A Mother's Touch

Orchard Market chef Nahid Vaezpour has 13 children of her own. And her maternal instinct extends to customers, who are told to finish their meals -- if they want dessert.

May 10, 2000|By Suzanne Loudermilk | Suzanne Loudermilk,SUN FOOD EDITOR

While many other mothers will be relaxing this Sunday, Nahid Vaezpour will be in the kitchen as usual. She'll be overseeing the making of aromatic Persian sauces, deftly chopping feathery herbs and nurturing a huge vessel of aash, a lush soup from her native Iran.

Her day will start early. Sunday is not just Mother's Day. It's buffet day at the Orchard Market and Cafe in Towson, where she is chef, and Vaezpour must be ready to feed the dozens of patrons who find their way to the pretty restaurant in a string of unimposing shops off Joppa Road.

She's a relaxed cook, wearing a plain, white apron over a feminine floral dress, while tending her food. A pinch of curry. A handful of parsley. A mound of sizzling onions. It's a task she's well-suited for.

After all, the 60-year-old mother of 13 -- ages 21 to 42 -- started cooking at age 6 in her hometown of Tabriz, where she made such exotic entrees as dilled rice with lamb and shirin polo, a saffron-scented chicken dish with currants and raisins, over an open fire. There was no oven.

Her early training under the watchful eye of a mother and grandmother sustained her well. Widowed at 39 when her husband, Habib Kamouei, died of a heart attack, Vaezpour had a boisterous brood of seven boys and six girls, the youngest 6 months, to care for. As if there weren't enough mouths to feed, the clan often led a parade of playmates to their home in Tehran for a meal.

"We would always bring friends," recalls daughter Shiva Ghahremani, 23, with a laugh. "My mother would always say, 'My house is always open to guests.' "

The family lived a middle-class life, managing financially with money from Kamouei's estate and contributions from the older children, who worked part-time jobs after school. Vaezpour stayed home to care for the little ones.

As the children grew into adulthood and began relocating to other countries, including the United States, Vaezpour followed suit. Ten years ago, she settled in Baltimore with the youngest four children because a cousin lived here.

The Persian community welcomed the family, and Michael Mir, then owner-chef of the Orchard Market, hired Vaezpour as a sous-chef, even though she had never worked in a restaurant. Later, in a letter to a reviewer at The Sun, Mir wrote about himself and Vaezpour, stating, "We can cook classic and nouvelle Persian food for you, the real way with home-style touches."

He told another daughter, Sharareh Bulkeley, 30, about Vaezpour's cooking skills, "I feel an angel has rescued me."

When Mir decided to move to Naples, Fla., three years ago, Vaezpour, Bulkeley and her husband, Jason Bulkeley, 35, bought the 50-seat restaurant.

Today, Vaezpour speaks little English, content to rely on animated conversations in Farsi with her children. But her lively eyes and expressive hand movements speak in a universal language.

She relays through her daughter that, when the children were younger, she would no sooner dish out food to all of them, seated in a traditional circle, when the first ones fed would be ready for more. Ghahremani, No. 12 in the group and who now lives in New York, remembers a never-ending pot of soup, spanning four stove burners, always simmering in the Iranian kitchen.

Recently, Vaezpour, an attractive woman with mahogany hair and a Madonna-like smile who never remarried, cooed and kissed the air over 4-month-old Sarah Lilla Bulkeley, her newest grandchild of 15, who was visiting the restaurant. "She loves children," Sharareh says.

It's a maternal instinct Vaezpour shares with restaurant customers through food. "She cooks like these are her children," says daughter Shabnam Kamouei, 21, a vivacious Towson University student who often helps out at the restaurant. "She chides them good-naturedly if they don't finish their food. She says no dessert."

Visitors certainly don't want to miss dessert. Creme caramel, Persian tiramisu, coconut napoleons and rosewater and saffron ice cream, all made in house, are just some of the temptations. Other dishes also are prepared from scratch, ensuring colorful presentations and piquant flavors.

Persian cuisine often is a tantalizing blend of sweet and tart, much like life. For Vaezpour, raising 13 children also reflects this intricate balance. The siblings often would ask her, "Who do you love the most?" Shiva says. Her answer? "She would say, 'Whoever needs me the most at that moment.' "

Vaezpour also taught her children about love, says Shiva, who married Saman Ghahremani, an ophthalmologist, five years ago.

"We owe it all to my mom. I respect and admire her," she says. "She has been a role model for all of us."

Shiva and her mother often talk about compiling a Persian cookbook to record Vaezpour's recipes. These recipes are representative of the native dishes Vaezpour prepares at the restaurant.

Fillet Kabab (Kabab-e barg)

Serves 4

2 pounds boned lean loin or sirloin (beef or veal)

8 cherry tomatoes or 4 large tomatoes halved

MARINADE:

juice of 2 large onions (see note)

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