By Lizette Kodama - special contributor
Photo courtesy by Nasrin Rejali
Growing up in Iran, Nasrin learned secret recipes and cooking skills from her grandmother. In 2014, she had to leave Iran with her three children. They first immigrated to Turkey, where they stayed for two years; in the fall of 2016, they made their journey to NYC and started over. Since her participation in the NY edition of the Refugee Food Festival, organized by the U.N. Refugee Agency and a French nonprofit called Food Sweet Food, Nasrin has been on a path to connect with people through her food, building her brand for her 5-month old Nasrin’s Kitchen, and sending a message to other refugees like her who migrate to the U.S., that they too can achieve their dreams.
Welcome, Nasrin to Chefs for Impact!
By Nasrin Rejali as told to Chefs for Impact
Who would you say is your biggest influence on your cooking? And, what was your one defining moment when you knew you wanted to cook professionally?
“My grandmother. In Iran, the children are always looking to their mother or grandmother to learn everything from. I lived with my grandmother and she taught me everything. My defining moment was when I made a stew, ghormeh sabzi, which is really hard to make. A lot of people make it but not perfectly. My aunt and my cousin were visiting us and for the first time, I tried to make it, and they loved my ghormeh sabzi! I was 8 or 9 years old at the time.”
What are three words to describe the personality of your food, your cooking?
“Love, because if you do not have any love for cooking, you cannot do a great job; honesty, being open and honest through my food; and, connection or connecting with people through my food, not just with Iranian people but with everyone.”
What would you suggest for a person who has never had Iranian food? What would you recommend for them to try first?
“I would suggest koofteh tabrizi. It’s a meatball with ground beef and lamb mixed together well with rice, saffron, with a whole egg, apricot, berries and raisins all together with sauce. It is so, so yummy!”
How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted you?
“It has changed my whole life. Before COVID I was working as a chef at Eat Offbeat, after that I became unemployed. So I thought, maybe this is the time to start my own business.
I connected with a contact at the Refugee Food Festival and she introduced me to Polonsky and Friends who helped me with my LLC, set up my website, everything I needed for my business. I cannot express enough how much this meant to me to start my own business.
For this past New Year's Eve, I prepared dinners and I had one of the writers of New York Magazine order one of my dinners and she loved my food! This turned into an interview with New York Magazine as well. Yes, the pandemic has been bad for many, and there have been many challenges, but there are also opportunities. Nasrin’s Kitchen is now 5 months old!”
You participated with the Refugee Food Festival in 2018 and 2019? Will you still be involved with the Refugee Food Festival, if it still happens in 2021?
“Yes, I would love to stay involved simply because the festival was a great opportunity to connect with a whole bunch of other people, This experience showed me you can go anywhere, and how much people made me feel welcome. This is what makes me strong and confident. This is a huge help to me and other refugees.”
You have been in NY since 2016, with a wealth of experience under your belt, are you taking on a role to help mentor, share what I've learned and engage with other refugees?
“I would love to do this. It’s very important. I honestly could not start my own business without my friends, my support network. They were ones that pushed me to try new things, promote me to their network of contacts. I would love to do something like that for others. I’m so fortunate, it’s a gift. I see a lot of refugees coming to the United States and, so talented but cannot speak English and have no family and no contacts here and there is a need to provide support for them.”
We have a new president. What was the emotion you felt when you first heard that news?
“I don't understand all the words from the President but, I feel good! It's exciting and there is so much positive energy. I am so happy, he's better than before! It’s focused more on peace and people loving each other. The President said, “Our neighbor is not our enemy.” This makes me happy.”
What do you do when you are not in the kitchen?
“This time is a very good time for me to think more about my homeland, to write my story on how hard it is to come to another country. When you don’t understand another country’s language, it makes you shy, makes you less confident. This pushes me to write about my story when I’m not in the kitchen.”
Learn more about Nasrin’s Kitchen: https://www.nasrinskitchen.com/shop