THREE years later, when the Herzog family was looking for a chef for the kosher restaurant they wanted to open in their new Oxnard winery, they recruited Aarons, whom they knew from events they'd held at Mosaica.
At Tierra Sur, Aarons knew the biggest challenge in developing the kind of contemporary kosher menus he envisioned would be finding the ingredients. But he was ready.
"There weren't very many products we bought at Savoy or Zuni. What you couldn't find, you made." And thanks to his experience at Mosaica, Aarons knew the kosher-sourcing drill. At Tierra Sur, his olives come from Italy, his lamb from Colorado, and what bread he doesn't bake -- he makes flatbreads and focaccia -- from La Brea Bakery.
But most of what he puts on his tables he's made himself.
In Tierra Sur's tiny kitchen, Aarons makes his own bresaola (air-dried beef), venison terrine, boudin blanc (a sausage) and duck rillette; he cures his own lamb bacon, salts his own cod, ferments his own vinegars. When he couldn't find kosher sherry vinegar, he made it; Herzog now has plans to market the product. He makes mole from 99% cacao Scharffen Berger chocolate. The guy even makes his own masa for tortillas.
There's a lot of freedom in Aarons' cooking, as if, instead of feeling constrained by kosher rules, he's been energized by them.
"I don't think [cooking kosher] inhibits the style; maybe Mediterranean is more conducive to it," notes the chef. "Kosher is just another set of rules you live by."
When Aarons says this, he might be talking about the rules of making a good créme anglaise as much as the laws of kashrut.
For Passover, these requirements are especially stringent. No leavened bread, grains or flour; the Ashkenazic tradition also forbids kitniot, or legumes, corn, rice -- and their byproducts. But, characteristically, Aarons uses the rules as a jumping off point rather than a limitation.
HE plays to his strengths as a creative chef, as well as to the strengths of the foods that become more central, such as eggs and potatoes.
Tender gnocchi, made from riced potatoes, are taken to a whole new level with the addition of dried porcini. And the matzo meal Aarons uses to bind the dough gives the rustic dumplings a terrific and surprising texture, slightly grainy, as if they've been made with cornmeal.
Aarons spins on the traditional chicken soup by using Middle Eastern flavors in a stunning broth, then poaching chicken dumplings in it. The rich stock is infused with dried Persian limes, nutmeg, allspice and cinnamon; the dumplings, also bound by matzo flour, are spiked with a generous dose of cardamom.
For the fish course, Aarons seasons a King salmon fillet -- or, considering this year's decimated salmon runs, a fillet of Barramundi -- with cracked black pepper, kosher salt, olive oil and cracked fennel seed.
It's a dish reminiscent of his camping days in the Sierra but shot through with flavors of the spice route. He sauces the fish, grilled ahead of time and cooled, with a coulis of grilled tomatoes, olive oil, red wine vinegar -- and a healthy dose of his own harissa. (The chef also adds a stunning garnish of local baby fennel fried, tempura style, in a batter made of only soda water and matzo meal.)
For the centerpiece of the Passover feast, Aarons' braised lamb is at once deeply traditional and utterly fresh.
The roast -- seared in olive oil, rubbed with a fragrant spice blend of cumin and allspice, mint and nutmeg -- is liberally doused in pomegranate molasses before a two-hour braise. The pan juices reduce to a luscious sauce shot through with spice, rich with flavor. To accompany the lamb, Aarons quickly sautés McGrath Family Farms chard and beet greens in Spanish olive oil.
For a luscious flourless chocolate cake, a not-uncommon Passover treat, Aarons uses high-quality kosher unsalted margarine and 62% cacao Scharffen Berger chocolate (the chef did go to school in San Francisco). The cake is dense, moist and furiously chocolaty.
For a subtle counterpoint to the richness, Aarons tops each slice with McGrath Gaviotas. The strawberries, picked from the fields you pass on the road to the restaurant, are sliced and macerated simply in a generous pour of late harvest Herzog Zinfandel.
"The strawberries come in perfect; our job is not to mess them up," Aarons says. The chef -- whose food, stamped by travel and built by ritual, is also deeply personal -- named the cake Gateau d'Ariel for his 7 1/2 -year-old daughter, Ariel.