Chef uses food to connect past and future

California chef Donia Bijan is author of "Maman's Homesick Pie: A Persian Heart in an American Kitchen."

Story highlights

  • Chef Donia Bijan has used food to look at her past and present culture
  • She says food will always bring people together
  • Nations, she says, should use this as an example to bridge gaps

How can food evoke the past and change someone's future?

California chef Donia Bijan explores both in her memoir, "Maman's Homesick Pie: A Persian Heart in an American Kitchen." As a young girl in the late 1970s, Bijan left Iran with her family at the start of the Islamic revolution there.

Years later, she attended the Cordon Bleu cooking school in Paris and ran the successful "L'amie Donia" restaurant in Palo Alto, California, for 10 years.

But, she says, the invaluable lessons she learned from her mother, and the influence of her Persian culture and family, stayed with her and continues to influence her food, and life, today.

CNN's Asieh Namdar talked to her about her journey and how food has been a common thread through it all.

CNN: How did your interest in food and cooking begin?

Bijan: I was a really shy and awkward little girl. I found out pretty quickly that the place where I could find my confidence and comfort was in the kitchen. That's where I knew exactly what to do. I was never shooed away by my mother whose cooking was amazing and brought everyone together. She would ask me "don't you want to go outside and play?" and I would say "No"... and she would say "fine" and give me tasks to do. There were simple tasks like washing the fruits and vegetables, but for me the responsibility was enormous, arranging the fruit on a platter was like a painting or piece of art.

    CNN: How did your parents react to your decision to be a chef?

    Bijan: I knew exactly what I wanted to do, I just didn't know how to express it. I just couldn't tell someone I wanted to be an "ashpaz" (cook). It was not considered a proper profession. Young educated ladies became doctors and lawyers, not cooks!

    Fortunately I ended up in Berkeley, a food mecca of sorts. It was a renaissance for me because people made their own decisions about their lives, not based on some formula you had to follow, which was a common theme in Iranian families. That was such a revelation to me. When I realized I was in charge of my own life, I knew then I wanted to cook.

    The hardest thing was telling my dad. I was 20 and the youngest of his three daughters, his last hope for becoming a doctor like himself. His reaction was explosive. I knew it would break his heart. Mom was extraordinary, it was incredible how much confidence she had in me. The kind of confidence I didn't even have in myself. I think she knew ultimately that children have to follow their own dreams and whatever you try to force on them will backfire. I don't know how she knew that, coming from a place where women didn't have a lot of choices.

    CNN: What are some of your most vivid childhood memories in Iran before the revolution?

    Bijan: My dad was a doctor (Ob/Gyn) and built a hospital fresh out of medical school. My mother worked there as a nurse. He imagined this idyllic life where the two of them were partners and they would build this beautiful hospital together. I was born at that same hospital, and we lived in an apartment on the top floor. I used to think everyone lives on "top of the shop." I didn't know it was unusual until my 7th or 8th birthday and mom had a party for me in the garden of the hospital. Patients would stroll around in their hospital robes around the pool. Most of them were women who had just given birth. My mom always motivated them to get up and walk around, and get fresh air. I remember patients would be strolling, and some of the kids would ask, "Who are those people?" and I would say, "Those are the patients" and my friends would ask "What patients?" "My dad's patients," I would say, "What's the big deal?" One kid never came back.

    CNN: How did the revolution change things?

    Bijan: My mom had become politically active -- she was a women's rights advocate, a member of the parliament. She fought really hard for some basic things we take for granted. We were away on vacation in Spain in 1978, when my uncle called and advised them not to come back. She knew there was not a place for someone like her in a theocracy. That was that. She never went back. ...

    In every family, there's one parent who holds out hope ... the other wants to move on.

    My dad felt his destiny wasn't in London, Paris or Sydney ... it was in Tehran, where he was simply known as "doctor." He never got used to life in the U.S. My mom realized very quickly the choices were limited. She didn't want her children to live in perpetual exile. She wanted to make sure we had a place (we) could call home. Without having a place to call your own, you lose your sense of possibilities. She felt if she went back, she'd be thrown in jail, or killed. It was very clear-cut for my mom. She knew what she had to do. Thank goodness, she had her extensive background in nursing, so she fell back on that in the U.S. and got a job as a nurse.

    CNN: Why a book?

    Bijan: My mom died the same year I sold the restaurant, in 2004. ... My whole word turned upside down. I went from working ungodly hours to nothing. My profession was the kind of job that demanded my attention in the present, so I had never thought about the past. Without the pressure of having the restaurant, I found myself looking more and more to the past and wandering down memory lane. Picking up memories like an archaeologist inspecting fossils, I realized that everything I had become could be traced in the imprints of those fossils. Things I hadn't thought about in years were resurfacing. The more I wrote, the more present my mom became. ...

    I was fortunate enough to chase one dream ... and become successful at it. ... I'm working on a novel now about women, and there is an Iran link in there.

    CNN: How can food -- and lessons from your mom -- bridge world problems?

    Bijan: My mom was one of the first women to join the fight for equal rights. It's because of her relentless efforts that women gained the right to vote 1963. A registered nurse and midwife, she founded one of Iran's first nursing schools. When we were forced into exile, she worked hard to restore a sense of belonging for our family. Even after she retired, when war broke out in Kosovo, she volunteered as a nurse for a medical aid agency and delivered babies in refugee camps. She never spoke of her accomplishments. I believe she simply followed her instincts to do the right thing. She was on good terms even with people who considered her their exact opposite. She did not judge them. She was friendly with the know-it-alls, exchanged recipes with the grumpy, the ill-tempered, and often picked up groceries for people who needed help.

    Take risks, take a chance --- make a difference: My mom never stopped looking for ways that connect us. "That's too easy, dismissing someone who is different from you so you can surround yourself with like-minded people," she'd say.

    I like to think of her method as an example of how nations could bridge their gaps -- seeing each others' humanity allows us to sit at the table together. "Who doesn't enjoy hot soup and good bread?" Her lessons have been my constant companions.