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Chef Chit Chat: Executive Chef Athan Zarnas & His Gamble with ALEA

June 2, 2021

When Athan Zarnas opened his first restaurant in late 2019, little did he know how fitting the name ALEA would become. Translating from Latin to “a gamble,” ALEA was open only a few months before Ohio’s governor mandated the COVID-19 shut down. Since then, the contemporary Mediterranean restaurant has been through quite the ride, with menu changes, another closure during the winter, and two highly successful re-openings. We chat with Athan about how ALEA came to be and what keeps it such an enticing culinary destination for Clevelanders and beyond.


Q1: What inspired you to open ALEA?

A: I wanted to open the least “Cleveland” restaurant that I could think of and the weirdest restaurant that I could get away with. Don’t get me wrong, I was born and raised here, and I can’t imagine leaving, but I always resented the fact that my favorite restaurants were in other cities. I tried to open the kind of place that I wanted to visit.

Q2: Please tell us about your career path and culinary background.
A: I started as a busboy at the age of 14 and moved into the kitchen 2 years later. I worked the pantry at Nighttown and later moved to hot-side. I considered culinary school and went so far as to tour the CIA campus, but by the time I graduated from high school, I was tired of working all weekend while my friends were having a good time elsewhere. I took a couple of years off before realizing that the line’s where I’m meant to be. I bounced around for a few years, working in a number of Cleveland’s higher-end restaurants before taking a job at a rapidly expanding chain. I spent some time in their kitchens before relocating to company HQ, where I handled product development, sourcing, etc.

Q3: What has influenced your cooking style and how would you describe it?
A: I’ve been fortunate enough to travel throughout Europe, spending most of my time in Italy, Greece and Turkey. Some of my favorite memories are of simple meals in extraordinary places. I’ve learned that simple preparations often do a better job of showcasing the quality of the ingredients you’re using. Instead of complicated recipes, I rely on unique pairings to keep things interesting. I try to create dishes that offer something familiar, as well as something unexpected. Maybe even something that the guest has never heard of before. Trying new things can be intimidating to some, so my goal is to package that new thing in a way that’s approachable to less adventurous eaters. For example, our tartare is seasoned for the guest and spread on toast. We cover it with shingled radish so it’s less apparent (at least visually) that you’re eating raw beef. I think this helps some of our guests move past their preconceptions and (hopefully) enjoy a dish they may have been scared to try. For those that enjoy tartare, we put our own spin on it by seasoning the steak with an emulsion we make using bottarga, a salt-cured mullet roe we import from Italy.

Q4: First opening in late 2019, Alea has reopened twice as a result of temporary closings, first starting with the mandated dine-in shut down, and then during the winter. Have you kept the concept continuously the same, or is there anything different diners can expect?

A: We experimented with a more casual takeout menu shortly after the shutdown, and then pivoted to an eight-course tasting menu in the summer when we realized our guests wanted something more experiential. However, I’d say that conceptually, that’s par for the course since I always envisioned ALEA as ever evolving. I believe we’ve been fairly consistent in that we’re a contemporary Mediterranean restaurant, but we’ll continue to change and grow in ways we hope are interesting to our guests. We’ve returned to an a la carte menu for the time being but intend to launch brunch in the near future. I also love the tasting menu format and hope to bring it back for special events.

Q5: How does choosing local and/or seasonal ingredients play into your menu planning and decision-making as a chef?

A: It’s been difficult to adhere to a strictly seasonal concept. Limiting the types of ingredients you have at your disposal can create interesting challenges, like writing a Mediterranean menu without using tomatoes for all but two months of the year. Unfortunately, those limits can also hamper creativity. Recently, I’ve started using tropical fruits that aren’t found in the Mediterranean region. The quality is consistent, and they allow me to create bright and colorful (albeit less traditional) dishes in months when great, local fruit isn’t available.

Q6: It’s the end of a long shift and food service is wrapping up. What is your go-to dish as a reward for all the hard work?

A: By the time we’re finished with service, the last thing I want to do is cook for myself! I’ll usually make a meal out of whatever I have left over. A bit of good bread, a piece of cheese, a few olives. Maybe a couple of oysters or a piece of cut fruit that won’t be good enough tomorrow. A glass of wine or a cold beer is always a welcomed sight.

 

Whether it’s the allure of the eccentric menu, the gorgeous plating of the dishes (see more @alea.cle), the enigmatic pull of the limited seating (currently only 16, usually 33), the rave reviews of those who’ve gotten in, or all of the above, ALEA continues to spark a buzz throughout Cleveland’s foodie scene. We urge you to take a chance and taste for yourself. We dare say Athan struck gold with this one!

 

Interview by: Marianna Marchenko