On Food, Love, and Memory: A Conversation with Chef Nasim Alikhani of Sofreh
A Conversation with
Chef Nasim Alikhani of Sofreh
On Food, Love, and Memory
“Alikhani learned the language of food and love—and of mohabat and aramesh—from her earliest memories, and it is as much her native language as Persian is.”
A Conversation with Chef Nasim Alikhani of Sofreh
On Food, Love, and Memory
W hen we first came to the United States I don’t recall going to any Persian restaurants. Then, Persian cuisine—our culture, our history—was found in one’s home. In my own, in those of family and friends, where there were weekly get-togethers, inevitably followed by card games.
Now there are many more Persian restaurants in the U.S. and around the world, especially if one hails from a major city, and in New York, Sofreh is deservedly considered one of the best. Founded by Nasim Alikhani, Sofreh offers an intrinsic Persian experience as much as outstanding cuisine, though she avers, “I don’t attempt to represent all Iranian culture—how can I, how can any one person—I just want to express my own heritage and point of view with integrity.”
The name of the restaurant evokes one of the quintessential Persian attributes: inviting others to join at our table, to break bread, to cherish community, regardless of what is going on outside our doors. We had the pleasure of talking with Chef Alikhani about her background and how it supports and drives her, how Sofreh came into being, and what may be next.
They say that it’s best to learn new languages when one is very young, that the nascent brain takes in naturally what may take an adult much longer to learn. Alikhani learned the language of food and love—and of mohabat and aramesh—from her earliest memories, and it is as much her native language as Persian is.
One of Alikhani’s late father’s favorite sayings was “live as if this breath is your last breath” and that philosophy is interwoven into everything Alikhani has done and continues to do. Family—from ancestors to progeny—is also part and parcel of Alikhani’s philosophy and success, as much as the haft sin on Nowruz. All of the rituals and lessons of her youth has given her the “feathers and wings” to make her dreams, and others’, come true.
Alikhani’s mother—the principal of a local school—set the standard: “Every morning, before she left for school, she prepared a khoresh that would stay warm all day. For me, now, still, warm food, the smell of food when you enter is what makes a home. Her energy and commitment to us never waned: during the summers, in the one month she had off from school, she would make all the torshi, the moraba.”
Though her mother wasn’t the triathlete that Alikhani would later become, she was a marathoner when it came to creating community for family and friends. That early lesson in hospitality—from the age of ten, Alikhani was her mother’s second-in-command, her shadow sous-chef—planted the seeds for what she has accomplished today.
It would be remiss to not mention her innate business savvy, which has served her well: at university, Alikhani initially majored in law, though she ultimately “couldn’t imagine my life only focused on such a subject.” Once the universities were closed due to the Iran-Iraq War, Alikhani returned home and took over the kitchen, creating a central meeting place and making food for family and neighbors, using all that her mother had taught her. There are echoes of this in our current pandemic era: the intensity and instability of the outside environment is countermanded by the structure and comfort of the home, and creating and sharing meals in concert with others.
If home, and especially the kitchen, was the center of the community and family, it is a language that Alikhani has translated repeatedly throughout her life. In 1983, she left for the United States to continue her education, which was “one of the turning points in terms of fully embracing my independence and learning how much I could take on if I worked hard enough.”
While gaining a degree in sociology at Hunter College, she supplemented her income as a nanny to an Iranian family, and soon began to cook for the children, and occasionally cater for the family before they left NYC. She considered a Masters in Marketing Research, but committed to bringing her younger brothers to the U.S. “to repay all that my parents had done for me”, she instead entered the work force, becoming the manager of a copy shop. In true Alikhani style, she excelled at leadership and expansion, and by the age of 28, she established her own successful copy business, which she later sold after the birth of her twins.
With food as her North Star, Alikhani had contemplated opening a café in the East Village in the early 1990s, but with the advent of twins focused her attention on creating a home similar to that in which she was raised. Then, with the end of the Iran-Iraq War, she was able to establish a cultural foundation in Iran and return annually to visit family, for at least one month if not longer, which solidified the personal ties her children have to their culture even now. Once they were older, opportunities—in the fullness of time, at the right moment—came calling. She held several successful fundraising gala events for her children’s school, with the first one for 100 individuals, filling in at nearly the last minute after a caterer had to cancel. “I was a board member and we were in a bind, so I said ‘OK, I’ll do it’, and no one asked about my qualifications.” Of course, in many ways, she was already supremely qualified. That begat more fundraising events related to her children’s school as well as other causes that were important to her. So much of her current success echoes experiences she had in the past, as if each was a seed that needed time and different soil before it bloomed.
These achievements gave her the confidence she needed to finally pursue the dream that had been dormant since the early 1990s. As she had no professional experience, she began interning at a variety of restaurants, learning best practices as well as what she didn’t want to do. “Home cooks may not know the terminology, but all cooking comes from home cooking. You need to apply your education to your personal life. If you learn it and don’t apply it, then why did you learn it?”
And that leads us to Sofreh, which is not where this story ends, of course, as much as another major city in the geography of her life. “Even with all my experiences, it took me six years to open the restaurant and I learned so much in the process. It demanded faith, perseverance, and at times I felt like a mother with an overdue baby. Every week the doctor saying, ‘not yet.’ I learned a lot from the pain of delays and still not being ready, yet not giving up. Even when we opened, I didn’t expect any of this. I wanted to practice my craft. To keep learning and to become a better leader, listener, and to give better directions. Continually reinventing myself gave me more energy and made me feel even younger.”
For Alikhani, preparing for what’s yet to come is based in fully experiencing the current moment, as “you never know what will happen for you. Focus on your work with commitment and true intent, and things will fall in place, in time.” In her future is a cookbook—with introduction by her late father and afterword by her mother—perhaps a line of pickles and yogurts; helping her chef establish his own restaurant; and focusing on foundation work that elevates Iranian culture and achievements, here and elsewhere. “In the same way that I didn’t entirely know where each of my projects would lead me, as long as I am true to my story, I feel open for the universe to guide me, support me, to help me for that next stage.”
When asked about the importance of Nowruz in her life, she replied, “We are a minimalist family at heart, we don’t do big celebrations for the (western) New Year, Christmas, even birthdays, but Nowruz is different, especially when you consider what it represents. Renewal of earth is so important; I would love this holiday even if it weren’t my culture. This is the time that nature starts breathing, the earth starts cracking, and the birds start singing.”
The haftsin is a meaningful representation of Alikhani’s philosophy and creativity. “If I wanted to express myself and my life in photos there would always be images of different haftsins and what each element means.” Indeed, there’s a great deal of symbolism and meaning in the elements in Alikhani’s life and work, a sense of seasonal timing, commitment and intent that imbues all she does and is.
Ever one for hospitality, Alikhani often walks through her restaurant during dinner service enjoying the connection with diners. She recalled a recent conversation with a young customer who was passionately curious about the ingredients she used. She replied: “when you leave here in two days, you’ll tell people how it was but you won’t remember the details of the food. What matters to me—what I’m committed to fostering—is the feeling you’ll take with you.”
She’s pragmatic, if too humble about her talents: “I’m very clear about what I’m doing. I’m not a philosopher or a poet or an artist that leaves an everlasting object or impression. I cook food. But in that cooking, I exchange emotion and feeling. And I think that’s everlasting.”
Certainly for Persians, but for all cultures, food is memory. Food is community through war and peace, joy and sorrow. Food is the invisible thread that connects generations from ancestors to progeny, to all those we know and all whom we will never meet.
How much of our path is pre-determined and how much of it is in our hands to alter? The answer depends upon how much you believe in saar nevesht, or in your individual determination. The answer in Alikhani’s case is decidedly both, though the quantity of each is like the personal and precious blend of the herbs and spices she employs. Hearing her story, you would be right to believe that she is meant to be exactly as and where she is given her remarkable family of origin and all those gifted family members who preceded her. Yet from another angle, it’s equally clear that others with a similar background wouldn’t be able to fill the space that she has made in service to community, and to mohabat and mehr. That’s both the method, and the magic, and yes, it’s everlasting.
“Traditionally, the Sofreh is a term for an iconic Persian fabric that served as the backdrop for seasonal feasts and celebrations. Over time, the term itself has taken on a larger cultural significance: it refers to a gathering, a sharing, a place for family and friends to come together.”
ABOUT THE CHEF
Food is the language through which Nasim Alikhani best knows how to express herself. Her earliest and fondest memories are of staying indoors during the summer as a child, preparing foods and making jams and pickles with her mother. Coming from a tradition of strong women who are great cooks, she began cooking for large gatherings and parties at a young age. During law school while studying to be a judge, she found that her true passion was cooking for friends and classmates. It took Nasim twenty five years to realize her dream of opening a restaurant. In that time, she worked in various professions unrelated to food, did some ad-hoc catering, attended the International Culinary Center, interned in restaurants, and most difficult of all, pleased her twins’ directing palates. Finally, in the summer of 2018, at 59, she opened Sofreh to acclaim.
BIO, PHOTOS of the chef and restaurant courtesy of SOFREH
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mandana Chaffa is Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Nowruz Journal, a periodical of Persian arts and letters, and an Editor-at-Large at Chicago Review of Books. Her criticism, essays and interviews have appeared in numerous publications and anthologies, and she serves on the boards of the National Book Critics Circle and The Flow Chart Foundation. Born in Tehran, Iran, she lives in New York.
AUTHOR PHOTO BY CARUCHA L. MEUSE