At some point in the last few years, the Bon Appétit Test Kitchen became a cultural touchstone, not only for a new generation of cooks but also for wider millennial and gen Z culture. But no sooner did it reach peak saturation in the age of quarantine home cooking than it become a lightening rod. A deeply flawed approach to diversity and representation quickly boiled to the surface in the most dramatic of ways and made headline news countrywide. When I first heard the news, I thought of my friend Andy Baraghani, who is one of the biggest stars in the BA firmament (witness articles with titles such as ‘How Andy Baraghani Became the Internet Boyfriend of Our Dreams’) and a few discussions we’d had over the years about travel, and his devotion, bordering on fervor, to the cause of bringing new cultures and ingredients into America’s most famous kitchen.
As a gay Iranian in a place many of us writers used to refer to as ‘Bro Appetit’, it was often an uphill battle. But I was also aware that that there were battles he had won (see his beautiful Beirut piece, or tutorial on evocative Iranian dishes—once unthinkable in a magazine dedicated to holiday cookies, BBQ in July, turkey in November and laundry lists of hot new restaurants with the most tatted up of chefs). For those like Andy in the BA Test Kitchen, it has been a painful few weeks—a moment that from an outsider’s point of view will likely turbo charge a correction in global food representation and its fascinating context. It’s something that I know always has been and will continue to be one of his chief motivations (that and making sure his biceps look good and his face remains sun-damage free: see his travel answer in the Questionnaire). In light of this moment and rethinking definitions of American cuisine and food culture, I spoke to Andy about our mutual coming of age at Chez Panisse, the importance of the cultural context of recipes, the food destinations he’s keen to explore in the US, and viewing his Iranian childhood through rosewater filled glasses.
DP: Tell me about your background, and your Iran connection.
I’m first-generation American. Both my parents are from Iran; they came to the States a few years before the revolution, to the Bay Area where my Dad went to grad school. They settled in Berkeley, which I think they still think is the greatest place here.
The food love of Iran started for me at a very early age. I grew up in a household where we cooked the majority of our meals. My parents both had full time jobs, but we always had family coming in and out so there was always someone additional to feed. My mother’s side really have a deep understanding of the backbone, you could say, of Iranian cuisine. It would sometimes get quite regional, because they come from the north—they’ve got recipes that go well beyond the sort of go-to’s of Perisan cuisine. My dad’s side know a lot about Iranian preserves. Torshi, which are the pickled dishes, and murabba, which are the jams and preserves. I remember there was often that lingering smell of hot vinegar in the kitchen growing up, from the eggplant and onion pickles. They’re not sweet pickles like you find in the US; they’re puckery and tangy, and made with dried herbs; tarragon, or mint. What makes the preserves different—though this isn’t unique to Iran, it happens all over the Middle East—it’s the breadth: sour cherries to rose petals to pumpkin. And to finish it off, they’d add a bit of orange blossom water or other flower water to amplify the aroma. And my Dad would typically eat them with flat bread and a fresh sheep’s milk cheese. So basically that’s a long, long way of saying that I grew up in a very food-centric family…!
DP: And so you ended up at the second-most famous landmark in Berkeley, Chez Panisse. And that’s where our paths just about barely crossed. I recall you once said that Chez Panisse was one of the most inclusive work environments you’ve ever been in.
I knew all about CP really because of my family. They would talk about this place a lot; it was, ‘Oh, Chez Panisse, it’s a really famous restaurant.’ And the woman behind it—the famous Alice Waters. And as I teenager I became actually a little bit obsessed with the fact that this place was right over there, maybe a 10-minute drive from where I live. I remember checking the website, and what their old homepage looked like. And then my aunt bought me the book. And I realized that my love of food went beyond the acts of eating and experimenting in my mother’s kitchen; it was about going for the next step, and seeing myself in a professional setting. I just really wanted to cook in a restaurant.
I love connecting with people—I have so many good people in my life from all over the world—but the truth is I’m a bit of a forced extrovert who’s actually a lot more comfortable being on his own. And I was quite shy back then. But at the same time I think that gutsy, curious boy still very much exists in me. In any case, I somehow got up the courage to go to the restaurant. I said, ‘Hi, I’m Andy, I was looking to see if you guys would take on an intern.’ I sat down with Beth Wells; and I remember her face—very gentle, very caring, but a bit confused, like, You’re in high school…? ‘When would you come?’ she asked. And I said after school on Fridays and Saturdays. I was so eager, you know: I’m available! Use me! And so they brought me on as a 16-year-old intern. And I worked my way up from there.
And everything goes back to Chez Panisse. I look at my time at Saveur, at Estela. It all leads back there. That network was always—is still—giving. I had that base foundation, which my mother and grandmother gave me; but Chez Panisse gave me the building blocks to be a cook.
But I also got lessons there I took beyond the kitchen. There was one episode where there was a new, young female apprentice, and one of the cooks was really dismissive with her; what he actually said, because I remember it clearly, was ‘Just stand there and look pretty.” And within—I can’t recall exactly how long it was, but within a few days at most—they let him go. In the kitchen, front of house, back of house—Chez Panisse was, and still is, a place for everybody. That respect, that communication—it worked. As long as you were open, and curious, it would become a second home. I almost was spoiled by the fact that it was my first kitchen, because subsequent ones have been a lot rougher around the edges.
DP: When you do set out to travel again, what American food cultures are you super keen to explore?
You know, I haven’t been able to travel nearly as much around the States as I’d have liked. The dream was always to buy a car and make all the stops. But with work being what it is, I’ve never had that long three-week stretch you need to do that trip justice. I’ve tried a few different parts of the South; though I somehow have yet to get to New Orleans. I’m really curious about Charleston, Savannah. But Memphis and Nashville too. And I really want to get to Dearborn, in Michigan, which has the largest Lebanese population outside of Lebanon. That’s the thing—people don’t realize there are the most incredible pockets like that across the country. You know, you have the largest Iranian population outside of Iran in Los Angeles. You can get certain dishes there that would be very, very difficult to find anywhere else [in the US].
But then, I also want to go get the absolute best Isaan food there is in New York. Because that’s also what the US is all about. If America is a melting pot, well that means you have to acknowledge that all these influences exist, and coexist—all the different ingredients and flavors. And we have to be open and curious about that aspect of American cuisine too. To me, that mix is kind of the thread that makes America, America.
In order to really grow and evolve, as a cook or a human being, we have to able to put ourselves in uncomfortable positions and situations, small and large. Whether it’s a dish we’ve never encountered before, or having those uncomfortable talks with family or friends, over issues that let’s say we’re not in total agreement about. We have to push ourselves to stay, to stand, in those moments, to really grow as individuals. And also as a society.
DP: When it comes to the line between following a traditional recipe in a food culture and the evolution of that recipe in, and to, a different place: where do you think that line is—and how do we navigate that? Because ultimately cuisine is kind of always in evolution, right? I mean, pizza was initially an Arab dish. The origins are always there, but things meld, at a certain point. What do you think?
Totally. And they travel, too, by the way. [Look at the evolution of] noodles, from China to the West. They’ve travelled and evolved and there are so many different forms now.
I don’t know exactly who gets to say where the line is placed. I will say—and I speak for myself here, as a cook and a recipe developer and a writer—that it’s very important, if I’m introducing an Iranian dish, that I guide people to a very clear sense of what it is [in its original form], before there’s any kind of 2.0, or riff, or streamlined version of it. People need to be given that framework. Because if you start with the wrong information in the passing down of the thing, you’re doing a disservice to the audience. And not only to them—to that culture. And yes, we all know that people want [to simplify]—to cook for less time, to have to work with fewer ingredients. But as with any craft, one should educate oneself; do the research. And not only do it, but then also actually create the space for the people who have that knowledge and should be spreading that education.
DP: You once told me that you take a trip once a year, by yourself, to a new country. Share a couple of your most memorable moments on the road.
I’m very lucky to have been able to travel. I made a rule for myself after I moved here. I said, this will be my home, and I’ll be here for the long run. But in order to love it I’ll need to take breaks form it, and satisfy my curiosity for so many other places in the world. So yeah, I go to a new country, by myself, every year. There have been times I’ve been able to go away for upwards of a month. What it is, is a check-in for me; to exercise my mind, my body, my sense of taste. The first one that really popped out for me was Turkey. I was there for a month, during the riots at Thaksin square. And I was staying in the Beyoglu district. The [action] was kind of right there, and the Berkeley boy in my just got right in it. It felt like home! (laughs). But what remains with me was how incredible the food was. From the mussels stuffed with rice and lemon by the Bosphorus, to the kebabs with charred peppers, to these tiny, tiny dumplings doused in a tangy yogurt.
It was also perhaps because it was the closest I had been able to get to Iran. And while the food I find to be very different, they’re not so far from each other. It was something that left a big impression.
And then Vietnam. I’ve travelled around Asia a lot. It’s a favorite in every sense, especially in that whole new worlds are [short] plane rides away from each other. But there is something about Vietnam. I travelled from Sapa in the north, all the way south, and I just could not get enough. From the summer rolls with fresh eel to the fried shrimp fritters with baby squash and ngoc cham. The crispy-fried shrimp with the salad. I don’t think I’ve ever eaten so much, and was so consistently happy and satisfied.
DP: And when the passports can finally come back out, where are you dying to go next?
Well the place that will always be Number One is Iran. It’s the missing piece. My father’s Iranian, which allowed me to get the passport. I had every intention to go almost two years ago, but I had to cancel my trip because of the political turmoil between the two counties. It’s bizarre—I speak Farsi fluently, I know the cuisine so well. I try to do what I can to shed light on the food and the culture. But I’ ve still never been there.
Where will your next vacation be? I actually took too long to respond to this questionnaire because I’ve been in the middle of planning a road trip to New Mexico next week!
The thing you can’t travel without? Sunscreen. This may sound silly but anyone who knows me, knows that I am all about the sun block.
When were you happiest while traveling? If I’m traveling, I’m usually fulfilling some kind of curiosity and that typically puts me in a happy state. I’ve learned to embrace the delayed flights, lost sunglasses, missed connections and carry on. There is still much more to see and much more to do.
If you could live at any hotel, which would it be? Either Amangiri in Utah or the insanely magical La Colombe d’Or In the South of France.
The place/trip that challenged you most? I was staying in Cihangir near Taksim Square in Istanbul during the riots in 2013. I fell in love with the city and country but there was so much unrest and frustration. It was hard to be there (for almost a month) while seeing the anger and struggles of the locals.
What is your room service indulgence? Things I don’t often eat: A BLT with avocado, salt and pepper potato chips, and a can of Coke.
The strangest place you’ve spent a night? A shed on the island of Koh Lanta in Thailand. There were no rooms on the island and I decided to fly there last minute. I slept on a cot, which the owner gave me and I was very grateful for his hospitality and his dog who kept me company.
What is your favorite market in the world? Oof this a tough one. I love the Vanves flea market in Paris, the market at the Ferry Building in San Francisco on Saturdays, Mercado Sonoroa in Mexico City…
What are your showoff spots in your hometown? Even with all the changes, I still think Berkeley is pretty magical. The food, the people, nature…there really is no where else like it. I’d probably grab a slice at Cheeseboard Pizza, then head to Farmers Market on Shattuck. An espresso and seltzer and as many pastries as I can get from Masse’s before heading to Indian Rock or, preferably, Grizzly Peak to get the view of the Bay.
If you could travel to any place in any epoch, which would it be? New York 30 years ago. Maybe a little over 30 years. As a former party boy, I think I would have had some fun in New York in the 1970’s.
Which places would you happily spend a weekend, a week, a month, and a year and why?
A weekend at Esalen in Big Sur, CA to smell the briny Pacific, do a workshop, and find some calm.
A week in Berlin to go to the museums during the weekdays, then go out all weekend.
A month in Iran. I would want that time to go north to the Caspian to dip in the water and then try the best caviar in the world, visit the gardens of Shiraz, the ancient site of Persepolis, the tiny mountain village, Massouleh, Tehran, Abyaneh…so many places. Maybe a month won’t be long enough.
A year in Paris because after California and New York, I’ve spent the most time there. My French has gotten rusty over the years but I could easily spend a year or longer over there.
Where are you embarrassed that you’ve never been? Japan— because I have had a love for the culture, food, film, clothing, fashion, design for much of my life.
Co-Founder and CEO David Prior was formerly Contributing International Editor of Condé Nast Traveler and Contributing Editor at Vogue Living. David was named by Bloomberg Businessweek as “One to Watch” in 2018 as part of the publication’s prestigious Global 50: the people who defined business in 2017.