(The soup guy)
March 12, 1996
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
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
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
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."
I almost fell off the couch.