to try only one dish, I would encourage customers to try something that you couldn’t find gluten-free elsewhere such as fresh gluten-free pasta, calamari, bomboloni, or Khachapuri which is a Georgian cheese bread (and one of my favorites).

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

For many people eating gluten free is not a choice. It’s a necessity! When just a crumb can make someone incredibly sick, it often comes with a lot of stress and worry. It is a joy to see the happiness in my customer’s eyes when they can eat everything on the menu and have a truly relaxing dining experience. People from all over the world visit us and often it’s their first time dining at a dedicated gluten free restaurant / cafe & bakery because there are so few options in their hometowns. I hope that Senza Gluten inspires other chefs to open their own 100% gluten free restaurants. Though celiac disease and gluten intolerance affect a smaller percentage of the population, being able to have a safe, beautiful and relaxing meal means the world to so many people.

Thank you so much for these insights. This was very inspirational!

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