Chef Donia Bijan has shared family stories for decades. Three years ago, she decided to put her memories on paper, along with recipes inspired by time spent in her mother’s kitchen.
Her first book, “Maman’s Homesick Pie: A Persian Heart in an American Kitchen,” was released on Oct. 11 by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.
At the end of every chapter is a recipe that harkens back to Bijan’s childhood in Teheran, Iran, the time she spent at Le Cordan Bleu cooking school in Paris or her days as an unpaid apprentice for some of France’s most prestigious restaurants.
Bijan took time from her tour schedule to talk about the book, her journey to becoming a chef and the fearless mother who inspired her to become “anything she wanted to be.”
“My mother left Iran when she was just 18,” Bijan explained during a phone interview from her home in the Bay Area near San Francisco. “She had just finished high school.”
Her mother wanted to be a nurse, and since there were no nursing schools in Iran, she went to England for training.
“I have a photo of the entire family, maybe 50 people, standing next to this one-room airport to see her off,” the classically trained chef explained. “It wasn’t that she could go to school and come back for summer holidays. She was gone for seven years. In that time, at that tender age, her feminist tendencies were shaped. She just learned to make her way and her own life. England allowed her to do that. By golly, she was not going to waste that opportunity. My father sensed that in her and loved it.”
Her father, an OB/GYN, and her mother built a hospital in Iran.
“They were trailblazers,” she said. “They approached it as their mission. They were going to build this hospital.”
Had Bijan, her two sisters and her parents remained in Iran, she probably would have followed in her father’s footsteps and become a doctor. The 1979 Iranian revolution forced them to leave everything behind and come to America.
Bijan learned to love cooking by spending time with her mother in the kitchen. That time together became even more important after their exile.
“It is the immigrant experience to continue and pass along the flavors from home,” she said. “That separation from home brings us to the kitchen. We live with this incurable nostalgia and longing. We deal with it by translating that longing into food. The kitchen becomes our harbor. It makes us feel moored instead of feeling adrift.”
After graduating from the University of California at Berkeley, Bijan applied to study at the world-famous Cordon Bleu cooking school in Paris. She was accepted in 1984, the last year the school was under the direction of the famous Madame Brassart. Brassart was in charge of the school when Julia Child attended in 1949.
After graduating, Bijan returned to the San Francisco area and worked in several restaurants. She was doing well, but sensed something was missing.
“When I was working in San Francisco, I didn’t have a life,” she said with a laugh. “I worked two jobs. I worked 18-20 hours a day. I was young and determined. I had watched my parents work the same way. It was like having two hummingbirds in our house. They never sat down. I had a lot of money saved from working and never going out for a beer.”
The young chef realized she “didn’t know anything,” so she applied for apprenticeships with French restaurants.
She went to work, for no pay, at the three-star Michelin Restaurant George Blanc in the French village of Vonnas.
“I was assigned to Marie, the only woman in a brigade of 40, who was in charge of the vegetables,” she writes. “In the farthest corner of the kitchen, she left me to shuck an enormous crate of fava beans next to some Japanese stagiaries, apprentices like me, who were shucking peas.”
While working at Restaurant George Blanch, Bijan was offered an apprenticeship with Antoine Westermann, the chef of Le Buerehiesel in Strasbourg.
“I didn’t realize it was such a big deal for a lowly stagiaire to receive a personal call from a prominent chef and be offered a temporary, unsalaried position,” she writes. “But that phone call elevated my status.”
Arrangements were made for her to begin at Le Buerehiesel in two months.
In the meantime, she was contacted by Michel Guérard, chef of Les Prés d’Eugénie, another three-star restaurant in Eugénie-les-Bains in the Aquitaine region of France.
Bijan was now playing in the big league.
“I got accepted into the inner circle, which was huge for me because I could stand shoulder to shoulder with these giants,” she explained. “It’s what I had hoped for and what I had worked for.”
During this period of her life, a plan came to Bijan. She wanted to marry the flavors of her childhood with the tastes of France.
After she returned to America, she decided the only way to cook food the way she dreamed of was to open a restaurant.
For 10 years, she ran L’Amie Donia in Palto Alto, a place that quickly became a favorite of foodies and critics alike.
“I’m happy to say that in the 10 years we were open, we only had one bad review and that was basically because we didn’t have salt and pepper shakers on the table and the reviewer was offended by that,” she said with a laugh. “It always made me laugh. I’m knocking on wood right now. I was blessed by a very loyal following, but at the same time, I took it very seriously. The responsibility of feeding people is serious business.”
While Bijan was in school, working in restaurants and opening her own place, her parents settled in the Bay Area. Because of the time she spent in England, her mother had no trouble mastering the language. She took tests and received certification as a registered nurse. Her father, however, had issues with English and failed the certification tests. In time, he was able to return to Iran for brief periods, but never practiced medicine full time. Her mother found work as a nurse and then tended to her father prior to his death.
Then, tragedy struck. Her mother was killed in a pedestrian/car accident.
“I sold my restaurant the year my mom died,” Bijan explained. “Of course I was grief-stricken, but there was more to my decision than that. My son was 3 years old. I had waited so long to have him. I’d come home at 1 a.m. and he’d be asleep. I lost my appetite for it [running the restaurant].
Bijan decided to write a book because she was “unwilling to let her parents disappear around a corner unseen.”
“It was about having some extra time with them,” she said. “The writing of this book gave me a glimpse into their lives and allowed me a perspective I didn’t have.”
Delighted with her experience at Algonqin Books, (“How can a person be blessed so many times? They lavished so much attention on me and stood behind me like an army. My editor ‘gets’ me. My experience with them has been extraordinary.”) Bijan is busy at work on a second book, but won’t discuss it.
“I can’t talk about it,” she said. “I’m very superstitious. Even my husband didn’t read this [the first] book until it was bound and printed.”
Superstitions aside, Bijan loves the writing process.
“Next to cooking, there is no better way to quiet the longing.”
The News-Telegram and Algonquin Books have teamed up to offer a copy of “Maman’s Homesick Pie: A Persian Heart in an American Kitchen” to subscribers. Watch the homepage for a link to enter.
Local foodie Jennifer Spellman Philo will prepare one of Bijan’s recipes and share the results with News-Telegram readers. Watch for photos and Philo’s comments in an upcoming edition.
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