Start the Presses: An Armenian chef, French food and a side of homesickness
Gerard Jamgotchian, the executive chef of L'Eden Restaurant & Bar, at his downtown Tampa establishment. (Dan Evans / Times Community News / September 3, 2012)
The owner and executive chef, Gerard Jamgotchian, sat down with me on Thursday in his nearly empty establishment.
“Business has been terrible, just terrible,” he said as two-dozen khaki-clad police officers walked by the large picture windows. “There is no access, no parking.”
Jamgotchian, whose grandparents fled the Armenian Genocide near the turn of the century, is from Marseille, France. The 55-year-old has lived and worked in New York, the Caribbean, California and all across Europe. The menu — unique in the Tampa area — has dishes inspired from all of those places.
He said with a smile that neither he nor his parents have ever been to Armenia, but said his love of cooking was inspired by his grandparents.
“My grandparents, their priority was cooking,” he said. “From the time they woke up, cooking. All day. I loved it.”
His mother was not nearly as keen on the idea, Jamgotchian said, saying she forbade him from entering the field.
“She wanted me to be a doctor or something,” he said. “So, I got my degree in optometry, threw it back on the table and went back to culinary school.”
The business, which he has owned since 2004, has been successful, and he has been able to open a second location. That one, however, is behind the secure perimeter near the Tampa Bay Times Forum — the site of the RNC — and has been closed this entire week.
Despite this material success — Jamgotchian lives in one of Tampa's nicer neighborhoods and rives around in a 1956 Citroen Traction Avant — he says he's completely and utterly homesick.
“What's missing is family, friends, a social life,” said Jamgotchian.
“You've been here for years, though,” I pressed. “No friends here?”
“Acquaintances,” he said. “No one I would really call friends.”
According to ArmenianDisapora.com, a Glendale-based website, there are slightly less than 4,000 people of Armenian dissent living in the Tampa Bay area. I asked Jamgotchian if he spends any time with other Armenians.
He said a beautiful church — St. Hagop Armenian Church — was recent built in nearby Pinellas Park, “But, I'm sad to say, I never go.”
Despite all this, Jamgotchian doesn't see himself headed back to France soon.
“If I head back, after a couple weeks, I'd be homesick for America,” he said. “I don't think I'd be able to have a restaurant in France. Too many taxes, too much. It would be so much harder to do my passion.”
Besides, Jamgotchian said he loves America, despite its social challenges.
“I have the best of everything,” he said. “Full-blooded Armenian, born in France and naturalized American. So, yes, I chose to be American.”
With that opening, I decided to ask him how he stood in the election. Jamgotchian gave me a look.
“As French people, we really tend not to say these things,” he said. “That being said, I think Obama is doing a good job.”
He said Mitt Romney, his wife Ann and one of their children — he isn't sure which one — stopped by the restaurant for breakfast about six months ago.
“I didn't even know it was him,” he laughed, “I guess he didn't make a big impression. One of my waiters had to point him out.”
DAN EVANS is the editor. He’s happy to be headed back to Southern California. Reach him at (818) 637-3234 or email@example.com.