It’s just before noon on a Thursday in April, and Nasim Alikhani’s back is killing her. She needs help draining a tub of rice. This is the reality of aging when you run a restaurant, Alikhani, 63, tells me as she stands in the basement kitchen of Sofreh, the Iranian restaurant in Brooklyn that she’s operated since 2018. “It has a lot of negatives,” she says of getting older. “Like, I just had to take four Advils this morning.”
But there are upsides to entering the restaurant world later in life, too, she adds. It helps you keep a level head about the industry’s peculiar politics, like the racket of awards. Weeks before our meeting, Alikhani was named a finalist for best chef, New York State at the James Beard Awards (an award she would lose to Junghyun Park of Atomix). The nomination was another feather in her cap in a year front-loaded with milestones: Earlier this spring, she cooked at the White House’s celebration of the Persian New Year, Nowruz; later this month, her debut cookbook, Sofreh: A Contemporary Approach to Classic Persian Cuisine, co-written with Theresa Gambacorta, is out from Knopf.
Alikhani, whose hair is dyed a mellow magenta, has few airs about her. Her placid aura belies how funny she can be (she worries about sounding “so bitchy” during my visit that morning). She knows her worth, and she is keenly aware of how to play this industry’s game without engaging in weak-kneed politesse. Alikhani would probably be the first to tell you that she’s an unlikely candidate for the kind of institutional recognition she’s received, by dint of her age and the fact that she’s an immigrant from Iran. Never mind that she’s been cooking since she was 12, when her mother first asked her to cook a meal for guests. Alikhani knows that the industry spotlight usually beams on “some young dude with lots of tattoos and an amazing platform on Instagram,” she says.
Most mornings like this, she and about half a dozen employees (she has about 30 in total) are milling about in the kitchen. Crystal Morales, a longtime prep cook at Sofreh, didn’t know much about Iranian cooking when she began working there; it was so different from the Mexican food she’d been used to. “She had so much patience for me,” Morales says of Alikhani as she stirs a shower of turmeric into a vat of onions, which have been sweating on the stove for so long that they’ve turned honey-sweet. The restaurant has, indeed, been drawing eyes to a cuisine that remains underrepresented in fine dining. In New York, there aren’t too many upscale restaurants where you might find a tender cauliflower steak like Sofreh’s, with florets that collapse in your mouth, in a brunette lagoon of tart walnuts and pomegranates, or the calming hush of a rice pudding that’s stained with saffron powder and flurried with cinnamon and almonds.
If Alikhani’s being honest, a conferral of legitimacy like the kind she received from the Beards is meaningful to her. “Finally, I’m seen for what I knew I have always had, and that’s why I am where I am,” she says. “That’s not from a point of arrogance.” But she shies away from sounding too individualistic. This Beard nod is also a sign that her belief in her staff’s greatness wasn’t delusional. Getting any medals won’t change the tenor of their work. “Accolade or not, we are here,” she says of her restaurant’s team. “And we will be here.”
Alikhani didn’t know a single woman who worked in a restaurant when she was growing up in pre-Revolution Iran, in the province of Isfahan. What she did know was that cooking flourished in the realm of the home among her family’s women.
Hers was a middle-class family — “comfortable, but not rich,” she says — and Alikhani remembers how her mother’s hands were always busy squeezing lemon juice or making tomato paste, despite her demanding job as a school principal. Her mother made Alikhani promise to never become a homemaker. “Work outside, earn your living, be proud,” was the lesson Alikhani still remembers. But her mother also taught her that family comes first. That you should always feed them.
Alikhani began studying law around the time Iran slanted towards fundamentalism in the late 1970s. She had always been progressively minded, and thus aligned with the cause of her activist peers, but at some point, the unabated violence got to her. She disengaged from the movement, retreating into a place of peace. One day, she bought some eggplants and onions, went to her dorm, and started cooking. A friend looked at her as if she had grown a third eye. “She said something like, ‘Bullets are flying on the street, and you’re frying onions?’” Alikhani recalls. She didn’t have an answer.
A “brutal war,” as she puts it, followed; the sight of piling body bags hasn’t left her all these decades later. She knew she had to leave. Alikhani had $500 to her name when she fled to New Jersey in 1983; during her early days there, she subsisted on lentils and rice while she took English classes at Queens College. She eventually found a job as a nanny for an Iranian family. This steered her towards stability. She could speak her own language; she could cook her people’s food. Slowly, her life came together. She met a man, Akis Petroulas, whom she married. They made enough money to eat out at fine dining restaurants. This was about three decades or so ago, as nouvelle cuisine was invading New York. Alikhani saw refined interpretations of food from Thailand, from Japan. Where was Iran? “So, this became a nagging question to the point that my husband said to me — ‘Never again we go to a nice restaurant and you finish it by saying, Huh, why don’t we have this?’” she laughs. “Like, don’t ruin it every time!”
Alikhani had a job running a copy and print business, which, despite its financial rewards, became creatively deadening after a while (“I was like, Jesus Christ, get me out of here!” she remembers). She dreamed of opening an Iranian cafe in the East Village not far from where they lived, but the birth of her twins prompted her to defer. As she raised them, she went to graduate school and held down a job at the United Nations, biding her time before the inevitable. And then, once her kids were off to college, Alikhani took the leap.
She threw herself into catering in the aughts; by 2010, she began interning at restaurants. The former was empowering; she could feed hundreds of guests even without the help of a prep cook. But knocking on doors of restaurants where she wanted to stage was a different story. “They look, they see an older woman — and I emphasize on the older, because it’s an industry, and it’s a culture that celebrates youth,” she says. The chefs she met said they’d call her back; most of them never did. They misperceived her, condescendingly, as “just” a home cook. (Alikhani still isn’t sure that there’s a meaningful difference between a chef and a cook.) But she knew what she was capable of. Eventually, she used her connections to goad a few people to let her into their kitchens, picking parsley and cleaning shrimp.
A few years passed as Alikhani limboed between restaurant and catering gigs until one morning in 2012, when she spotted the perfect building in Prospect Heights. She had enough money to purchase the space. Though she would have to surmount bureaucratic obstacles, like community boards, while constructing and designing Sofreh, she prevailed, finishing the restaurant six years after she started. The only obstacle that remained at the end of this process was Alikhani herself: After she’d fought for others to take her seriously, she had to vanquish this demon of self-doubt. She still remembers the day after opening, when she exited the subway on her way to the restaurant. An employee greeted her with a full-throated “Good morning, chef!” She turned around, looking for the chef in question, unaware that he was talking to her.
When I visit Sofreh a week later, the din of dinner patrons is beginning to fill the space. Alikhani’s brother, Amir — the restaurant’s manager — paces the perimeter of the room, making sure the ship’s running smoothly (it helps that he also happens to live upstairs).
Alikhani herself wanders between the kitchen, the cozy backyard, and the tranquil basement seating area festooned with pale yellow string lights. She sidles up next to her diners: visitors from Tennessee who’d read about her in a magazine just before their plane took off; a couple in matching lilac outfits who’d just gotten engaged earlier that day; a woman from Honolulu sitting out back. This is a performance she enjoys. Being the butterfly forces her out of her natural register; she’s usually the wallflower hiding in a corner at parties. “I won’t survive 10 minutes,” she says of more high-octane social gatherings. “But this is my food, this is my identity, this is my culture. I have a lot to say about it.”
To the food television personality Nilou Motamed, who considers Alikhani a friend, Alikhani tells a celebratory story at Sofreh: It’s one about Iranian culture that provides various touch points for people who might not access the country otherwise. There’s Farsi script on the menu, while the walls of the upstairs bathroom are plastered with old-school Iranian film posters.
And then there’s the food. Motamed notes that Iranians in the diaspora can sometimes be protective of their own cuisine. “‘It’s not like my maman’s’ is a very common refrain when you’re at a restaurant,” Motamed says. Some restaurants may scratch an itch while freezing the cuisine in time. But Sofreh’s food is different, rooted in tradition yet forward-looking. It doesn’t rely on a best-of playlist by rotating through crowd pleasers with heaping rice platters and kebabs.
“For somebody like Nasim to come along in a city that’s known for incredible food, and to not only start the conversation about Persian food but to continue to evolve it in a way that’s not just for Iranians and Iranian Americans, but for Americans, is such a huge, huge, huge deal,” Motamed says. (The fact that Sofreh has inspired offshoots — like former Sofreh chef Ali Saboor’s Eyval in Bushwick, where Alikhani is an investor — is proof that there’s a willing audience for this food here.) Motamed feels that her friend’s yearslong fight for respect has been hard-won; she was an outsider who pushed her way in. “As a restaurateur who didn’t start her career until she was 59 years old, from a country that a lot of people are very confused by, she certainly deserves every single bit of recognition and accolades that she’s received,” Motamed says.
Still, Alikhani is wary of this moment; attention has its perils. She is honest, for example, about her ambivalence regarding her aforementioned visit to the White House for Nowruz. Despite the honor of that invitation, she was conflicted about what that visit represented on a symbolic level. “It was in a place that has sanctioned my people — and I don’t say sanctioned the government,” she says, clarifying that sanctions target humans. (“You can put all of this in there,” she reassures me.) She worries that overexposure can backfire. Get bogged down with self-promotion, she feels, and you risk straying far from your purpose.
Alikhani even wrestled with a version of this unease while writing her cookbook, which she didn’t want to come across as a navel-gazing exercise in vanity. “I hate memoirs,” she groans. “People say, ‘Me this, me that.’”
Her book, at its core, is a plea to honor the cooking of women like her grandmother or great-grandmother, women who feed their families through famine, divorces, poverty. “You need to feed your clan, your people. And they do,” Alkhani says. “They do that every day. And no one sees that.” She blazes with principled rage when she speaks about the current trend of younger chefs who might invoke their elders in a way that feels superficial, not genuine, droning on about how their mothers and grandmothers inspired their cooking. “Stop,” she says. “Pay meaningful tribute. Document their work. Publish their recipes.”
Her cookbook is her attempt to do just that. But the project is also driven by a sense of duty she has to preserve her own expertise for those who follow her. “I always thought of writing recipes because I want to leave something for my kids,” she says. “I thought, if my son or daughter one day wants to cook and I’m not here, they shouldn’t be saying, ‘God, you know, mom is gone.’” What would they do if they wanted to cook like their mother — go to the internet or something?
This might be the most vital thread that runs through Sofreh and its attendant cookbook: an awareness that generations may die, that people — the keepers of this knowledge — might disappear, but their work doesn’t have to. “I was joking with my daughter: We are dinosaurs of cooking time,” Alikhani says. “Soon we’ll be extinct. But if we leave our mark, somebody may be interested and try to see it. Or learn from it.”
Mayukh Sen is the author of Taste Makers: Seven Immigrant Women Who Revolutionized Food in America. He has received a James Beard Award for his food writing, and his work has been anthologized in three editions of The Best American Food Writing.
Clay Williams is a Brooklyn-based food photographer and the co-founder of Black Food Folks.