Apronomics: Aaron Martinez of Elaia and Olio

Aaron Martinez’s culinary journey has taken him across the world and into some of the nation’s most renowned kitchens. Now, it’s bringing him to the StL! Martinez is taking the reins at Elaia and Olio, the flagship sister restaurants from Ben Poremba of Bengelina Hospitality Group.

While he was growing up in Orange County, California, you weren’t likely to find Martinez in a kitchen. Cooking wasn’t really a hobby of his, and he didn’t consider it a professional option when he was younger. He was actually training to become a firefighter when the culinary bug bit. “I was working in restaurants while testing to be placed in a firehouse,” he recalls. “I moved up to nicer restaurants and encountered better, more interesting food. That’s what caught my attention.” To gain kitchen experience, he worked mornings at a restaurant, manned the salad station and waited tables at night.

From there, Martinez enrolled in an accelerated program at the Arizona Culinary Institute on the advice of a chef and coworker. “It was an eight-month curriculum, so I got in and out fast,” he says. “Any knowledge is good knowledge, and I learned a lot in a short time. Plus, I was able to parlay it into more experience working in kitchens.” Martinez’s impressive career has taken him to several prestigious positions. In San Diego, he served as sous chef at Addison at The Grand Del Mar under chef William Bradley. It was a formative time for Martinez, and he considers Bradley his mentor. “Working with William was the hardest three years of my life, but he taught me how to be a chef and run a kitchen,” he explains. In San Francisco, he was chef de cuisine at the lauded restaurants Quince and Commis.

He even stretched his culinary muscles abroad, working in Spain and Dranouter, Belgium. He recommends all chefs study in other countries if they have the opportunity. “Food cultures are very different around the world,” he says. “In Spain, people eat dinner over a four-hour period. It’s about the experience, and they don’t just consume to be satiated. Encountering that first-hand helped me respect the crafts of cooking and hospitality a little more.” In Dranouter, he held a position at In de Wulf as part of a team of four who nightly prepared a tasting menu of 20 courses. “At Quince, I worked with 14 cooks and four sous chefs, but in Belgium, it was just three other people,” he recalls. “You had to rely on the person working next to you, and the experience taught me what can be accomplished when people really operate as a team.”

After traveling so much, Martinez says he and his wife are ready to settle down and raise their daughter. “My wife is from St. Louis, and she wanted to come home,” he says. “She’s gone with me everywhere for my job, but family is more important now.” That doesn’t mean he’s not excited to contribute to the city’s blossoming restaurant scene. “There are a lot of talented chefs delivering fun and interesting concepts, and the world is starting to take notice of what’s happening here,” he notes. “It’s a cool time to be here, and I’m excited to be part of that growth.” So what’s his St. Louis dining must-do? “I love barbecue, and before we moved here, we’d have to stop at Pappy’s every time we visited,” he says.

Martinez is excited to bring his experience and unique brand of cooking to St. Louis. “I’m going to stay true to who I am as a chef,” he says. “I take a lot of inspiration from sourcing local products, and that’s not going to change now that I’m in Missouri instead of California. If you don’t start with good ingredients, your dish isn’t going to be great, no matter what you do.” He’s also looking forward to growing Elaia and Olio and already has started making changes at the former. “I want to make the experience more fun and exciting for diners,” he notes, adding that he hopes his food and flavor combinations will speak for themselves.

With almost two months under his belt at Elaia, Martinez is thrilled to hear positive responses from guests, and he is ready to start shaking things up even more. “I’m excited to be in St. Louis,” he says. “I want to get the community to come to Elaia and Olio and see what we’re doing here.”

kohlrabi with smoked trout roe and cultured butter

4 kohlrabi
3 1/2 oz. reduced buttermilk whey
10 1/2 oz. cultured butter
1/2 oz. pickled shallots
1/10 oz. minced chives
2/5 oz. smoked trout roe
Salt to taste
Lemon juice to taste

» Cook kohlrabi in buttermilk whey until soft. Keep warm and put aside.
» Put buttermilk whey in a small saucepan on low heat. Add the butter and whisk until combined.
» Add the rest of the ingredients; season to taste. The flavor should have a good amount of acidity.
» Plate the kohlrabi and spoon butter sauce on top.