Aja Cage is a Maryland native and attended school at the The Pennsylvania Culinary Institute in Pittsburgh, PA. While living in Pittsburgh she worked at Eleven Restaurant focusing on pastry and bread. Shortly thereafter she moved to Chicago where she worked at Tru Restaurant and The Peninsula Hotel where she was able to work with notable chefs such as Gale Gand, Jimmy MacMillan, Nathaniel Meads, Graham Elliot and Curtis Duffy. After moving back to Maryland she has worked at a number of Baltimore restaurants including Salt Tavern, Fleet Street Kitchen and currently, Gunther & Co.
Was food a big part of your upbringing? How did you get into cooking?
AC: Yes, very much. It was a huge part. My grandparents made everything from scratch. They had a huge garden and canned everything in season, so we ate well all year long. My mom cooked dinner every night and we ate together as a family together every night – so yeah, food has always been a big part of my life. My earliest cooking memory is my grandmother’s famous “Slippery Pot Pie.” It was kind of like chicken noodle soup with dough (thus, the slippery part) and I always loved making that and eating the dough while we cooked. Then, later I was in school for graphic design and didn’t like it. My mom’s friend owned a restaurant in Mt. Airy, MD and I worked in the kitchen there. I washed dishes, then garde manger, then sauté. The pastry chef gave notice and in his last two weeks taught me how to make everything on the dessert menu. It was a really small place, I loved it.
Lots of kids get to choose the meal on their birthday…anything they want (to a point, suppose…) What would be your ‘birthday meal’ now? What did you ask for when you were a kid?
AC: For my birthday, I’d usually ask for simple roast chicken. My mom made it so well. One of my favorite things to do also is get a bushel of crabs and just sit with a cold beer and pick crabs for hours. This year my friend Brian – he’s the chef at Gnocco – made me some chicken liver mousse. I was so excited, I love it! (Laughs.) I just didn’t think he would bring me a whole quart! Also, this year, my friend Nina brought me a cake with my favorite meme on it. I guess having someone else make me a cake is always nice.
Do you have a mentor? Any chefs who really helped you find your way?
AC: When I first started, I worked at a restaurant in Pittsburgh called Eleven. The pastry chef there was Romina Pexioto – she’s this tiny, firey Argentinean woman – and I worked for her the whole time I was in culinary school. She had a kind of straightforward pastry style with a little Latin flair. She’s amazing.
How do you balance home and work?
AC: It’s really hard. I want to be here at the restaurant as much as possible. A day or night off is pretty great, though. Maybe have dinner with a friend, treat myself by getting my nails done or spending the afternoon hitting some of my favorite thrift stores. Sometimes I will just say, “Okay, today I’m leaving at 5:00pm” and I do. Other times, it just doesn’t happen. In this business, you don’t always have control of your schedule.
Are there any “celebrity” chefs you admire? Any you’d like to work with?
AC: It might sound silly, but I love Gordon Ramsey. He comes off as harsh but really, he’s so talented. I’d love to meet him. Jamie Oliver, too. I like his cooking videos. He does a lot of ethnic cooking, like Indian, etc. He’s great.
What are some of your favorite restaurants in the city? Where would you take a chef visiting Baltimore?
AC: Let’s see. La Cuchara, 1157 bar + kitchen, Gnocco, Brewers Art, Thames Street Oyster House, DiPasquale’s. For an out of town chef visiting, I guess we’d do Jack’s Bistro, Bertha’s Mussels, Brewers Art and in the summer, the crab deck at Captain James Landing. (Nice list, Aja!)
What are some of your favorite desserts to make?
AC: Well, ice cream is my most favorite. It’s so versatile. It’s always amazing what you can actually make. I really like working with my hands, always have. Also, I love plating in general, it’s really fun to be creative in that way.
What do you like about Baltimore?
AC: Its potential. I can see the need for the work I’m doing. I came to Baltimore from Chicago, which was pretty saturated. Coming here, I felt like being able to contribute to making Baltimore better was a really good thing. It felt good, still does. We’ve come so far as a city. I love seeing Baltimore becoming a thriving culinary city. When something new comes to Baltimore, everyone is so excited! I like meeting other people who share a vision for this city. Baltimore is such a great place.
What do you love about food?
AC: I love everything about food. Talking about it. Eating with someone else and having that experience with them. Sharing a new dish with someone. If you have a terrible day, have a great meal and your day is salvaged. Working in food – together on a team – can bring out really amazing dedication from people. And that’s simply because we love food.