At work the other day, I heard my friends talking excitedly about some “soup guy” for the tenth time. Initially, I didn't show any interest. The subject wouldn't drop, however. “Soup guy” this, “soup guy” that. I finally asked, “Who is this soup guy?”
He is Ali “Al” Yeganeh, a man who has become one of the most famous Iranians in the United States. Only thing is, the millions of Americans who have seen his character played on a popular TV series and watched him on talk shows and read about him in newspapers, don't know he's Iranian. And they know him, lovingly, believe it or not, as the “Soup Nazi.”
Yeganeh gained instant fame last November when a character based on him appeared in the highest rated U.S. television comedy series “Seinfeld.” He was portrayed as a rigid soupmaker who would punish customers for not obeying his rules of conduct. He would refuse them bread or stop selling them his delicious soup for a whole year.
” No soup for YOU!” the scowling soupmaker would bark at terrified customers . Thus the “Soup Nazi” label.
New Yorkers, who have been hooked on Yeganeh's soups during the nine years he has been in business, immediately recognized the similarities between the real and fictitious soupmakers. Journalists in New York — the media capital of the U.S. — jumped on the story and suddenly Yeganeh was hot news.
The fact that all this hoopla didn't register on me says something about how much I care for TV news and newspapers. But even if I had seen the reports, I wouldn't have been that impressed because nowhere was Yeganeh's nationality mentioned. At least, not correctly.
When my friends filled me in on all that I had been missing, I decided to meet Yeganeh. Luckily, one of them knew him personally and said he would take me to the soup place.
Three of us walked to 8th Avenue and 56th Street in Manhattan's Westside. I was warned in advance that I should avoid speaking or asking questions since Yeganeh was a very busy man and would not want to be disturbed.
I was expecting to see something resembling a restaurant with tables, chairs and waitresses. But the “International Soup Kitchen” was more like the size of an average take-out sandwich joint found in Iranian cities.
Yeganeh was standing behind pots of steaming soup, serving a customer. As soon as he saw my friend, he smiled and said, “Come in! Come in!” “Come in where?” I thought. There was already hardly any room inside for Yeganeh and his three Hispanic assistants. We walked through the narrow side opening and sat, quietly, on waist-high plastic cartons.
The first thing I noticed was Yeganeh's snow-white chef outfit. How was he able to keep it so clean after hours of pouring soup? And the entire kitchen was spotless by any standard.
It was after evening rush hour. Still, during our half-hour stay, there was always a customer waiting. One elderly Chinese man ordered the most expensive item on the menu — Crab Bisque. He didn't speak English very well but he managed to say that Yeganeh's soups are “even better than Chinese food.” Yeganeh's face brightened as if he had been given the greatest honor. He turned to me and said, “Do you know what it means when a traditional Chinese man says this?”
Yeganeh said his favorite is Vegetable soup. It helps reduce his nervousness and fatigue from 18-hour work days and, lately, from all the media hype surrounding him. Then a couple of police officers showed up. They had skipped the customary donut in favor of “Al's” soup.
Of course, the rich and famous are also regulars. “Who's that fat singer? Ummm . . .” Yeganeh tried to recall. “Pavarotti, yeah, Pavarotti. He comes here.” He also mentioned several other celebrities as well as former New York Mayor Ed Koch.
Even Jerry Seinfeld, the star of the “Seinfeld” TV series, has come by, but only on a weekend when the shop was run by assistants while Yeganeh rested at home. “He's afraid to show his face to me,” Yeganeh, clearly agitated, said. “He did a terrible thing calling me a 'Soup Nazi'.”
Five minutes into our close encounter with Yeganeh and there was no sign of the “Soup Nazi.” Although, I'd have to admit that on a couple of instances he did instruct his customers to pay quickly and move over so that he could serve others. I could imagine that during the busy lunch period, he could get cranky.
“I have a very small space,” he said in defense. “The customers line up around the block in the freezing cold and some want to stand and chat with me or they take forever to order something. I don't have time for this; I can't keep other customers waiting.”
When he spoke to us in Persian, he would look to make sure customers weren't listening. When he was pouring soup in front, he would speak in English.
I asked him where in Iran he was from. He dropped his head and smiled. “Why do you want to know?” Just curious, I guess. I told him I was going to write this article. He didn't say where he was from but said he had lived in the southern city of Khorramshahr for a long time. “Really?” I jumped. “Then we're practically hamshahris (from the same city). I'm from Abadan.”
Hearing that, Yeganeh relaxed a bit and asked if I remembered a couple of famous Khorramshahri wrestlers. I wondered if he too used to wrestle. He seemed to have the right physique.
Yeganeh was friendly but it was clear he didn't want to talk much about himself and his past. And, for the most part, I didn't play the role of the pesky, intrusive reporter. But I also managed to learn that he is in his late 30s and is single. He closes his business between May and October, during which he travels to Iran and experiments with new recipes.
He showed us a letter from a literary agent, virtually begging to represent him in negotiations with major book publishers who are bidding for the rights to his very own soup cookbook. Should we expect to see “Al's Secret Soup Recipes” next to Julia Child's cookbooks at the local bookstore? Sure.
After all, Yeganeh has become a familiar face. The “Soup Nazi” episode of “Seinfeld,” which has already been described by critics as a classic, re-ran in February. The following day, two NBC news shows, “Inside Edition” and “Dateline” had back-to-back stories about him.
And Yeganeh has been featured in numerous newspaper articles in the U.S. and abroad, and interviewed on radio and TV stations. He even made an appearance on David Letterman's Late Night TV show sitting next to Hollywood movie star Wesley Snipes, and cooked with Dave himself .
Yeganeh seemed nervous about the book negotiations and felt he could not trust anyone to get the best deal. He had been offered an advance of $150,000 for the rights to the book but he was insisting on at least $250,000 to half a million.
As we were about to leave, Yeganeh prepared Crab Bisque for us to take away. As much as we insisted, he did the very Iranian thing and refused to take our money. When I got home I opened the bag and took out a large cup of soup, along with packets of fresh fruits and vegetables, a generous slice of French bread and a mint chocolate.
Ladies and gentlemen: The soup was out of this world.
A month later, Yeganeh called me at home, asking me to watch his brother being interviewed on one of the news programs. I turned on the TV and saw a man dressed in a smart suit and tie, with a grin locked on his face, showing his muffin bakery located somewhere in New York. He called himself “Paul Fox” and said he was a lot kinder and gentler than his brother.
Then black and white photographs of the brothers in their youth appeared on the screen and the reporter's voice said: “Paul says he and his famous brother Al are Italians who immigrated from Rome in 1974.”