Celebrity chef Ariana Bundy first became famous for her recipe book, The Sweet Alternative, a collection of gluten-, dairy- and soy-free desserts. The American-Iranian chef will be visiting Cape Town for the first time this May for the Good Food and Wine Show. We chatted to her about her favourite restaurant cities, hobnobbing with Brad Pitt and Madonna, and what’s hot in Iranian cuisine right now.
You had quite a cosmopolitan upbringing: Iran, London, New York, Paris, Rome, Switzerland… How was this experience? How did it affect your cooking?
It was amazing growing up in each city; sad to be leaving friends behind but there was always a new adventure elsewhere. The food in each city was fantastic and, no matter where I lived, it brought people together.
What’s your favourite foodie destination?
I have so many. Japan is where I would like to go next, but Singapore is also a gem. I love the Singaporean chilli crab and all their wonderful concoctions. Iran is also a fabulous place to visit with fresh, top-of-the-line produce. As you can see, I can't choose just one city!
What’s your failsafe weeknight dinner?
Zereshk polo, a tender chicken and saffron dish, served with rice and topped with sweet and sour barberries. Easy, quick, and always hits the spot.
What’s the first thing you learnt to cook?
Fried onions. My grandmother would put an apron around me and make me stand on a stool and let me stir the onions until crispy and golden. I loved eating them with a little salt, or on top of asheh reshteh, an all-in-one hearty stew with fresh herbs and pulses served for Persian New Year.
As a child, what was your favourite meal cooked by your mother?
Pomegranate soup with tiny meatballs and tons of fresh herbs. The recipe is in my latest cookbook, Pomegranates and Roses, and it's magical.
What are your five desert-island ingredients?
Saffron, tamari, rose water, lemons and rice.
You catered for some A-list parties while working at the Mondrian in LA. Did you get to meet any of the stars?
I met the stars that came to our restaurants, but briefly, as I had to pop back in to the kitchen. Brad Pitt, Madonna, the Clintons, Julia Roberts… So many people used to come that we would lose track. At the end of the day, everyone was a valued customer, but meeting the stars was always exciting.
It seems gluten, soy and wheat allergies are on the rise. What’s your advice for those recently diagnosed with food intolerances?
There are so many substitutes out there, but you need to make special effort to find them. Ask for them at your local stores. Get online and meet others and ask what they are doing. Sweet Alternative allowed me to discover so many wonderful ingredients that may be new to our market now, but that have used for centuries in older cultures.
Your latest recipe book, Pomegranates and Roses, gave you an opportunity to showcase Iranian cuisine, and educate people about a culture of food most of us know little about. I’ve also read that you were nervous about that aspect.
Iran is filled with women who are extremely skilled cooks. Since these recipes have been around for thousand of years and passed on from mother to daughter, people have a very set idea of what it should be like. I am one of those people – I want to preserve the identity and integrity of Persian cuisine. I present it in a new way or create shortcuts, but keep the tradition alive by sticking to the recipes. Maybe once the world knows a bit more about it, it'll be time to experiment a little.
You’ve mentioned that when working on Pomegranates and Roses you initially wanted to produce a cookbook on modern Iranian food. What are some of the trends in food in the country at the moment?
There are lots of fast food places popping up. (Traditional food is eaten at home.) There are also some great restaurants serving foreign food such as Asian, French and so on. This was the norm before the revolution (my fatherowned the first fine dining French restaurant there) but after the regime change all of them had to shut down. Now they are opening up everywhere again and people are very excited about them.
What are your plans while you’re in Cape Town for the Good Food & Wine Show?
I can't wait to come to Cape Town. I have heard so much about this amazing city. I have visited Joburg and know that the quality of produce is outstanding but now it will be coupled with incredible nature. I am looking forward to seeing the people of South Africa, exchanging ideas and talking to them about my own experiences of Iran.
What’s up next for you?
I'm working on a new book and, hopefully, a TV series showcasing the wonderful food, nature and historic sights of Iran and the region.
By Katharine Jacobs
Try Ariana’s Ice in Heaven, a traditional Iranian dessert.