Second Act: An Iranian Emigre Opens a Persian Restaurant at 59
A dream grows in Brooklyn for this chef and business owner
Editor’s note: Andy Levine hosts the "Second Act Stories" podcast where, every two weeks, he profiles a courageous individual pursuing a new and rewarding life in a second act. You can listen to his interview with restaurant owner and executive chef Nasim Alikhani on the "Second Act Stories" podcast site.
By some estimates, up to 60% of new restaurants fail in the first year. Those statistics didn't escape Nasim Alikhani, now 62, who says she knew opening a restaurant was "the dumbest investment you can ever do in your life." Despite that, she did it anyway, opening Sofreh, a Persian restaurant in Brooklyn, N.Y. in 2018 at age 59.
Within the first three months, The New York Times, Food and Wine, Saveur and The Food Network all gave the restaurant rave reviews and Sofreh has been consistently booked one month in advance ever since.
Not an Overnight Success
But Alikhani's story is hardly an overnight success. It took her seven years to design, create and open the restaurant in a building she purchased in 2011.
"We were supposed to start the restaurant when our kids went to college. They went to college and graduated… and I was still struggling,"
Alikhani grew up in Iran and developed a love of cooking early in life.
"I was probably nine or ten years old when my mother's circle of women started engaging me in different projects in the kitchen," she says. "It was just sheer fascination by how you start with, let's say, onions and some pieces of meat and some herbs, and you ended up with this magnificent stew."
Alikhani left Iran for the United States in 1978 at the start of the Islamic Revolution when all the universities in her home country were shut down. She was 23.
"I had no career path," she recalls. She went to college in New York City while working 60 to 70 hours per week in every imaginable job. It was a continuing struggle to pay for school and make ends meet.
With financial support from her future husband Theodore, Alikhani eventually followed an entrepreneurial path and opened a copy and printing store. She enjoyed the challenge of running her own enterprise but didn't find the copy business particularly motivating.
"I didn't wake up in the morning and think 'Gee, I can't wait to make some copies,'" she says, laughing.
A Passion for Cooking — Out of Motherhood
The couple married in 1987. In 1995, Alikhani gave birth to twins. She then sold the copy shop and became a stay-at-home mom, which is when her passion for cooking reemerged.
"Every meal with the kids was a project. It gave me a lot of exploration time to discover, cook and eat…and then go back and make their meal more interesting," she recalls.
As her twins got older, she started cooking for soccer-team dinners, sleepovers and charitable activities that had a food component. "I'll do the cooking…just give me some volunteers," was her mantra.
When her twins entered high school, Alikhani started to think about the next stage of life. That's when the dream of opening her own restaurant, with the recipes she'd learned decades earlier in Iran, began to materialize.
In 2011, she and her husband bought a brownstone in Brooklyn, with plans to turn the ground floor into a restaurant. But bureaucratic red tape and the building's landmark status delayed renovation for seven, long years.
"We were supposed to start the restaurant when our kids went to college. They went to college and graduated… and I was still struggling," says Alikhani.
Part of the challenge was her inexperience in the restaurant business.
"I really didn't know what I was doing. I knew the food. I knew the culture. But I didn't have the expertise of a professional chef," she says.
What Turned Things Around
Her luck changed when Ali Sabour, a professional chef also born in Iran, responded to a newspaper ad about the opening of Sofreh.
"She's got energy like you wouldn't believe. She can run circles around me."
Sabour runs the kitchen each night while Alikhani tends to guests as if she was hosting a giant dinner party in her home.
Says Sabour: "She's an amazing cook. Her knowledge of Iranian cuisine is very in-depth and she's super passionate about it. She's got energy like you wouldn't believe. She can run circles around me."
When asked to offer advice to others thinking about starting a business after 50, Alikhani's answer is surprising. "Who am I to give advice really? I battled so much on my own and I almost gave up," she says. "But I know hard work…and I could handle failure. What I couldn't handle was looking back in my seventies and saying 'I should have done that.' That I could not live with."