Putting Persian Food on the Map

Chef Sebastian Oveysi and his family came to the U.S. as refugees. Now he has dreams of a James Beard award.

Born in Iran in 1981, Seb Oveysi came to the U.S. with his family in 1994, spending his high school years as a server and dishwasher at the family restaurant in Falls Church. At 18, he moved to New York and began waiting tables—until the chef-owner who hired him recognized his enthusiasm for food and said, “Kid, you’re a cook, not a server.” So Oveysi took to the kitchen. Today he is the executive chef and managing partner of the McLean restaurant his parents, Masoud and Soghra, have owned since 2007. And he’s looking to take it to the next level. www.amoosrestaurant.com

Does Persian food get the recognition it deserves?
No, it’s underrepresented. It has the potential to be on the national stage like Italian and French. I want to be the person to put it in the spotlight.

How would you describe your food?
Contemporary Persian cuisine is more than kabobs. There are complex flavors in regional dishes like gormeh sabzi, a stew we make with beef shanks and serve in an acorn squash; and fesenjoon, braised chicken stew with walnuts, butternut squash, pomegranate and tamarind.

But you do offer kabobs, too.
Our kabobs are distinguished by how we source, cut and marinate them. Kabob torsh is lamb in a saffron-cream-pomegranate marinade. This dish comes from Iran’s Shomal region, which focuses on sweet-and-sour flavors. The wild-caught sea bass kabob, marinated in saffron and lime, is the dish that made my career.

Your father has quite a life story.
He was in the shah’s air force when the revolution happened. He was arrested a year later by the Islamic militia and put on death row, taken away when my mother was pregnant with me. He had gotten us out of the country, to Turkey. He was in prison for eight years, often tortured, until he was hospitalized and escaped. He swam, in a hospital gown, a kilometer to the Turkish border and was given refuge in a small village. Once he healed, he went to the U.N. asylum office in Ankara. With the help of old colleagues in the CIA, he eventually got an asylum visa to the U.S.

What brought your family to Virginia?
A church sponsored us and we came to Annandale. We lived in low-income housing and got green cards. Dad got a job at Dunkin’ Donuts, delivering them in a van and feeding our family of six on $70 a night, with some government assistance. My mother was a housekeeper. Now we are all American citizens.

How did your parents get into the restaurant business?
Dad got a job as a busboy at a Persian restaurant in Falls Church, Café Rose. The owner was an older man who was ready to retire. He worked out a deal with my dad to slowly give over ownership. That’s when everything started to change for us. There, my father learned everything about the restaurant business. He is one hell of a chef now.

That story might have a different ending were you emigrating to the U.S. today.
President Trump represents the opposite of everything I fell in love with about this country. We are refugees. When we got asylum visas, we felt like the United States welcomed us with open arms. When I took the oath to become a U.S. citizen, I was so proud. Now the same country is telling people like us we are not allowed. To demonize refugees, it’s not right. They have no options.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
Hopefully by then I’ve won a James Beard award (a long shot, I know) and have built my dream restaurant in Arlington: a casual fine-dining place with a small stage for live music and edgy Persian cuisine—the kind that would make it to a Michelin level. That’s the ultimate goal.

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Categories: Food & Drink