Alex Artinian, 29, lives in Central Square with two greyhounds. When she’s not tending to her dogs — or enjoying long-distance cycling — she’s the sous chef at Lehrhaus in Inman Square. A Kosher Jewish tavern complete with a library, Lehrhaus offers global Jewish food and cocktails, events, workshops, and more than 3,000 Jewish texts.
Why did you become a chef?
I went to the Culinary Institute of America after high school and got my bachelor’s in baking and pastry arts management. I loved it. I couldn’t imagine going to regular college, like a liberal arts school. I told my parents that I would fail if they made me go. I made a PowerPoint.
You made a PowerPoint? Describe, please.
I made a PowerPoint! It was pretty much: This is why I want to go to the Culinary Institute of America. I told my parents that I just wanted to be around people who had the same goals as me. I wanted to be around people who were so excited about food. It was really special to be able to go to a school like that. I felt very at home there.
After school, one of the chefs had a connection with Ana Sortun and Maura Kilpatrick, so he got me an interview with them at Oleana. I had such a genuine connection with them. And that’s how I started working in Boston.
Did a certain childhood experience spark your love of food?
My grandparents, my dad’s parents, took me out to dinner when I was very little. They always wanted me to go with them. They kind of just took me places that I would say most little children wouldn’t have gone to. When they used to live in Boston, and they would take me to Clio a lot. I don’t think a lot of little children used to go there. But they would take me because they wanted to go out with me. I was a well-behaved little kid, so they would just bring me literally wherever they would go for dinner.
My dad’s Armenian, so my grandma cooks a lot. Food is very important to us as a family; it brings us together, and it’s at the core of what we’re doing all day: We’re talking about what we’re going to eat next. It was always really important and special. I grew up with all these really fond memories of my grandma cooking, so I just felt such a connection to wanting to make food for people to make them happy.
I always baked a lot growing up, whenever I was stressed out or had a hard day. I started doing it a lot in my free time, and I eventually worked in a bakery in high school.
Why Lehrhaus? It’s a very unique, niche genre of food. What drew you to that job?
[Chef] Noah [Clickstein] and I went to culinary school together. He was one class behind me, so we had a couple of general classes together, but I didn’t really spend a lot of time with him.
When Lehrhaus was looking for people, I was looking for jobs. And [general manager] Steve Bowman is one of my close friends. I had grabbed a drink with him, and he was just so excited to tell me about it and to have me come in and talk to them.
Also, I think because [Armenians and Jews] both experienced these large genocides, there’s this connection of: “We have to be strong and create a better world for the next generation.” This is a community and somewhere to feel safe, seen, and connected to other people. The energy was very genuine and comforting to me.
I didn’t really know a lot about Jewish cuisine or anything about the kosher world, but the food, history, and culture that’s connected to it felt very similar to how I feel about Armenian food. It was a little different, but I understood the core.
What’s your take on the Boston food scene overall — the good and the bad?
I’ve lived here for seven years now, and I didn’t expect to be here this long. I really love Boston. The food scene has changed a lot since I’ve lived here and since I’ve worked in the industry. But a lot of it’s the same. There’s a lot of Italian restaurants; there’s a lot small plates; and really expensive, kind of mediocre food.
I do think there are a lot of chefs doing really cool stuff and pushing the boundaries. I worked at Asta for a year, and I think that Alex Crabb is fantastic. He’s always pushing himself; he’s always challenging himself in a way that’s different. When you go there, you can feel how hard he’s been working. You can feel how hard everyone’s working in there and how hard they’re trying to make it special for you. I don’t think you experience that energy in a lot of other restaurants in the city.
Where do you like to hang out when you’re not working?
I live close to Central Square. I’ve always lived near Trina’s, and I used to go there after working at Oleana at night. I feel very comfortable and very at home there. I feel like I can go there and can be myself. The food is good, the drinks are really nice, and the people make me feel welcome.
I mean, I love Oleana. I don’t go there as often, but I love to go to dinner there, because, yes, it makes me feel very at home and comfortable, but the food is always really, really good. Going places where I feel like I can connect is really important to me. Sometimes, I think you go out for dinner, and they’re just going through the motions. Maybe they’re understaffed or busy or something. But you’re just another person.
A lot of people might not be familiar with Jewish food. What’s your directive? What do you make?
When I first came on, they were like: “We’re making Jewish food, not food Jews eat.” The mentality is: Let’s not make things people know are Jewish, classic Jewish cuisine, but let’s try to take food from the Jewish diaspora around the world and transform it into something that fits Lehrhaus. A lot of what we make has a cultural and historical connection to Jewish people. It’s not just: Hey, I made this because I like tomatoes, and they’re in season. But: Why did I make this? What’s the connection to Jewish culture? We strive for that. We have a key that explains why things are on the menu and how they connect to Jewish culture.
What advice would give to people trying to break into the food world today? Is it a viable career?
As a person who’s seeing a lot of changes happen in the industry, I would say that maybe now it’s a more viable opportunity than it was before. We’ve hired a lot of people at Lehrhaus who don’t have a lot of cooking experience, so they don’t really have the same mentality that Noah and I grew up with in kitchens. You know, this is very silly, but they’ll still ask me: “Hey, I need this day off because I have an event.” And I’m like: “OK!”
I remember being so terrified to go into my chef’s office to ask for a day off for a family event. It was such a thing that I experienced growing up in the restaurant industry. People don’t have that guilt. There’s not that overworking or working for free that people used to experience. It’s changed.
I think there are some places that follow an old-school mentality. I think that those places are just not doing the industry justice because this shouldn’t be a place people hate to go to work. They shouldn’t feel exhausted, burnt-out, and overworked, like they can’t see their family.
If you find the right place where you can feel comfortable and where people value you and they value your free time, they value your life, and they want to give you a good work-life balance, that’s great. Working in restaurants is a great environment. You meet really cool people. You get to create food and make people’s day, night, or celebrations. But I think it has to be the right place that’s healthy and cares about you. I think it depends on where you work, but I do think that it is a viable career.
What’s your favorite late-night snack or guilty pleasure?
I love chocolate. I always try to keep a little chocolate hidden for myself in my apartment.
What else do you do in your spare time?
I actually took up cycling during the pandemic with my boyfriend. It’s something that challenges me outside of my job, which is actually really nice. I’ve done a lot of long-distance riding. It’s cool to have something separate from my career that also brings me a lot of joy and keeps me connected to myself.
Interview has been edited and condensed.