Soul and spirit — still strong, still going

Visions of Iran: Reza Setayesh says that sometimes, particularly in his case, you can’t go home again. Photo by Libby Williams

Reza Setayesh is the Iranian-born chef and owner of Rezaz in Biltmore Village. We simply couldn't course out his last meal, so here is his last night on Earth, in his own words:

What kept on coming to my mind more than anything else was an experience. An experience and a place, a place where there was food involved. To me, memories are more than just a plate. To me, a memorable meal is the food, the ambiance, where you were, the mood that you were in, what you were drinking, who you were with and so on and so forth … When it comes to my last meal, I want to experience that meal with somebody that I love enough to be in my last hours of life in the place where I love to be — to recreate a memory or recreate something that I've always wanted to do.

It would be a Friday night back in the mid-’70s in a little outdoor garden restaurant in Tehran. Probably north of town because the elevation rises and things get a little cooler. So the evening's nice and cool and as you're driving there towards the restaurant, there are all these little side stands [where] you would pick up a bag of fresh almonds, still in their green. You put a little salt on it and then you pop it in your mouth as you are driving to the restaurant.

I remember running through the garden restaurants of Tehran on a Friday or Saturday night with string lights going across the garden. On grass or pebbled sidewalks, there were all these tables set, large tables because those nights, you don't go out as a couple, you go out as a family or go out with friends. That's a celebration. There's a pool in the middle with some water. I remember fig trees in the summer — the smell of the fig trees. I remember sour grapes hanging and us picking them and throwing them at each other. And sour cherries, because I was young, just on the lower branches I was able to jump up and grab a sour cherry. That experience to me, I still remember. I used to run around until it was mealtime and you would have to sit down and start eating.

The meal would always start with a really nice vegetable salad with cucumber, tomato and onion and green leafy stuff and some cheese … and that's where the meal starts. More condiments would keep coming to the table and you would hope you could leave some until the main course comes. The main course was always a nice barbecue. The smell of the barbecue, especially the lamb … the smell of the fresh pita bread and the lavash, the smell of the saffron rice. And then there were some stews that were spread on the table and you could have spoonfuls of that, and the night would just keep going. It was all done family style and you just [ate] as much or as little as you wanted. To me, to be with the family and to be in that scenario, it's going to be [impossible] to recreate, especially with the transformation that [Iran has] gone through, good or bad.

In my eyes, it's very bad. It sucks right now to live there and be amongst what's going on there. … The country is doomed, but the people have not changed. You can never take the Iranian people's soul away from them. They still have a good time … they still celebrate as much as they did then. They used to go to these restaurants [I mentioned], but now they do it all in-house, just because there's so many uncertainties out there — you never know what's going to happen with your family. So they all do it in-house; you can call it underground. They celebrate — dancing, live music, and so on and so forth. It's all done inside. Yes, the country has changed but the people haven't changed. Their soul and spirit is still strong and still going.

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