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By Behrouz Bahmani
June 10, 2003
The Iranian

If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, you have undoubtedly heard of and dined at one of the many wonderful FAZ restaurants. You also know that FAZ is the brainchild of Iranian restauranteur and award winning chef, Fazlolah Poursohi.

Poursohi doesn't grant interviews easily and when I began pursuing him over a year ago, I was told not to expect anything. But patience is one of my better traits and I kept asking and lo and behold I got it.

So here's the result of my exclusive interview with Faz himself!

Poursohi was born in the tiny village of "Soh" outside of Isfahan. His childhood was spent playing in the rural countryside and natural environment of Central Iran. His family like most in the village was in the business of raising herds of sheep and cattle and the prerequisite "Baghdari" (orchard keeping). Needless to say Faz's love of fresh ingredients and food cooked in a simple and natural way was defined in his earliest childhood recollection.

When he entered the 5th grade his father placed him at one of the best schools in Isfahan, eventually leading him to attend the prestigious Marvi High School. Graduation led Faz to the US in 1974 for an education in industrial engineering at the University of Chicago, and eventually to a Masters in systems management.

During his college years Faz made ends meet by working as a chef for the famous Chicago restauranteur Richard Melman, who became an exceptional mentor to Faz. Melman who had recognized Faz's talents, often prodded him to forget engineering and become a full-time chef for his organization.

Faz would reply, "You are a great guy, but the day after I graduate, I will be in Iran." This vow was not to come true and as Faz got closer to graduation, Iran's revolution went into full swing. After the revolution one of Faz's nephews told him outright not to come back home.

So after graduation, Faz went to work for the waiting (and smiling) Melman and 10 years later was at the top of the food chain, literally. It was at this time that Faz became increasingly disillusioned with the massive corporate structure he had now become the master of, and he began to aspire to have his own company, one in which he could exert greater control and do things the way he envisioned.

In 1984 while driving through Palo Alto, one of the Bay Area's most picturesque neighborhoods, Faz had an epiphany of sorts and he suddenly got a clear picture of what he had been searching for. The concept was born and named, "The Brick Oven Bistro".

If you go to any one of Faz's restaurants today you will see the trademark, a full roaring fire in the familiar "Tanoor" (baking dome), akin to the ones you may know well, if you grew up in Iran, where freshly baked bread is made and the fire fills the room with its glow and warmth.

I asked Faz about the fire and why it was such an important fixture.

"Iranians have an historical connection to fire, ever since the old Zoroastrian days when fire was worshipped in ancient Iran. The flame is alive and life is about fire, warmth, heat, and power. Fire is where the hearth of the home and family is, which is why I design each restaurant so that you can see the fire dome when you enter, but also from every table in the restaurant at all times."

I asked Faz if the fire was functional or purely decorative? "All our bread and many of our entrees are baked in the domes. Why don't I bake us some bread now!"

You could tell he was excited.

While preparing the special dough he has perfected, Faz also ordered us some food. "Have him make us two raviolis each, with that sauce -- he knows what I mean," Faz said to one of his waiters who instantly departed to the kitchen with the request. Faz then asked for wine, a Shiraz of course, from the Namdar vineyards in Sonoma run by our own Hossein Namdar (who still owes me that interview!).

Faz took one look at the fire which was starting to go out and he reached down under the dome where the wood was kept and carefully selected a piece of wood, the right piece, with which to resurrect the fire. Next he grabbed a long poker whose tip was bent at the very end into a slight hook, and began to coax the fire back to life. Within minutes the flames were back, dancing like the beautiful maidens around an old sufi poet.

The restaurant is very hip and cool, live lounge music wafting in from one corner, it's the kind of place where couples spontaneously get up and dance cheek to cheek. The laughter of patrons to the far side, and always visible the flicker and dance of the flames of the Tanoor.

The raviolis arrived, big, fat and full. I now knew why he had only ordered two for me. As he laid out the dough and poked at it rhythmically with his outstretched finger tips like a piano, he said, "I feel like some shrimp. Do you like shrimp?" To which I replied, "No, I don't like shrimp, I love shrimp!"

Back to the bread.

Faz threw the dough, which now had been kneaded and flattened like pizza, into the oven, and it immediately began to grow. "You have to have just the right heat, and it really comes out nice," he said as wonderful bubbles began to rise on the Taftoon-style bread.

As quick as he had thrown it in, he pulled it out and plopped it on the counter and we began tearing at it. Growing up in Tehran, our family's bread of choice was always Taftoon, which is light like a Pita, but not as fragile as a thin Lavash, yet more pliable and easily managed than Barbari and less deadly than Sangak, which could take out a tooth if you are not careful and miss a stone.

The shrimp arrived. Now we were talking! Butter sauteed and butter flied to perfection, again just two large shrimp were placed on a small dish with a tureen of his special recipe salsa. Unbelievable.

We drained our glasses, ordered another bottle and grinned at each other. I was in heaven, and you could tell he was enjoying himself too. He finally said, "You know, I was a bit apprehensive about this interview, but I feel much better about it now that I have met you." "Me too," I replied as I popped the last shrimp."You are not easy to get a hold of."

"You like rack of lamb?" he asked, and then changed his mind. "No wait, I have it... how about a nice sole?"

I said, "Look, after all this, I am in your hands, do what you want. I trust you completely." He grinned again, and fired off the request to his chef who you could imagine was waiting in the kitchen, eager to impress his boss. Then Faz, who had been watching them all along, bought a round of drinks for a table of patrons near where we were sitting.

To address the question of Faz's success, the group of Faz restaurants are not just single shops, but part of a complete organization that is hugely successful. Faz devotes his time by roving from one restaurant to another across California, helping the staff by making his observations and improvements and adjusting and updating the menus. He is currently considering expanding to the East Coast. So keep your fingers crossed DC, maybe, just maybe...

Faz is divorced and remarried. His first wife Minoo Hedjran runs the empire masterfully with an eye towards cost management, balanced by smart and appropriate re-investment. Faz handles quality. Each restaurant's menu is designed by Faz and you can see subtle Persian influences in every dish. For example, he makes a fantastic fish kabob, in it will be a saffron rice, almost a pilaf but not quite, but the fish itself will be a sturgeon. Surprise! A classic Iranian fish. So you get Iranian flavors as well as metaphors in every bite, whether you know it or not. Everything he serves is like that.

Faz is very proud of his son who graduated from Berkeley with a degree in computer science and works in a high-tech company in Silicon Valley. Faz also has a 1-year-old daughter.

If you haven't been to a Faz restaurant go to one. If you are lucky you will be there when he is visiting and be sure to say hello to him; he'll love meeting you.

Faz paid our bill at his own restaurant and left a huge tip for the staff. We wound up the evening and walked out of the restaurant into the cold night air which was refreshing after having sat at the Tanoor. I thanked him for his hospitality and the interview.

I then asked one last question: Who does the cooking at home? "My wife of course. Do you think she would even let me near the kitchen?"

Faz Restaurants: //

  • Faz San Francisco, 161 Sutter St.
  • Lavash Bistro, San Francisco, 4 Embarcadero
  • Faz Sunnyvale, 1108 N. Mathilda Ave.
  • Faz America Pleasanton, 5121 Hopyard Rd.
  • Faz Danville, 600 Hartz Ave.
  • Faz San Diego, 530 Broadway
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