Restaurants Without Immigrants?

Northern Virginia's dining scene already has a labor shortage. What would it look like without immigrants?

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Sebastian Oveysi, executive chef of Amoo’s Restaurant in McLean, has big dreams for the next decade. A second dining spot offering live music and innovative cuisine. A James Beard Award. A Michelin rating.

As he talks at a quiet table near the front entrance of his family’s Persian restaurant, a glass of hot tea at his elbow, his enthusiasm is infectious. Amoo’s, which his parents bought 11 years ago, has launched a catering business and a food truck. His sister, Maria, who holds an MBA, does the books. His 75-year-old father chats up customers in the dining room and occasionally helps out in the kitchen.

The success of their family business is all the more astonishing when you consider the events that led to this point. Seb, 36, was born in Iran, where his Iranian-Kurdish father, Masoud, was an officer in the air force and one of the shah’s pilots. When the Iranian revolution erupted in 1979, Masoud was arrested, tortured and scheduled for execution. He escaped from prison and the whole family fled to Turkey.

After waiting more than a year for asylum visas to the U.S., they landed in a low-income apartment in Annandale with the help of church sponsorship in 1994. Masoud took a job as a busboy during the day and delivered doughnuts to 7-Eleven stores at night. Seb’s mother, Soghra, cleaned houses.

When Seb was 12, his parents bought a restaurant inside a motor lodge in Vienna. Every day after school he washed dishes, bused tables and helped with takeout orders. In 2007, his parents bought Amoo’s and brought him on as a partner.

By 2009, every member of their family, save one brother who lives abroad, had gained U.S. citizenship.
“A lot of people living here don’t understand what it’s like to be a refugee,” Seb says. “That’s why immigrants have a harder work ethic than most Americans. I hate to say it, but it’s true. Because they’ve gone through poverty, they’ve gone through annihilation, been thrown out of their homes. That’s why they’re here.”

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