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How Food Network fame boosted this Black-owned pasta shop

A random Instagram message from Food Network changed this chef's life.
How Food Network fame boosted this Black-owned pasta shop
Posted at 9:00 PM, Aug 01, 2023

The life changing message came at the most difficult time for AJ Sankofa.

Out of the blue, the New Jersey chef received a note on his Instagram account from the Food Network asking if he and his company ESO Artisanal Pasta would like to audition for a spot on The Great Food Truck Race. It turned out to be the opportunity of a lifetime for Sankofa and his wife Kristin Gambarian. The publicity from the show last year on season 15 became the boost the small business needed after a setback.

Sankofa had to temporarily close his artisanal pasta shop in 2021 after a business partner withdrew. While the shop reopened a few months later, business wasn’t quite the same.

After several rounds of auditions and earning a spot, the ESO team of Sankofa, Gambarian and their friend Matt McFadden received their own food truck to compete against other chef teams with their artisanal pastas and sauces, old world Italian style. They were flown to California to compete between February and April of last year, with the outcome revealed in June. The team finished third, but what happened after would forever change all of their lives. 

"We get people from Canada, from all over, who saw us, and they wanted to try our pasta," Gambarian said. 

Creating dreams and pastas

Tucked away on a side street in the bustling suburb of Morristown, the small pasta shop is easy to miss. It is only open two days a week on Fridays and Saturdays and it’s situated next to a trophy engraving store. Inside the store front, there are freezers full of pastas, sauces and desserts. Sankofa and Gambarian explain how their pastas are made and offer pairing suggestions for sauces. 

Desserts are Gambarian’s specialty as she worked at a bakery. She makes all of the desserts sold at the shop from gelato to tiramisu. The couple is only there two days a week because they are busy cooking and hosting parties the other days. They rent out a commercial kitchen at a restaurant 45 minutes away to make their goods. Another part of their business is private parties and hosting events. Being an entrepreneur means having to juggle several different income sources.

The couple has been busy with pop-up events throughout this year as they bring their artistic food creations on the road to places such as a bake shop and a jazz club.  

The Food Network stint helped propel their online business at Fans of the network ordered their pasta at home kits in the $150 range to serve an artisanal meal at home. The goal of the kits is to help families recreate restaurant style meals, Sankofa said. 

Hector Mislovsky has been buying from ESO since meeting the team in 2020 in the midst of COVID. 

"I became curious about their products. I bought a package or two or three of their pasta and sauces, at some point including their mint gnocchi, which was unusual," he said.

Everything was so fresh and tasty, but most importantly, the young owners are approachable and friendly, Mislovsky said.

During the pandemic shutdown, Mislovsky purchased cooked takeout from ESO, which served restaurant-style meals. 

The boost in fame and a GoFundMe campaign that raised $20,000 helped the fledgling business. Neither Sankofa or Gambarian come from family money and they are saving to buy a house as well as expenditures for their business. They are living with Sankofa’s grandmother in Morristown to save money. Gambarian’s family is in Ukraine, where she grew up and went to college.

Live and learn

The Food Network was a learning experience, Sankofa said. No one within the trio of chefs representing ESO Pasta had ever operated a food truck. The chefs had to learn how to work within food truck confines and realized that artisanal pasta is hard to do in a a tight space. ESO was the first team to serve pasta in the food truck series.

"We were serving restaurant level food," Sankofa said. "The most important part of pasta is the flour."

That flour is imported from Italy, where Sankofa trained to be a chef. He found his calling working as a server at a local restaurant and dropped out as a marketing major at a New Jersey university to study as a pasta chef. That has raised eyebrows with some people.

"We’ve gotten messages asking, 'what does a Black guy know about Italian pasta,'" Gambarian said, noting social media comments after their appearance on New York City’s WABC-TV. 

Since appearing on The Great Food Truck Race, Sankofa, 25, and Gambarian, 26, realized that pasta should be served fresh at a restaurant instead of out of food trucks. In addition to saving to buy a home, they are also saving to open a restaurant business. The couple are both accomplished restaurant chefs, having met at a Manhattan restaurant. 

It’s not easy being young entrepreneurs, but Sankofa has a positive attitude about his passion for pasta.

"Life in 2023 is a lot easier than 1923," he said. "You have to work hard then. You have to work hard now."  

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