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Something About Carrie

An executive chef's secret passion: Armenian feasts

December 08, 1999|BARBARA HANSEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In Carrie Nahabedian's mid-Wilshire townhouse, a broad coffee table is covered with mezze. One plate holds yalanchi, rice-stuffed grape leaves sprinkled with fresh mint leaves. Another contains the garbanzo bean dip hummus, streaked with rivulets of golden olive oil. Crackers and grilled triangles of pita bread go with the dip. String cheese, Greek olives and thin slices of basturma (seasoned dried beef) share a platter, and a shallow bowl contains huge, glistening red prunes, pistachios, cashews, raisins and large Medjool dates.

Enough, right?

Not for Nahabedian. She brings out cheese boeregs, which are pastries stuffed with feta, cottage and Kefalotiri cheeses. Just out of the oven and made with fresh filo dough, they're unbelievably light and flaky.

Crowding the dining room table are platters of lamb kebabs, grilled peppers and onions, a bowl of pilaf that combines rice and fine noodles, a giant bowl of tabbouleh salad and a plate of cucumber sticks. There is also choereg, a slightly sweet Armenian bread seasoned with a spice called mahleb.

And the final platter holds baklava so thick with nuts that it makes other renditions of this Middle Eastern dessert look paltry.

"It's a very simple meal," says Nahabedian.

She can turn out a spread like this with no struggle for two reasons. First, Nahabedian is Armenian, from a family of gifted cooks and generous hosts. Abundance is second nature in that milieu. "A big thing in an Armenian household is always to have more food than you could possibly eat," she says.

Second, she is executive chef of the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, a post that demands such a high level of expertise that a meal like this could seem easy.

On the job, Nahabedian concentrates on Mediterranean-Californian food. But this day, she is at home, cooking the foods she grew up with. This is because her parents, Helen and Mark Nahabedian, are visiting from Florida. The weekend before, she orchestrated a dinner in Las Vegas for 55 relatives and close friends to celebrate her parents' 50th wedding anniversary.

"I don't think you have enough food," warns Helen Nahabedian, who is helping with the pilaf and contributed the choereg.

Carrie Nahabedian is out on the patio of her sunny townhouse, grilling the lamb. But there is only meat on the skewers. Where are the usual squares of bell pepper and onion? "I don't like that." she says firmly. "That's a real American version." Nahabedian marinates the lamb with red wine, oregano, onion and olive oil. "You keep it as simple as possible," she says.

Lamb is often the main dish when Nahabedian entertains. "I think I've cooked lamb just about every possible way you could cook lamb. I love lamb. I make a joke: Being Armenian, you're part lamb and part bread." She likes chicken too, and fish, but borrows from Greek cuisine for fish recipes. "Armenians don't cook it that much," she explains.

Nahabedian's father walks over to the grill and says, "We all boast about our children, but this one's something special." He talks about how she's self-taught, never went to culinary school, never needed to.

Born in Chicago, where her parents lived before retirement, Nahabedian did not cook until she was 15, when her mother was sidelined from the kitchen by surgery. "Those two months really defined my life," she says.

Weary of eating in restaurants, Nahabedian told her father, "Cooking can't be that difficult. Mom cooks every day." And so she plunged in, not at the beginning but with a cheese souffle. The recipe came from the Time-Life book "The Cooking of Provincial France."

"I cooked the entire book in two months," she says. "I was like this big sponge. I was soaking up everything you could possibly think of." Rather than hamburgers and spaghetti, she was making chicken with artichoke hearts and tournedos Rossini.

And not just by the book. "I learned very early on how to take creative liberties," she says.

At 17, Nahabedian went to work part-time at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Chicago. From room service, she progressed almost immediately to the kitchen and within six months was cooking for the fine dining restaurant, working all stations. "It really comes naturally for me," she says.

You could say it's in her genes. "My mother cooks so tremendously," she says. "And my grandmother, Rose Nahabedian, was known in Chicago as the queen of Armenian cooking." Carrie learned pilaf, yalanchi and other dishes from Rose, and she has clipped recipes from both women to the back of her favorite Armenian cookbook ("Armenian Cooking Today" by Alice Antreassin [St. Vartan's Press, 1989]).

Nahabedian went on to cook at such illustrious Chicago-area restaurants as Le Perroquet, and Le Francais in suburban Wheeling, Ill. She transferred to Los Angeles after three years as executive chef of the Four Seasons Hotel in Santa Barbara.

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