Friday evening I finally had a chance to talk with Jason Stratton, who was in the thick of his first official week as general manager of Mamnoon. The news that Stratton—the chef behind Aragona/Vespolina, and long the face and soul of Spinasse and Artusi—was back in town and assuming a GM role was a welcome, if surprising development after he parted ways with his restaurants earlier this year for some battery charging, both here and in Europe.
The surprising part wasn't necessarily the Italian- and Spanish-loving chef taking a post at a Middle Eastern restaurant; Mamnoon puts out spectacular food, and Stratton can't shower enough praise on the environment owners Wassef and Racha Haroun have created. It was the idea of this accomplished chef taking a front-of-house role that puzzled. My guess: He was spending some time here while scouting spaces of his own.
Nope, says Stratton. "I don't see myself going anywhere." Though he does acknowledge his GM role is somewhat atypical, spanning culinary and operational matters. Right now he's working on expanding the sit-down component of Mamnoon's lunch service, and helping coordinate the eventual addition of brunch. In the evening he's a regular presence in the dining room. "My day isn't that much different than it has been," he says of his previous restaurants, where he performed a million different tasks that didn't require an apron.
"When I decided to take a break, I took an actual break," says Stratton of his time away. "I definitely feel refreshed; it did what it needed to do." He wasn't initially looking for such a big commitment; Stratton says the Harouns "were looking at using me down the line," presumably at one of the new projects they've alluded to. But with Mamnoon's original chef Garrett Melkonian taking a new "creative culinary development" role and former exec sous Jimi Treen familiarizing himself with the head chef post, there ended up being lots Stratton could do.
Being around Middle Eastern flavors, says Stratton, takes him back to his days researching various flavors helping Jerry Traunfeld open Poppy. For a guy who will always love Italian food, he's pretty jazzed about working with a different culinary culture, one he thinks is poised to be huge in the US in the next few years. "It's the way people want to eat nowadays," says Stratton. Perhaps most of all he's thrilled to remain on Capitol Hill.