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TJ Kozakiewicz, bartender at Iron Bridge Wine Co.
TJ Kozakiewicz, bartender at Iron Bridge Wine Co. (Kenneth K. Lam)

The food and drinks usually get the spotlight at restaurants, but the people who make and serve them are the real stars.

From working with an award-winning wine list to creating scrumptious, social media-worthy dishes, these tastemakers give you an inside look at what makes them cook.

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Thomas “TJ” Kozakiewicz, 29

Server/bartender at Iron Bridge Wine Company

TJ Kozakiewicz has made a big impact in a short time at Columbia’s Iron Bridge. He made the leap from civil engineering to the restaurant industry in January 2018 after being inspired by the documentary “Somm.” Now he’s set his sights on becoming a sommelier and will take the certification exam at end of November.

What is your first drink memory? It was in college, and it was beer. It was given to me by a friend who became my future bother-in-law. All I remember is that it was Canadian.

What is your favorite drink ingredient? Green Chartreuse. It’s made in France, and it is flavored with herbs. It adds a spiciness to the drink.

What is your least favorite drink to make or wine to have ordered? Any drink that has egg whites in it. You have to crack the egg and separate the whites from the yolk. And it requires extra shaking. It’s almost twice as much work. I just love serving wine. My personal least favorite wine is Malbec. For my taste, it’s a little bit too fruity. I’d rather have some more layers to my wine. I want more body, tannins, leather and earthiness.

What is the key to ordering the perfect bottle of wine? The key to looking for a bottle of wine is knowing your taste buds. Do you want it to be super fruity or funky or earthy or leather? Or if you want to drink that wine with food is also a consideration.

What is your favorite bar trend? [In recent years] people have been drinking whiskey straight up. And now rum is like that. I like that people are focusing on the layers and complexities of it.

What bartending tip could every home bartender learn? Buy yourself good mixing equipment. A shaking can, containers, bar spoons.

TASTEMAKERS MEREDITH BONGIORNI
(Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

Meredith BonGiorni, 33

Front-of-house manager, server and social media director at Aida Bistro.

As a manger, server and social media guru, Meredith BonGiorni wears a number of hats for the Italian restaurant Aida Bistro in Columbia. She’s worked there for the past 10 years, and she’s considered a top employee for co-owner Joe Barbera.

Have you ever dropped a plate? I don’t think so. But possibly when I was younger it might have happened.

What is your favorite “family meal” — the gathering for the restaurant staff to eat? The seafood linguine. [It’s also a customer favorite.] It’s made with house-made linguine, lobster, shrimp and crab with a tarragon cream sauce, spinach and tomatoes. I also like the white chocolate creme brûlée. It’s to die for.

What is the biggest tip you have ever received? Around the holidays people are really generous. Three years ago on New Year’s Eve I received $100 on a $100 check.

Do you have a most memorable customer? I have many. Especially my regulars. Two of my favorites had their wedding reception here ... after being together 32 years. They come in monthly.

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What one thing would you want customers to know about your job? There’s a lot more that happens behind the scenes. There’s a great deal of communications where we are telling the kitchen about food allergies. It’s a lot more than “Here’s your eggplant Parmesan,” and “Have a good day.” You are juggling other guests, co-workers, the chef and your boss.

What constitutes a perfect guest? Low-maintenance, friendly so we can have genuine conversation with each other. And appreciative of my work.

What is your key to staying comfortable at work? I’m still looking for the right pair of shoes. But Dr. Scholl’s insoles help. And thick socks.

Binda Singh co-owner of Ananda
(Lloyd Fox/The Baltimore Sun)

Binda Singh, 42

Owner and operator at Ananda

Binda Singh has been a fixture on the region’s food scene for more than two decades, opening Baltimore’s Ambassador Dining Room in 1997, Fulton’s Ananda in 2014, and Peerce’s Plantation in Baltimore County this year. A native of India, Singh has built a reputation for restaurants as opulent as his impeccable wardrobe.

What is the most difficult thing about being a restaurateur? For me, it’s always being on. I put my personal stamp on everything that happens here: food, new cocktails, atmosphere and the way the business is run. It’s all very hands-on. The good thing about it is that we are closed on Monday. It gives my staff and myself the time to reset. Staying away from the family and missing special events is tough. Most parties and weddings happen on Saturdays, and I can never get away.

What is your favorite food trend? I’m really excited to see the Indian flair wherever you go. That was impossible to see 10 years ago. I think it’s the health benefits that come out of these spices — saffron, turmeric, ginger. Those are staples in Indian culture.

What is your favorite dish to cook at home? Dal. [Lentils.] It seems simple, but it’s a favorite comforting food for me. It takes four to six hours to make. It gives me a chance to grab a glass of wine and spend time with my son and family. It is done exactly the way my family has done it. My mom, her mom and sisters have cooked it all my life.

How important is personal appearance to you? To me, when you look good you feel good. I’m representing my restaurant. I want everything to be perfect. I’m not saying in any way shape or form that I’m perfect. But self-care is very important. I need to take care of myself so I am ready to take care of others.

You also own the Ambassador Dining Room in Baltimore. Do you use a different approach for customers in Howard County than for those in Baltimore City? Not so much a different skill set. People are people. The bottom line is when people come, they want to feel like they are not going out to a restaurant. They are going to see friends. They want that comfort and warmth and charm. It’s something like “Cheers.” It’s familiar and people know your name.

Your most memorable meal? It was in February at this restaurant — Karim’s — in Old Delhi [India]. It’s more than 100 years old. It’s off the dirt road. It’s not fancy, but the atmosphere is great. We ate there twice. One of the appetizers we serve here was inspired by what we had there. It’s called chicken burra: a boneless thigh cooked over charcoal with ginger, garlic, cinnamon, cumin and a touch of turmeric. We serve it with fresh mint chutney and pickled vegetables.

What is it like to work with your sibling, [co-owner Keir Singh]? It’s a pleasure. My family is amazing. We grew up in a small town and we always spent time together. When I left the country and was away from half my family, those were the difficult days. Not now. Now we have each other every day. I would have this over everything.

Howard magazine tastemakers: Alex Yap, executive chef of Sushi Sono.
(Kenneth K. Lam)

Alex Yap, 48

Executive chef at Sushi Sono

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With nearly three decades of chef experience in his native Japan and the New York City area, Alex Yap has been leading the kitchen at Sushi Sono, a popular lakeside spot in Columbia, for seven years.

What is the most difficult thing about being a sushi chef? Living up to the customer’s expectations. It’s about my passion. When a customer comes to me, they are giving trust in my passion.

What are the ingredients you can’t live without? Quality fish, ginger and vinegar sauce.

What is the one technique you learned in cooking school that the every average home cook should know? Preparing rice using vinegar sauce. With vinegar sauce, you have flavor. It helps the rice be more smooth. Otherwise the rice doesn’t work. And it goes well with sushi.

What is the kitchen tool you can’t live without? My knife — especially when preparing fish. Being a chef, you have to know how to sharpen the knife. It’s like a sword.

What is your favorite dish to cook at home? Home-style noodles, steamed fish and pan-fried seafood and meat. Home-cooked food is totally different than the restaurant. In the restaurant, recipes are already there. They can’t be changed. At home, you can change. Most of the time my wife cooks because I work in the restaurant.

What is your favorite dish to eat? My sushi and the homemade food from my wife. She cooks in the traditional way like my grandmother. I don’t often go to a restaurant to eat.

tastemakers
(Ulysses MuÒoz/Baltimore Sun)

Natalie Carter, 26

Executive chef at Great Sage

In a county filled with meat-based menus, Natalie Carter essentially walks alone with her plant-based offerings at the Great Sage in Clarksville. She also works within the restraints of cooking without a fryer because of the restaurant’s healthy restaurant certification. She is one of the few women head chefs in the county.

When was the last time you ate meat? A couple months ago. I ate salmon. I was not raised vegan. My mom and her husband were vegan — that’s how I got exposure to it. I don’t follow a strict vegan diet, but I work six days a week and only eat here. Any meat or dairy I eat is organic or ethically sourced.

What is the most overused ingredient? Oil. A lot of people have health or diet restrictions. A lot of people do not want us to use, oil, salt and sugar. It is easier to leave out salt and sugar than it is to [leave out] oil.

What is the ingredient you can’t live without? Lemons are the one thing I can’t live without, not just because they are detoxifying. One of the main ingredients in nut-based cheese is lemon.

What is the one technique you learned in cooking school that every home cook should know? The proper way to chop an onion. That is one thing that I see — [friends and family] butcher an onion instead of treating them with respect. Not only because there are onions in almost everything we have here and in other restaurants; they are the base of many dishes. It’s in almost every cuisine as well.

What is the most difficult thing about vegan cooking? Trying to emulate meat and dairy for those people who are transitioning to a vegan lifestyle. A large percentage of our clientele is not vegan. It is difficult for them to try it. They like their meat and potatoes. They are very skeptical. It is hard to please the people who do not eat like this every day.

What is your favorite dish to cook at home? The last thing I want to do is cook at home. I make a lot of rice and noodles. For a long time when I was a sous chef, I would eat potato chips on the way home, and that was it. Salad with lemons is my staple all the way.

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