AJ Sankofa was working at Morristown’s Jockey Hollow Bar & Kitchen when former executive chef Kevin Sippel studied at the Italian Culinary Institute for Foreigners in Costigliole d’Asti, Italy. Inspired, Sankofa would go on to study at the same school and level up his culinary career for years to come.
Together with his wife Kristina, the pair make up the creative minds and culinary muscle that is ESO Artisanal Pasta.
ESO’s Pasta Class
I had the privilege of attending a pasta-making class in Chester, NJ with ESO.
Sankofa, who serves as ESO’s co-founder and executive chef, taught us how to form, knead, and shape pasta dough. He showed us the best types and brands of flour, olive oil, and cheese, based on his training in Italy.
After we chopped up our aromatic ingredients and completed shaping our dough into cavatelli (a thick shell-like shape), the Sankofas cooked the pasta and served us appetizers that Kristina made while AJ was teaching.
Around a small, festively-decorated dining table, we mingled as ESO regulars raved about their Crema di Mais—a corn and mint pasta sauce. The Sankofas delivered the completed pasta in two massive plates for us to share family-style.
The pasta dish was simple: Our fresh pasta tossed in with aged pecorino romano, parsley, and garlic so thinly-sliced it melted into the cheese. The garlic was cooked with pepper for a hint of heat, but the star of the show was, of course, the pasta.
The texture was blissfully chewy and tasted noticeably fresh. Not to mention, the pasta-making in itself was fun and gave us all the chance to get acquainted with one another. At the end of the meal, we received to-go boxes and made sure to bring our newly-acquired taste of authenticity to our own homes.
Finally, just as we thought we were full, we each received a serving of Kristina’s famous tiramisu, which was easily the best tiramisu I’ve ever had the pleasure of experiencing. The cream was sweet but not too sweet, and the cake was pleasantly moist. Try it for yourself by ordering from their storefront here.
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The Sankofas are a culinary power duo, both having previously worked as chefs in New York City until the pandemic forced many businesses to close, at least temporarily.
Inspired to keep cooking at home, Kristina, who specializes in desserts, made cheesecakes while AJ delivered them to customers. The couple made 26 sales for Mother’s Day that year. Following an outpour of support from the community, AJ began making pasta, and ESO’s current business model was born.
A Morristown native, Sankofa said much of ESO’s clientele is made up of high school classmates’ families, sports coaches, and others who grew up with him. Sankofa notes that this connection initially attracts customers, but it’s the quality that keeps them coming back.
Sankofa said ESO differs from other Italian food makers in their quality. ESO prioritizes making quality products over profits, he added. He said he tries to adhere to what he learned during his two years in Italy and that trying the cuisine in Italy was “earth-shattering.”
Today, the family business remains a local favorite, and AJ even placed third on Food Network’s The Great Food Truck Race last year.
“It starts with having a tight-knit community that supports each other,” he said. Even as he hopes to expand the store into a restaurant, Sankofa said he sees ESO staying in his hometown for years to come.
About the Author/s
Alex Kenney is a third-year Journalism and Media Studies student at Rutgers University - New Brunswick. Having lived in Bergen, Essex, and briefly Hudson County, she calls anything north of Newark home. She is a big fan of NJ Transit and knows most major highways in her area like the back of her hand, even though she doesn’t drive.