On a recent afternoon in the kitchen of Chez TJ, chef Jarad Gallagher -- sporting stitches from a recent surgery following a 140-mile-per-hour motorcycle accident that would keep most people away from work for weeks -- is using tweezers to delicately place greens in just the right place on a plate of Morro Bay halibut. The fish is surrounded by fava beans, potato, spring onions and a truffle sauce -- all of which have been grown, raised or sourced within 100 miles of the Michelin-starred French restaurant in downtown Mountain View.
The dish was served that night on the restaurant's 10-course seasonal menu, as well as the more extensive (and expensive) chef's tasting menu, which Gallagher describes as "avant garde." This is not meant to be a pick-and-choose prix fixe; Gallagher and his staff craft the menu purposefully and carefully, like a symphony, he said in a recent interview.
"Chez TJ is like the Chez Panisse of the Peninsula," Gallagher said. "I would like to say that we lead the fine dining for the Peninsula in the particular area of what we do."
Gallagher, 38, has been the chef at Chez TJ for the past four years, and unlike the majority of his predecessors, he says he's there to stay. The successful careers of many of the chefs who led the kitchen before him -- including Joshua Skenes of Saison in San Francisco, Christopher Kostow of Napa Valley's The Restaurant at Meadowood, Bruno Chemel of Baume in Palo Alto (all Michelin-starred restaurants) -- have created a reputation for the restaurant as a "star incubator."
This took a toll, Gallagher said, on the longtime fine-dining restaurant, which owner George Aviet opened in 1982 with then-partner and chef Thomas J. McCombie in a charming Victorian home on Villa Street, built in 1894. McCombie, the restaurant's namesake, died of a heart attack in 1994. Aviet has run the restaurant with dedication ever since, and lives in a small cottage in the back.
When Gallagher arrived in 2012 (not too long after a very public falling-out between Aviet and Chemel, who was chef when the restaurant lost one of its two Michelin stars), "Chez TJ was a little disconnected from what it needed to be," he said. "It had definitely seen the effects of having a different chef almost every year.
"Instead of it being about me and what I want to do with Chez TJ, I got here and quickly realized that I had to do it the other way," which meant asking the questions: "What has Chez TJ been for 30-plus years? How do we restore it and reconnect it to it being an old Victorian home and taking advantage and opportunity for what it is instead of working against it?"
Gallagher -- with tattooed arms and a straightforward, determined, no-nonsense demeanor -- came to Chez TJ with lifelong experience. A second-generation cook with a chef father and a waitress mother, his first-ever kitchen job was at Denny's (his mother helped him forge his birth certificate so he could get hired), and he started cooking professionally when he was just 13 years old. He worked his way up through various restaurants until he was a day sous chef at 19. At that point, he realized it was time for some professional training, so he attended Le Cordon Bleu in Paris and London. While there, he spent time cooking at the acclaimed Bras Restaurant in Laguiole, France; three Michelin-starred The Fat Duck in England; and with yet another Michelin-accomplished chef, Gordon Ramsay.
After his return to the United States, Gallagher worked for a restaurant company in Seattle that his father had started, which eventually brought him to the Bay Area in 2006. The company had five restaurants in the area; he moved to oversee all five and serve as chef at one. He went on to cook for Michael Mina, then to One Market in San Francisco, helped open Lake Chalet in Oakland and ended up at the Plumed Horse in Saratoga. Both One Market and Plumed Horse have received Michelin stars, One Market while Gallagher was chef de cuisine there.
Gallagher said he's been drawn to fine dining because, simply put, it's what he's best at.
"I don't have a lot of drive to master the best burger," he said.
Fine dining is about creativity and design, much more so than execution and presentation, Gallagher said. The dishes at Chez TJ are beautiful, but presentation is at the bottom of the totem pole when it comes to the kitchen's priorities, Gallagher said. This didn't stop him from rushing into the dining room on a recent afternoon to rearrange a single green leaf on a plate of beef carpaccio, however.
Gallagher said his first few years at Chez TJ were spent restoring and embracing the restaurant's historic identity. He steered the kitchen away from Chemel's bent toward molecular gastronomy, got rid of a service approach that he said was "skirting the line" of being snobby and transformed the beverage program so the sheer number of wine bottles the restaurant offers went from 80 to somewhere in the thousands. He went through seven pastry chefs before settling on one that met his standards. All changes had to make sense within Chez TJ's unique physical space, which offers diners an often hours-long, intimate experience in four small dining rooms, each with its own feel.
Gallagher also changed the menu "dramatically," he said, shifting the restaurant to the tasting-menu model that tells diners: We know best.
"This restaurant is meant to be at its best success on experience and that experience is not meant to be you come and design your own experience -- not because we're egotistical and we want you to have our experience, but that because we calculate it and extend it through each little detail," Gallagher said. "The only way that we can make this experience -- from ambiance, food, service and beverage -- really make it worth its price point, is for us to be able to control those little details.
"You're not meant to dine here and go, 'Oh, that chicken was really good.' You're actually meant to go through the peaks and valleys of what you love, what you don't like, what was here in the middle. Think of (it) like a symphony, right? And then you're supposed to leave with a whole picture of what the meal was ... seeing it as a whole picture instead of individual little pieces," Gallagher said.
Both the seasonal and chef's tasting menus are entirely driven by the availability, quality and inspiration of the products currently in season. Gallagher's day begins around 6 a.m. when he starts getting calls about the products he ordered the day before -- take, for example, black cod, which his fish provider might say isn't great that day and suggest halibut instead, which then changes that dish's composition entirely.
Produce comes from three local sources: Chez TJ's own garden in the back of the restaurant (which mostly provides herbs and blossoms), Gallagher's own 5-acre ranch in Hollister or 3 acres of land that he leases and has Heirloom Organics manage and grow vegetables at his request.
This spring, the seasonal menu put this bounty on display: a rack of spring lamb with mushrooms, cauliflower puree, eggplant, date, caramel with cacao nibs and a Bordelaise sauce; a thin circle of beef carpaccio topped with oyster, egg, almond, rice and fermented watermelon radish; the Morro Bay halibut, perfectly seared on one side. New summer menu items look like Brentwood fresh corn polenta with truffle, charred padron peppers and lobster; and an heirloom tomato verrine with layers of chia seed, black pepper and tomato water.
Diners who ordered from the chef's tasting menu might also get Hudson Valley foie gras, duck liver mousse, Monterey Bay abalone, diver scallops, Liberty Farms duck. Both the seasonal and tasting menus also offer small canapés between courses, a cuisine that Gallagher describes as California-French fine dining.
Gallagher and his predecessors have been able to thrive at Chez TJ because of the environment created by Aviet.
"We have carte blanche here so we create what we want. There is no formula," Gallagher said. "It's very much a chef-driven, passion-driven restaurant."
There will likely come a day when Gallagher opens his own restaurant, he said, but he won't do it without Aviet's direct involvement. He said the two will "be together for quite some time, if not for the rest of our careers." There's been talk of opening a wine-focused Latin concept on Castro Street. His own leanings are toward an authentic Japanese restaurant that appropriately separates ramen from sushi from yakitori from tempura, unlike most Americanized versions of Japanese cuisine.
And regardless of any future projects, Chez TJ will continue to fill a niche on the Peninsula: a Michelin-starred dining experience in a quaint 19th-century Victorian home, where the chef rushes back from a broken collarbone to prepare that day's exquisite menu.