Many Jewish chefs talk about how they were inspired to cook by their mothers and grandmothers. Chef Mikey Fabian (left in top photo) has his own story to share. “Our Jewish family is tight knit and likes eating together. My mom viewed cooking as being as essential a life skill as doing laundry. By the time I was 13, I was cooking at home with her.”
Fabian’s journey to becoming a chef also includes a strong Jewish education and active affiliation. He grew up in Olney, Maryland. His family belonged to the Conservative synagogue B’nai Shalom of Olney, where they are still members. He attended Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School (JDS) in Rockville for high school and was an active member of B’nai B’rith Youth Organization (BBYO). Fabian’s Jewish education and the leadership skills he gained in BBYO play an integral role in how he operates as the sous chef at Rosario, an Italian restaurant in Adams Morgan. In mid-March, he’ll start a new role as sous chef at Rappahannock Oyster Company.
“In BBYO, the emphasis on leadership is enormous. It’s run by teenagers. Thinking back, it’s crazy that as a 14-year-old I was planning programs for 60 people.”
As a student at JDS, Fabian was encouraged to apply to the University of Rochester, which he attended as a political science major. He wasn’t fully engaged in his studies, and in his sophomore year began to consider culinary school. After his junior year of college, he took a job at Founding Farmers as a dishwasher and prep cook.
“The dishwasher part I wasn’t crazy about at first, but it was important to my career. You have to show respect. Dishwashers and prep cooks are invaluable. They are just as important as chefs or service line cooks.”
After college graduation, although his restaurant experience was limited, Fabian knew he wanted to pursue a culinary career. After enjoying a meal at Ris with his family, he emailed chef/owner Ris Lacoste and asked if she would give him a job. They spoke on the phone, and Lacoste liked the fact that they shared an alma mater. She offered him a position as a line cook, where he worked before starting at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA). Fabian says he will be eternally grateful that the chef went out on a limb and hired him.
His CIA education included studying about nutrition and gastronomy, and demonstrating his knowledge through papers and group projects. Fabian graduated second in his class, and he credits the academic skills and learning habits that he gained at JDS to contributing to his success.
After graduation from the CIA, Fabian worked for two years at Colicchio & Sons in Manhattan, where he adopted Colicchio’s culinary vision of utilizing simple techniques that are executed well. He then returned to the DC area, serving as a line cook at 1789 in Georgetown and at Rose’s Luxury.
Fabian acknowledges Judaism and its rich food culture in playing a role in his journey. As a sous chef at Rosario, Fabian is applying some of the lessons learned through his leadership roles in BBYO. “You need to be able to work with everybody, and not just dismiss someone because you don’t immediately understand who they are as a person, or how they operate. It’s important to have a strong leader in the kitchen.”
He doesn’t believe in yelling when things get stressful, or in raising his voice. “It’s just food. We are not saving lives, we are just trying to make people happy through food,” Fabian says. He believes that it’s vital for cooks to be content, because diners can tell when there’s no passion on the plate. The cooks at Rosario are all Spanish speaking, and Fabian makes an effort to communicate in their language. “I also like doing small things for them, even if it’s just getting them a Coke or buying them a coffee.” Both JDS and BBYO can be proud of the lasting impression they made on this mensch of a chef.