Acclaimed Persian-American Chef Nasim Alikhani has published her first cookbook
AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:
The Persian word sofreh can mean a cloth that serves as a place setting for a meal. It's also the name of one of Brooklyn's hottest restaurants whose chef has cooked for the White House, the Met Gala, and honestly done a lot more over a five-decade career. She now has her first cookbook, and NPR's Bilal Qureshi caught up with her on tour in Los Angeles.
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BILAL QURESHI, BYLINE: Cento is a Mediterranean restaurant in LA with a lovely outdoor patio under a canopy of olive trees. But for one recent weekend, it became chef Nasim Alikhani's Persian kitchen.
NASIM ALIKHANI: In the last week I have been a cook here cooking, like, 12 hours a day. And Sofreh is easy - same pot, same pan, same recipe, blah, blah, blah. This was like, OK, let's think about it, how we are going to do today.
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QURESHI: Even in a food-obsessed city like Los Angeles with a very large Persian community, it's a tradition that isn't always easy to access, as Fariba Nafissi and Payman Bahmani-Bailey told me.
PAYMAN BAHMANI-BAILEY: I mean, LA, you know, is colloquially known, or certain parts of it, as Tehrangeles.
FARIBA NAFISSI: And believe it or not, we still have - don't have this modern Iranian food in LA.
BAHMANI-BAILEY: All the Persian restaurants essentially are the same - your kabobs and your stews, very tiny menu - whereas if you go to Iran, there's a long, rich culinary history. So not only do you not see that aspect of the tradition reflected, you also don't see much creativity. Everything is remnants of past glory. And if you didn't know any better, you'd think our people didn't accomplish anything in the last, you know, 5,000 years.
ALIKHANI: I don't want to become a dinosaur stuck in the past of - glorious past. I make my glory now.
QURESHI: Nasim Alikhani's cooking is rooted in that Persian tradition - herbed rice, chicken stewed in barberries, watermelon feta salads. But at Sofreh, it's presented on sleek plates, the rich greens, reds and saffron sharpened and translated into Instagrammable feasts.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Tahini date salad, P-13. Take these two.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: My favorite was the watermelon feta salad. What was your favorite?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: The lamb.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: The lamb - the lamb was bomb.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Two prawns, three chicken, four lamb.
QURESHI: Dinner guest Fariba Nafissi is an Iranian American pastry chef and says she sees her own journey reflected in Alikhani's story.
NAFISSI: I follow her. I admire her. And I wanted to take the chance to come and see her.
ALIKHANI: It's one thing that non-Iranians come and they're fascinated by our food, our culture, because of curiosity, not knowing. But it's also another thing. It's - you reach another level when your own people - they come and pat your back, and they say, well done.
QURESHI: The morning after Alikhani's final LA pop-up, I went to meet her as she prepared to return home to Brooklyn. She says she may be a celebrated chef today, but finding her place in that industry hasn't been easy.
ALIKHANI: I've been to a lot of kitchens as a stage - as, you know, someone who's watching like a fly on the wall. And they had me pick parsley. They never really understood what business I have in that environment. I'm a woman, immigrant, older. I have all these like, disadvantage - check, check, check. Or I can take a step back and say, here are the advantage. My age - it's life experience, what I can bring to this. Half a century of cooking on a little stovetop with one pot and now in a professional kitchen.
QURESHI: And now with her first book, she's sharing the recipes she perfected over those 50 years, along with photographs and memories of Iran. For Alikhani, Sofreh - both the book and the restaurant - is also her immigrant story of finding home.
ALIKHANI: Roots are very important to me, and physical roots. I literally brought a little stem from my father's grape garden, which originally brought from his own village. I physically planted that grape vine in the back garden of Sofreh. That's my roots. And I think once you practice who you are, no matter where you are, you're home.
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QURESHI: Bilal Qureshi, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.