By Annabel Dobbyn, Center Summer Intern, Oberlin College
For Chef Hamid Salimian, food can mean many different things. “It’s your history, your art, and your love all at once,” he says.
Salimian was born in Tehran, Iran, but during the bombing of the cities at the height of the Iran-Iraq war, his father made a decision to move his family to safety. Because his father had invested in a coal mine, the family sought refuge in the small town in northern Iran where the mine was located when Salimian was in second grade. At age eleven, Salimian and his family decided to move to Turkey for three years while waiting to secure an immigration visa to Vancouver, Canada where they eventually arrived in 1995. After working for restaurants in his youth to help his family with money, Salimian decided at age 20 that he wanted to become a classically-trained chef. And today, he lives and works in Vancouver with his partner of over twenty years, Chef Jennifer Peters, whom he met while working at the Metropolitan Hotel. Salimian says that he “deeply admires the courage and conviction that his parents had to leave everything that they had ever known in order to start over in a new country.” The love and admiration on his face when he speaks of his parents is clear. Later, when he decided to join fine dining, he found that it was mostly white male European chefs who were in charge. Later on, it transitioned to white Canadian chefs in high-level management positions. However, says, Salimian this has changed a lot in recent years. “More people of color are being hired into high-level restaurant and chefs positions” because he says, “the proof is in the pudding.”
“Cooking is in my blood,” adds Salimian. Although he never had the pleasure of meeting his maternal grandfather, a cook, he says that his late mother adored food. When speaking of his mother, Salilmian says his mother was “my rock and as a ‘true foodie’.” The vacations that he took with his mother, he says, were a little different because they were organized around his mother’s love of food. Instead of hopping from museum to museum and historical site to historical site, his mother insisted upon going from restaurant to restaurant and bakery to bakery. Salimian describes his mother as a “Martha Stewart type” because she used to “stay up into the late hours of the night making truffles and marzipan, perfecting her recipes,” he says. Not only did she strive for perfection, but she also “desired to be the best.” Salimian recalls that once for his mother’s birthday he took her for sugar blowing lessons. He presumed that it would be a fun relaxing mother-son activity, but “she became extremely competitive and was determined to be the best out of the two of us,” he adds. Salimian credits his mother’s inspiration and influence to his success. “She always told me, you’re either going to put your heart and soul into it or you’re not gonna do it at all. You choose. It’s either all in or not at all”, he says. “And that’s how I’ve chosen to live.” Salimian says that it applies this philosophy to every ingredient he picks, every dish he prepares, and every business venture he undertakes. “I want to be incredibly purposefully and bring everything I have to these things,” he adds.
Salimian’s style of cooking, he says, is based on a blend of Persian and French cuisines, that relies on using ingredients that are part of the Pacific Northwest. “I consider this harmonizing between the cultures and ingredients a kind of artform,” he says. He adds that his plating is very much the opposite. “I don’t plate food based on what looks good or what has the most beautiful colors, but instead I’m laying a map down for them [the customer] without them realizing it.” In some ways, he explains, he is working on the psychology of the person consuming his food and says, “You know, when you look at a painting and you’re like oh it’s beautiful. But the painter has already decided how you are going to look at the painting. The painter has decided how you are going to be drawn in.”
Salimian’s latest adventures are still with food but driven by a different imperative now. Several years ago, he and his partner, Chef Peters discovered that she was gluten intolerant, which shocked both her and Salimian. “At the time, we thought it might end her career,” he says. “I mean, a chef that can’t eat wheat? You’re done. Find something else to do, we thought.” As it turned out, this diagnosis was not the end of her career, but rather the expansion of both of theirs. He describes one day in which they paid seven dollars for a gluten-free scone that crumbled into chalk when Jennifer bit into it, “she decided that would be her next chapter. Right then and there, she announced that she was going to make her own gluten-free flour.” From that was sparked the birth of their company, “Nextjen,” which makes gluten-free and common allergen-free flour available to both restaurants and the general public. Although Salimian insists that Nextjen is Peters’ project and that he is just along for the ride, he wants to believe that his support of his partner has allowed their nine-year business to grow and thrive. “After all,” he says, “Food is a love language, even if you are just supporting the chef!”
Salimian’s immediate dream is to write a Persian cookbook. “It’s something I’ve been meaning to do for a very long time,” he says, but running restaurants and businesses have always come first.” In some ways though, Salimian says he thinks maybe it is a good thing that that project has been delayed. “I consider myself a constant student in the art of cooking, and if I had tried to write a cookbook a few years ago, I don’t think it would not have the same potential it has today,” he says. So keep your eyes out for Hamid Salimian’s cookbook, and, in the meantime, check out some of the products their company Nextjen has on offer!