A Lesson in Persian Food
After enduring hardship, an Iranian chef finds comfort and inspiration in the Persian food flavors of his youth.
Hoss Zaré, the six-foot-three chef at Zaré at Fly Trap in San Francisco, is known for jaunty purple pocket squares and big hugs. He sends the latter over email like this: "(((((((( Hoss hugs ))))))))." He'll laugh and throw his arms around people even when they protest. His love of life, in the end, has trumped even the most horrible tragedies. He credits his strength to his parents, a well-educated couple who raised nine kids in Iran and whose death transformed his career.
In 1985, Zaré fled Iran after serving in the military, for fear of being court-martialed because he'd refused to kill innocent people. "My parents told me, 'We might see you again, we might not, but you are going to America, a country built for people like you. We know we will see you in the newspaper someday.'"
Zaré moved to San Francisco to live with his brother, where he took English lessons and began premed studies. To earn money, he worked as a busboy and dishwasher at his brother's restaurant, Billboard Café. Then one day, his brother needed help in the kitchen. After two weeks, Zaré knew he wanted to become a chef.
As his career progressed, he began sending his mother his restaurant reviews. "She used to joke, 'You keep sending me photos of your face pasted on a chef's body, but I know it's not you because you don't even know how to turn on the oven,' " he says.
Since 1996, Zaré has owned several restaurants in and around San Francisco, most of which focused on Mediterranean-inspired dishes. "Sometimes, when you are busy learning, you forget your own heritage," he says. "Then something happens in your life that changes your path. In my case, it was the death of my parents."
On Zaré's birthday in 2007, his brother called to tell him that a gang of men had broken into their parents' home and tortured them overnight. His 86-year-old father died; his mother, badly injured, lived for only 45 days longer. Shocked, Zaré stopped working for a year, taking time off to travel and reflect on what had happened.
"I found myself coming back to foods I ate as a child," he says. With memories of his mother's cooking and advice from one of his six sisters in Iran, he began to re-create and reinterpret Persian dishes. Eventually he decided to open a restaurant focused on those flavors; Zaré at Fly Trap launched in 2008.
Most of the dishes on the menu are not ones his mother would have recognized. "I like to bring together the cuisines I've learned—French, Italian, Californian—with Persian flavors," he says. For instance, his grilled squid and watermelon salad would never be found in Iran. But its dusting of ground sumac—a tart dried berry—is distinctly Persian.
The stress of coping with his parents' death and opening a new restaurant took its toll, and last year, Zaré had a heart attack. His poor health forced him to reconsider his diet of rich, late-night meals at restaurants (he loves eating out to see what's new). He also began a mission to introduce delicious and healthy new fish and vegetable dishes to his menu.
One of his most exciting additions is a vegetarian version of kufteh, the Persian meatballs or patties his mother used to pack cold in his school lunches with pickles. ("Those meatballs made us popular as kids," he says.) To give his meatless kufteh a deep flavor, he uses sautéed wild mushrooms, parsley, basil and a touch of Parmesan cheese. The lightly spicy, citrusy green harissa he serves on top is phenomenal; it gets an extra vitamin boost from spinach.
His friends worry that he's working too hard, but Zaré, who is at his restaurant day and night, has no desire to slow down. "I've been born again in the kitchen," he says. "I've had Iranian women compliment me, which is overwhelming because, to me, they are the best cooks." This kind of feedback invigorates him. "Last night a couple from Maine came in, and they loved the restaurant so much they gave me a hug," he says. "That's what makes me wake up with a big smile on my face."