Second Act: An Iranian Emigre Opens A Persian Restaurant At 59

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By Andy Levine, next avenue

By some estimates, up to 60% of new restaurants fail in the first year. Those stats didn’t escape Naseem Alikhani, now 62, who says she knew opening a restaurant was “the stupidest investment you’ve ever made in your life.” Despite this, she did it anyway, opening Sofreh, a Persian restaurant in Brooklyn, NY, in 2018 at the age of 59.

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Within the first three months, The New York Times
Now
, Food & Wine, Saveur and The Food Network all reviewed the restaurant and Sofreh’s has been booked a month in advance.

not overnight success

But Alikhani’s story is hardly an overnight success. It took him seven years to design, build and open the restaurant in a building he purchased in 2011.

Alikhani grew up in Iran and became fond of cooking early in life.

“I was probably nine or ten years old when my mother’s women started involving me in various projects in the kitchen,” she says. “How you start with onions and a few pieces of meat and some herbs was just sheer charm, and you end up with this fabulous stew.”

Alikhani left Iran for the United States at the beginning of the Islamic Revolution in 1978 when all universities in his home country were closed. She was 23 years old.

“I had no career path,” she recalls. She went to college in New York City, working 60 to 70 hours per week in every conceivable job. It was an ongoing struggle to pay for school and meet his needs.

With financial support from her future husband Theodore, Alikhani eventually took an entrepreneurial path and opened a copy and printing store. She enjoyed the challenge of running her own venture, but didn’t find the copy business particularly inspiring.

“I didn’t wake up in the morning and thought ‘Gee, I can’t wait to make some copies,'” she says with a laugh.

Cooking Passion – Out of Motherhood

The couple married in 1987. Alikhani gave birth to twins in 1995. Then she sold the copy shop and became a stay-at-home mom, which is then passion for cooking met again.

“Every meal with the kids was a project. It gave me a lot of exploration time to find, cook, and eat … and then going back and making their meals more interesting,” she recalls.

As her twins grew older, she began cooking for soccer-team dinners, sleepovers, and charitable activities that had a food component. “I cook… just give me some volunteers,” was her mantra.

When her twins entered high school, Alikhani began to think about the next stage in life. That’s when the dream of opening your own restaurant in Iran with the cuisine learned decades ago began to come true.

In 2011, she and her husband purchased a brownstone in Brooklyn, with plans to convert the ground floor into a restaurant. But bureaucratic red tape and the building’s historic condition delayed the renovation for seven, long years.

Alikhani says, “When our kids went to college, we had to start a restaurant. They went to college and graduated… and I was still struggling.”

Part of the challenge was his inexperience in the restaurant business.

“I didn’t really 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.

did things change

His luck turned when Ali Sabour, a professional chef born in Iran, responded to a newspaper ad about the opening of Sofreh.

Sabour runs the kitchen every night, while Alikhani attends to the guests as if she were hosting a huge dinner party at her house.

Says Sabour: “She’s an amazing cook. Her knowledge of Iranian cuisine is very deep and she’s very passionate about it. She’s got energy like you wouldn’t believe. She can make me go round.”

When asked for advice to others looking to start a business after 50, Alikhani’s answer is astonishing. “Who am I really a mentor? I struggled a lot 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 the seventies and saying ‘I should have done this.’ She I couldn’t stay together.”

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