Meeting Mahfam years ago was pure serendipity. While attending a friend's birthday dinner, I mentioned something very specific at the table: that I was looking for a person to marinate olives for the Spanish restaurant I was about to open. Well the stars were aligned that evening, because Mahfam was there, and olives were her passion.
Her olive blends were bright, fresh, complex, visually beautiful, and were one of the best memories I have of my former restaurant (which is a sentiment probably shared with many of the customers). Flash forward ten years later, she now is the owner/operator of her own business specializing in her marinated olives and handcrafted foods. Read about my lucky meeting with Mahfam, where I was treated to a delicious variety of loghmeh (small bites), including borani ye bademjoon, as we talked about being an entrepreneur, gaining self-confidence, and Persian hospitality.
This spread looks absolutely beautiful! All of the colors, the herbs! It has such good energy about it! Well, I do believe your energy goes into your food. I like to connect with the food and think about who I am serving it for, having positive energy while I am cooking it. I notice when I am rushed, my food just doesn't taste as good to me.
Is that something you were taught, or, is that something you learned innately? Energy? I think it's a mixture of both. My mom always said, you have to have good energy, a good feeling in whatever you do, or it will show. She's an artist - she paints and she has her moments where she doesn't like what she's created because perhaps something has been worrying her, or something has been negatively affecting her. She can see that those thoughts pour into her work. So, yes, I believe it's a mixture of both - experiencing it and hearing it from her since I was little. Although when I was little, I thought she was just being, you know, a mom. When your mom tells you something like that, you might be thinking they are just thinking about the old days, but then later you totally get it. I remember getting ready to go to culinary school, and I said I wasn't going to do Persian food. I wanted to do the whole haute cuisine, but now I've come back to my roots because I appreciate it more, and I want to share that food with my kids as well. Food is connection.
Yes, definitely! So what are you preparing now? Right now I am making an eggplant dish called borani ye bademjoon. But please, have some of this while I am cooking (pointing to the spread on the counter). There's boiled potatoes with boiled eggs served with a turmeric aioli and fresh herbs. We'll eat that with some bread. There's strained yogurt, labneh. And then in everybody's home there's our version of "trail mix". There's always mixed nuts and seeds with dried fruit to pass around to your guests while talking. Basically, I wanted to do everything in loghmeh, which in Farsi means small bites or a bite to eat before your main meal.
These adorable little green things are almonds, right? Yes, they are unripened almonds. What I love about them is in Iran, it's all about patience, but then there's also this "we just can't wait". These are the latter! At least that's how I see a lot of Persian foods. These almonds are so delicious, you just put a little salt on them, and eat them as a snack. You eat the whole thing. Be cautious when you bite into it, because, well, it's an almond. They are crisp!
So how long have you had your olive business? Officially, like paying taxes? A year and a half. But I started doing them when I was 18, giving them as gifts...I didn't even think of it as a business. But then one Christmas, everyone loved the way I jarred the olives - you could see all of the colors, and the spices. My sister said we should start a business and sell them. But I was only 23 at the time, and in culinary school. I was thinking on a larger scale that I wanted to gain more experience and that I would eventually want to have my own restaurant, etc. etc. That's why I thought it was the Universe bringing us together when we met at Parisa's birthday dinner. When you said you were looking for someone to marinate olives I thought how RANDOM! I mean it wasn't like you were looking for a pastry chef! I thought I can do that! I never thought I could make olives my career.
But you did! What was that process like? I started working at Whole Foods as a buyer and I gained my confidence to start the business by seeing other people with small businesses succeed. I got to see how local producers started small and were now in the grocery store. I thought I can do this! Because ten years before, when my sister suggested starting a business, we were looking at those details that kind of scare you from doing things - the technicalities like insurance, the kitchen, and so on. It didn't feel fun anymore and it actually felt stressful. Intimidating. Working at Whole Foods was meant to be for me as well, because I got to see the process as not so intimidating.
So now that you've gone through the process and your company is growing, what words of inspiration can you give to other women who may feel intimidated by the same process? I really think it boils down to not having fear and having confidence in yourself. I didn't have that confidence in my twenties, and it wasn't until I was 32 or 33 that I gained that confidence. And mainly, no one is going to believe in you until you believe in yourself.
Were there resources to help you get your product out there once you gathered your self-confidence? Or did you just have to figure this out all on your own? I had to figure out a lot on my own, in a sense that I knew I wanted to get into the farmer's markets first - they had this checklist. So I knew I had to do what was on the checklist first, like have a business tax license, register my business, find a commercial kitchen to make my product. I did a lot of "asking", and I do recommend to just ask around to those doing similar things. Although, I noticed a lot of people didn't want to share information, and I didn't like that. I learned later for myself, that when people ask me, I am going to give them all the information they need if it helps them grow. Obviously if you have a "secret spice" that's different, but if you don't want to help somebody start their business because you are afraid to see them succeed, because maybe you're afraid they may be more successful than you, that's on you. We learn from each other, and that's how we become better.
I love that. And right now you are teaching me that I need to make more food when I have guests over! Ha! Like most Iranians, we never stick to one dish, that is a true thing! When somebody comes over...it's always a feast! And that is what home is to me. When my mom cooked, it was never just "one thing". You have to do everything and kind of go over the top. Abundance is very important. You give to your guests, even if it's the very last of what you have. One of my favorite memories of Iran is of driving through the mountains in the outskirts of Shiraz with my aunts and cousins. It was my first trip there as an adult, I was 20 and my younger sister was 18. We were driving around enjoying the beautiful scenery, when we saw a family of nomads. When we asked if we could stop and take pictures of them, my aunt said, "well that's rude, you cannot just stop and take pictures, but let's go meet them". They (the nomads) were very welcoming and so excited to see people from America. They invited us to their tent, and they gave us tea, and started giving us whatever they had. One of the things they served us was kashk, which is the dried whey from making yogurt, they gave us nuts and raisins, and then they were going to start cooking for us! They didn't even know us, THAT is Persian hospitality.
If you want to experience Mahfam's hospitality for your next special event, and live in the Phoenix metro area, I encourage you to check out her website HERE. You can also visit her new restaurant, Mingle + Graze located in downtown Chandler. To see her recipe for the delicious boryani ye bademjoon she made for our Meet + Eat, go HERE.