“I’m a firm believer in fate,” the general manager of the new Reno Mediterranean restaurant Naan & Kabab said. “Although it sounds a bit corny when I say it out loud.”
Afraimi laughs now while saying it, but his past has proven to be anything but a joke. The 67-year old chef, who has 12 different restaurant openings under his belt (some of them five-star ranking) actually stumbled upon cooking.
A fortunate chance that makes Afraimi smile as he looks back on it.
Afraimi, a Sephardic Jew originally from Iran, immigrated to America when he was 17 years old. He hoped to pursue a career in aeronautics.
Like any other money-strapped student, Afraimi needed extra cash for school and took on a dish washing job at a restaurant in California, making a meager 95 cents an hour.
“It was before civil rights were even around,” Afraimi said, explaining he had grown accustomed to prejudice at an early age while living in Iran. “I was abused and mistreated, but it was a job.”
Before long, Afraimi grew interested in cooking, often asking the head chef to teach him, only to be told that “his kind would never learn.”
“I did learn though,” Afraimi said with a grin. He eventually took the head chef’s position.
And when a group of regular, albeit picky, customers came in one day and he received a 25 cent tip for an excellent plate of steak and eggs, Afraimi knew he had found his calling.
“That was a big tip in those days and for what I made (in an hour),” Afraimi said. “I realized then that this is my destiny, this is where I need to go.”
Since then, he has been trained in French cuisine and taught culinary arts for 11 years for Job Corps. He kicked a cocaine habit 28 years ago that he says made him appreciate all the little things in life. Now, nearly 40 years after he started by washing dishes, Afraimi is here in Reno — the reasoning he divulges later: “I love the sunsets here.”
Walking around the restaurant, Afraimi greets guests warmly, asking them how their meals are, showing a genuine gratitude for them coming in today.
After all, in today’s business climate, businesses are closing, not opening.
“If you have a plan and passion, in a bad economy you should do it,” Afraimi said. “Everything is cheap. We used my life savings for this and it was well worth it. I don’t regret it at all.”
The “we” Afraimi is referring to is are his partners and friends head chef Michael Eghbali and Nick Nazmjo, who own and operate the restaurant together.
“I’m kind of like Obama,” Afraimi said, with another chuckle. “I surround myself with very competent people. You have to be comfortable with yourself to do that.”
The menu, which touts affordable items easily boasting a meal for under $10, is made up of seafood, falafel, gyros and all the makings of traditional Mediterranean cuisine.
“We truly are the only Mediterranean restaurant in northern Nevada,” Afraimi said, adding that all ingredients are locally bought. “It’s all freshly made to order.”
Inside the quaint, brightly colored building, located across the street from the Peppermill Casino, the brick walls are decorated with seascape paintings, the lighting is soft and the dining floor is intimately small, causing the room to buzz with conversation on a busy night — all making the atmosphere more than inviting.
“Our goal is to making it friendly and comfortable here,” Afraimi said, before checking in on a nearby table of guests. One woman at the table even remarks that the food takes her back to Iran.
And like authentic Persian and general Middle Eastern cuisine, the food, Afraimi said, is healthy, prepared in open fire grills to eliminate and burn away the fat.
“Mediterranean cooking is known for being very healthy, because it is,” Afraimi said. “And I truly believe our health has a lot to do with everything else in our lives.”
Over at our table, Afraimi takes a moment from his busy lunch routine to share a plate of the more than healthy veggie combination: dolmades, falafel, humus and baba ganoush, all traditionally prepared and packed with flavor.
Next, my vegetable kabab and his kabab koobedeh (mixture of fine ground beef, lamb, onion and spices) come out, already delectable in their presentation. Both plates are served with a side of perhaps the most fluffy and tender basmati rice around, as well as charbroiled vegetables and saffron sauce.
“A good meal should be balanced in flavor,” Afraimi said. “If you do that, you can satisfy almost any palate.”
Our dessert, a shared portion of baklava and Akbar Mashdi’ (homemade ice cream with pistachios and saffron), is eaten as soon as it arrives, the combination of sweet flakes and rich cream acting perfectly as a light ending for the late lunch.
Elated (and full), I couldn’t help but smile.
“That’s what I love,” Afraimi said. “When a customer leaves and is happy about the meal he just had.”
For more information about Naan & Kabab, visit their Web site at www.naanandkabab.com. The restaurant’s hours are 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., seven days a week.