Chef AJ Sankofa and his wife, pastry chef Kristina, have been working together since their days in New York City. The pair returned to Morristown, Sankofa’s hometown, in March 2020, and started planning their own little eatery about a month into the pandemic.
“Throughout my career, in every restaurant I worked at,” Sankofa says, “I just so happened to work at the pasta station. It became a part of my skill set.”
What started as Kristina’s project, Babushkas Pies, later expanded into ESO Artisanal Pasta. ESO is not an acronym, Sankofa explains, but rather a shout of encouragement often heard at soccer games. Sankofa’s fresh pastas and sauces were a hit made for at-home cooking, as well as Kristina’s pies, cheesecakes and other pastries. After operating out of The Artist Baker storefront in Morristown for over a year, the couple secured their own location in July 2021.
In a crushing turn of events, ESO was forced to close in September due to what Sankofa describes as legal trouble with business partners. The couple thought their business was kaput, but the Morristown community came to their aid. A GoFundMe page has raised over $20,000, and the pair was able to reopen in early December, just in time for the holidays.
“We’re really thankful to have the opportunity to continue doing what we love,” says Sankofa. “It’s a blessing.”
How did you get started in the food industry?
AJ Sankofa: I made my debut in the restaurant industry working at Jockey Hollow Bar & Kitchen. I was just 17, in high school, working for some extra money. To me, restaurants are like sports. It’s kind of a bunch of madness and high intensity, but I really like that energy. When I was a food runner, I really was enamored with the way the kitchen functioned, all the different stations, the intensity, the family aspect of it all. I was inspired to move up and learn. A year after I started working there, I decided I was going to drop out of Fairleigh Dickinson during my freshman year.
What led you to that decision?
It was obviously a crazy decision. My ideology was that if I wanted to be like these guys I was working with, I needed to do what they did, which was go to Italy and learn there. I began looking for schools and found the Italian Culinary Institute for Foreigners. When I told Chef Kevin Sippel (then of Jockey Hollow Bar & Kitchen in Morristown) about the school, he pulled out his graduation photo from the same school! From there, I was like, “This is what I’m going to do.”
I worked in Italy twice and worked in New York City for a good amount of time before the pandemic. I’ve been around a little bit and learned a lot from a lot of different chefs. Gotta give huge props to my experience in New York City working with the Delicious Hospitality Group at Legacy Records and under Chef Henry Zamora. I’ve just been really fortunate to work with good guys both here and in Italy.
What drew you into the world of pasta?
From the very beginning, I was most intrigued by that station because it took so much speed and finesse, and there was just a lot going on. I was always in awe. Then being in Italy and making fresh pasta every day.
When did you open ESO Artisanal Pasta?
In April 2020, Kristina, my wife, and I opened a little cake and pie delivery business called Babushkas Pies, because we wanted to do something rather than sit around during the pandemic. It really took off, and people loved the product and what we were doing. We thought, if we could do this with pies, maybe we can do it with pasta.
Why did you decide to close in September?
We had some issues with one of our partners that we had opened the business with. Some things just don’t work out, and looking back, everything happens for a reason. You just have to roll with the punches.
Did you think you’d be able to reopen?
I didn’t think we’d ever be able to reopen. I was prepared to move on, but we lucked out. When we had to close, we didn’t really have a plan to reopen. But once the legal matter was all figured out, and we had to get over that hump, we didn’t think we were going to get the outcome that we did. We started a GoFundMe, and someone is just blessing us. We love having an impact on the community and being a part of people’s lives. It just all puts a smile on my face.
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What items do you offer at ESO?
We have our homemade pastas: Bucatini, tagliatelle and gnocchi are our top sellers. In sauces, our big three are Pomodoro Classico (onions, shallots, garlic), Ragu Napoletano (beef shoulder, pancetta, red wine) and Panna E Funghi mushroom. Kristina will still be offering desserts, and we have imported goods from Italy as always.
What’s it like working with your wife?
It’s awesome. We talk about it all the time. We worked together in New York City, so from day one of our relationship we have worked together every day. It’s really a blessing, honestly, and I think about it often. Kristina deserves an enormous amount of credit for all the success that ESO has because a lot of it wouldn’t be possible without her.
What’s it like during the holidays?
It’s definitely a challenge, but it’s great. Knowing that we’re a part of people’s holiday plans and making memories is so cool.
What does it mean to have the support of the community in Morristown, where you grew up?
It’s crazy because I was just a regular kid here. I would skateboard all around Morristown and play at the basketball courts. Now I see Morristown as a completely different place now that I’ve made something of my own and see the support. I never knew how positive and loving the community was until we did this and never thought we’d have the amount of people behind us that we do. I just want to build on that and keep giving back.