Why Chef AJ Moll has been feasting on his dream job for years

BY CHERYL BAEHR, SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH LIGHT

AJ Moll has had a lifelong passion for culinary, stretching all the way back to when he was a young kid reading the labels on the back of spice jars in his mom’s kitchen. However, he may not have pursued cooking professionally were it not for a terrifying career path he was headed down.

“When I was 17, I joined the Army as a combat engineer,” Moll, 42, says. “My job was to clear mine fields, and I was horrible at it. I graduated lowest in my class, so I kept volunteering for kitchen duty because I just didn’t want to do the bomb detonation stuff. They recognized I was good with a knife and cooking, so they sent me to culinary school. I graduated top of my class.”

Now, as the executive chef at Saul Mirowitz Jewish Community School, it’s hard to imagine Moll working anywhere other than the kitchen. Even before culinary school at the Army’s Quarter Master School at Fort Lee, Va., Moll knew he had a knack for cooking. Though he experimented in his home kitchen as a kid, it wasn’t until a chance opportunity came along while he was working at Schnucks that he began to think of it as a serious job. There, he had held jobs in several different departments – bagging groceries, cleaning the meat department, serving as a porter – and was continuing to make his rounds through the grocery store until he made an offhanded comment that would change his future.

“Back then, there was a department called Chef’s Express, and two of the cooks who worked there got into a fistfight,” recalls Moll, who belongs to both Tpheris Israel Chevra Kadisha (TICK) and Congregation B’nai Amoona. “I’m funny and a bit sarcastic, so I said to my manager, ‘Hey, I hear you need a cook.’ The next day, he came back to me and said that if I was interested in that job, I could have it.”

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Moll worked in the Chef’s Express department for about a year, learning to cook American fried fare and Asian-inspired dishes, before leaving for the Army. When he returned to Schnucks following his active duty service as a trained chef, he picked up where he left off and eventually worked his way up to the company’s corporate trainer. He loved his job and had planned on retiring from it, but the requirements that he work nights, weekends and holidays became too big of a stressor on his young family.

After 14 years, Moll left Schnucks to work at Mastercard’s corporate dining facility, where its army of culinary professionals labored to produce 2,000 meals a day. Moll thrived in the job and especially enjoyed being in an environment where he could produce upscale dishes for the company’s discerning clientele. However, once his children approached school age, he was offered the opportunity to lead the Mirowitz school’s culinary operations and could not pass up the chance to provide his kids with an excellent education while doing what he loves.

Now after nine years at Mirowitz, Moll feels like he is working in his dream job. Quick to dispel preconceived notions of what kids will eat, he is committed to providing healthful, local, organic and sustainably sourced meals, and he’s getting the children on board every step of the way. He may serve pizza, but he makes it with fresh focaccia, natural kosher cheese, corn syrup-free tomato sauce and fresh herbs plucked from the school’s garden. Mac and cheese is made with locally-sourced milk and whole grain pasta, and he’s even gotten the students into kale chips after conducting a class where they prepared the dish and ate the fruits of their labor.

“We do culinary classes – it’s a little different now because of the pandemic – but one time the kids came down, learned about the health benefits of kale,” Moll says. “They did hands-on work prepping it, and then I put it in the oven and made kale chips. Because they got their hands on it and participated, they ate it and really liked it. The next month, I put kale chips on the menu and they all got it.”

Moll is also excited about the school’s teaching garden and chicken coop and says that, if the children plant radishes, they will eat radishes. It’s part of an overall movement away from processed foods that he’s noticed over the years, and he’s excited to be giving students and faculty options that are more healthful than the meatloaf and mashed potatoes he grew up eating in the school cafeteria. It’s one of the biggest changes he’s noticed over his many years in the industry – but it’s nothing compared with changes to his family dynamic now that he is a professional chef.

“When I was growing up, my mom cooked every night, but it’s funny, because now she calls me all the time with basic questions,” Moll laughs. “She’ll call up to ask me things like how long she can keep a chicken in the refrigerator. I’m like, ‘Mom, why are you asking me this? I learned everything from you.”