“I certainly didn’t want to embarrass myself,” recalls Farivar, 50, as he sits in his artsy, white-tablecloth Georgetown restaurant, whose menus have leaned more American and more health-conscious. “I don’t know if this makes any sense, but I felt the pressure of representing my culture.”
The pressure is understandable, and not just from a culinary standpoint. Iranian chefs such as Farivar often talk as if they carry a burden not shouldered by their peers from other countries. Over the years, Iranian kebab store owners have told me flat-out that they affix the term “Persian,” instead of “Iranian,” to their restaurants to avoid aligning themselves with any bad news out of Tehran and potentially losing customers who would callowly punish a business just because of the cuisine’s origins.
Farivar has his own misgivings about the administration in Tehran, but he also knows the country’s current leaders can’t single-handedly erase a Persian culture that stretches back centuries, one rich in art, literature and architecture. The son of a doctor and onetime politician, Farivar grew up in a household that valued education and politics and large spreads of fresh homemade stews and rice. By embracing Persian cuisine and putting a chef-driven spin on it, Farivar thought he could, in his own small way, put a more positive face on a country that he was forced to flee because of its politics.
“There are so many beautiful things about our culture,” he says. “Hopefully we can share some good news after all the negativity.”
All of which sounds good, of course, but Farivar still had to confront a hard reality: He needed to learn how to cook Persian food. And just as critical if he wanted to prepare his native dishes at the James Beard House in New York (or at his own Peacock Cafe): He would then have to turn around and repeat those lessons in Persian cooking to his Latino kitchen staff, most of whom had no idea how the food should taste.
Farivar had a number of resources that he could rely on for his education. Iranian cookbooks and transplants, yes, but also his three older sisters, who had been preparing Persian dishes in America for years.
Unlike her brother, Sepideh Farivar arrived in the United States to attend college well before the revolution. Almost immediately, she started trying to re-create the dishes she ate as a child in Urmia, then known as Rezaiyeh, in northwest Iran. It wasn’t easy. The Farivar children had relied on their mother and maids to cook for them, setting these sumptuous tables with seasonal, highly aromatic khoresht stews, yogurt-based side dishes such as mast-o khiyar (yogurt and cucumbers) and, of course, lots and lots of saffron-scented rice. Iranian ingredients were also hard to come by in mid-1970s America.