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From Syria, With Love

How Zovag Karamardian Created a Dining Institution by Blending Passion and a Cook's Curiosity With Culinary Memories From the Kitchen of Her Grandmother's Middle Eastern Home

January 25, 2004|Ross Newhan | Ross Newhan is The Times' national baseball writer and a member of the writers wing of the Baseball Hall of Fame. He last wrote for the magazine about baseball agent Scott Boras.

It is a survival story. A survival of family, of career, of so many sweet memories and aromas from a grandmother's dirt-floor kitchen in a remote mountain village in Syria, where the goat cheese was ripened in earthen pots buried in the ground; a survival of the sights, sounds and, especially, the smells of the open-air markets, the bustling souks, where the freshness of the fruits and spices seemed at odds with the eroding problems of the region.

Zovag Soghomonian Karamardian was born in another troubled time in the Middle East, the oldest of four children whose parents' search for stability and security took them from one volatile country to another and, finally, to the United States, where the father, born in Turkey and orphaned by the Armenian genocide, arrived with his family in the foggy shadow of the Statue of Liberty, kissed the ground of New York City and leaned on the limited English skills of his 15-year-old daughter to help them navigate their new home country.

That was 1959.

Today Zovag is one of the nation's most honored chef/restaurateurs. She is the Zov of Zov's Bistro in Tustin, and her success may be the most improbable element of her survival story, given that she had never worked in a restaurant kitchen and had no formal culinary experience when Zov's opened in 1988.

Now, the little girl who could not be persuaded to leave those bare and distant kitchens when her mother and grandmother were stirring soups and baking breads has cooked and lectured with Julia Child and Emeril Lagasse, among many other celebrated chefs. She has seen her initial concept of a takeout deli expand into an award-winning restaurant and bakery that attracts about 1,100 customers daily. She is one of only seven people to receive the Angel Award from the New York-based James Beard Foundation (Beard, of course, being the late father of American gastronomy) for her "independent vision and . . . significant contributions" to the culinary world, and she can laugh when recalling that her husband, Gary, responded to her desire to open a restaurant by asking, "Are you crazy?"

Gary Karamardian admits to a momentary lapse in memory.

"Zov," after all, means "whirlpool in the ocean" in Armenian, and wasn't that the force with which his wife approached life, the force she would bring to her restaurant?

For Zov, now 59, the message goes beyond the enticing soujouk arrabbiata, or the lamb shishlik, or the seafood tajine on a menu that combines contemporary and California influences with her Mediterranean roots.

"Tell me I can't do something, and you're going to lose every time," she says. "Survival is all about taking a risk. If you believe in yourself, are passionate about what you want to do and willing to work hard, then you shouldn't be afraid to take that risk. We may not have recognized the magnitude of what we were doing initially, but I really believe in that Nike commercial: 'Just Do It.' "

Nike would be proud to know that its "swoosh" could be the logo for Zov's spirit, inherited from her late father, Artin Soghomonian. She describes him as a sometimes reckless entrepreneur in his search for ways to support his family. Her mother, Araxi, is still vibrant at 82, still "chairman," as she puts it, of her church kitchen in the Bay Area and still an occasional Zov's visitor, making sure her daughter is following the generations-old recipes for golden lentil soup and other dishes.

When Gary questioned his wife's desire to open a restaurant in what had been a dilapidated ice cream shop in a fairly nondescript shopping mall near the 55 Freeway, his mother-in-law remembers telling him, "Don't worry, don't worry, Gary. I know Zov. I know she can do this."

Araxi was so convinced that she took a second mortgage on her house and loaned the Karamardians $73,000, which has been repaid in full. The loan carried one proviso.

"Cook what you know," the mother told her daughter. "Then elaborate, if you want."

It is this connection to what she learned in other times and places that translates to a sense of family and familiarity among customers, who often arrive saying, "We're home. What's for dinner?"

Says author Dean Koontz, who eats at Zov's almost every day: "If they had cots for us to sleep on, my wife and I would move in full time. The food is excellent and consistent, but in the end it's the personality of the owners. Going for dinner there is like visiting family."

It is certainly like visiting the Karamardian family.

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