By Nader Mehravari, Ph.D., Center Volunteer
Nourishing people is what Chef Hoss Zaré and his family do. His surname, meaning “farmer” or “one that plants seeds” (زارع in Persian), is a nod to his father’s and grandfather’s expansive fruit orchard in the Iranian northwestern city of Tabriz, to the memory of his and his brother’s corner vegetable and fruit stand, and to the embodiment of Zaré’s early food-loving and nurturing spirit. This spirit would later take him to the Bay Area where he worked as a busboy, oversaw an entire professional kitchen, became a self-taught executive chef and restaurant owner, and is now today working as a chef making Persian food creations in Google’s facilities worldwide.
“Hoss” to his friends, colleagues, peers, customers, and admirers – is one of nine siblings from an extremely close-knit family. His father and grandfather were farmers who owned and cultivated an expansive fruit orchard in Tabriz – one of the historical capitals of Iran, currently the capital of Iran’s East Azerbaijan Province, and the fifth most populous city in Iran. The family orchard used to produce over 45 varieties of grapes, several varieties of apricots, plums, peaches, and apples, along with many other fruits and vegetables. As teenagers, Hoss and his younger brother took advantage of an abandoned storefront in their Tabriz neighborhood and established a very successful summertime fruit and vegetable stand. It quickly became a popular destination for home cooks in their community. After the initial success, they expanded to a larger storefront next door. The income from their entrepreneurial adventures, not only generated extra spending money but continued to support the entire family for the years after hard times fell on the Zarés after the Iranian revolution.
Currently, Zaré is an executive chef at Bon Appétit Management Company with culinary responsibility for Middle Eastern and Persian cuisine for Google cafés. The road to his current pursuit has been one full of turns, challenges, triumphs, and recognition. Throughout, however, he has been true to his lifelong mission of demonstrating, evangelizing, and educating individuals and groups about the strong ties that exist between the culture of Iranian people and Persian cookery.
At Fly Trap, his first full-time restaurant job, he cultivated love for learning and attention to details. With the mentorship of owner Walter Zolezzi and Chef Craig Thomas, Zaré advanced from line cook to sous chef and eventually became executive chef. It was also during this period that he picked up the nickname of “Four-Eyed-Chef” as he would not only flawlessly execute and pay attention to his own responsibilities in the kitchen but would also keep one eye on the other chefs in the kitchen, helping them out when necessary. While leading the kitchen at Fly Trap, he gained the loyalty of customers that have followed him as his culinary journey has expanded and grown. At Fly Trap, Hoss became well-known for his passionate service and his other nickname, “Hoss-pitality” became a fitting moniker.
After many years, Zaré left Fly Trap to lead the kitchen at Ristorante Ecco, followed by an executive chef position at the popular Aromi Italian restaurant on Polk Street. In 1997, he established his first restaurant, Zaré, on Sacramento Street, where he began to formally incorporate Persian cuisine and Persian cookery techniques into his menu. Following his success at Zaré in Sacramento, he acquired the Aromi restaurant and relaunched it as Bistro Zaré. After almost 10 years, making a name for himself in the city of San Francisco, he relocated to Napa where he opened Zaré Napa in 2005.
His culinary followers, admirers, and customers included a wide range of local, state, and national personalities including the legendary Julia Child. While she dined at his Ristorante Ecco, Child admired his dedication and approach not only to culinary arts but also the warmth and welcoming atmosphere that he created in his dining rooms and kitchen. It was during this period that he also was widely featured in various local and national print and digital media. None of this fame, however, distracted him from appreciating his native Iranian upbringing, his early career beginnings, and all those who have had a hand in his success – he still has and cherishes a little green notebook his mother gave him back in 1986 when he left Iran, full of handwritten Persian recipes.
Despite his success in Napa, Zaré missed the dining scene in San Francisco and his loyal customers. Destiny would bring him back to San Francisco and Fly Trap – which he purchased, reopened and renamed Zaré at Fly Trap. While he added more Persian-inspired dishes to the menu, his ultimate goal was to introduce Persian food and its associated cultural connections to the San Franciscans. His success came from his desire to introduce “Persian fusion” where dishes kept their authentic Persian flavors and aromas but were presented differently in order to capture the interest of Persian food novices. At Zaré at Fly Trap, Hoss also introduced diners to authentic and regional Persian dishes that were generally not offered in traditional Persian restaurants such as Koofteh Tabrizi (large stuffed meat-rice-herb-legume balls in a savory broth) or Ghelieh Mahi (tamarind flavored seafood and herb stew).
After selling his most successful and beloved Zaré at Fly Trap in 2016, and spending some time visiting with family members in Iran whom he had not seen in many years, (six sisters and tens of nieces and nephews), he eventually joined Bon Appétit Management Company in 2019 as an executive chef. He started that endeavor by traveling to 13 states across the country and trained more than 300 chefs in Persian food and Iranian food customs. His approach included teaching them the basics of several traditional Persian dishes, familiarizing them with the authentic tastes, flavors, and aromas of Iran, and then encouraging them to make their own versions for each of their respective client environments.
Although traditional culinary customs are important to Zaré, he has been at the forefront of highlighting Persian cuisine by reframing it in order to making it more accessible to a more diverse and broad group of eaters. This initiative has gained him the respect and recognition of the culinary world. Hoss’s innovative and creative twists on Persian cuisine, while still capturing the flavors and aromas of those original recipes, have made him known worldwide. This desire to make Persian food and its associated Iranian culture visible to larger communities are what led him to his current endeavor at Bon Appétit, where he designs and develops recipes and Middle Eastern and Persian food concepts for all Google cafés around the world. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, approximately 250,000 meals were being served daily in approximately 75 Google cafés worldwide. Before his arrival at the “Google food scene,” there used to be an occasional (maybe once a month) Persian dish presented in some of Google cafés. One of Zaré’s dreams had been to make serving Persian dishes in Google cafés a regular affair. Only a year after starting at Google, Zaré says “he has made his dream a reality.” Zaré says he believes in “the concept that food is culture.” He looks at his success in introducing Persian food in Google cafés as (on average, 12,500 daily Persian meals served to Googlers around the world) and wants to “make a direct connection to the food and culture of Iran and its people.”
For Zaré and others who are in some form, way, or shape are involved in Persian cookery, food is an important instrument to practice and share Iranian culture without the need to deal with the political and religious headlines of the day that often distract us from what is really important— feeding our bodies and souls. For that, we are grateful to Chef Hoss for his evangelizing food mission!
We will be undertaking a new adventure with Chef Hoss and Chef Hanif Sadr as part of the “Iranian Diaspora Food Project”—stay tuned for more details soon!