In 2011, Brian and Laura Smith were proverbial ships passing in the night. They both worked at Rezaz Mediterranean Cuisine in Biltmore Village, but Laura’s position as a pastry chef required early hours, while Brian’s sous chef job brought him in later in the day. Despite the odds of getting together, the couple managed to steal time to get to know each other better. Today, this restaurateur couple have sealed the deal in more ways than one.
Married in January 2015, the following July they grabbed the opportunity to purchase the place that brought them together. While the past year has brought some challenges and a little change, the couple say they couldn’t imagine doing anything else. And, while the couple arrived at this point from very different directions, the match seems to work well.
Laura has a dual degree in patisserie and cuisine from Le Cordon Bleu and a degree in hospitality and management from Syracuse University. She started hanging around professional kitchens in her hometown of Birmingham, Ala., when she was 12 years old. She always knew she wanted to own a restaurant.
Brian was born in Florida and is a UNC Asheville graduate with a creative writing degree. He first started working in restaurants as a way to make money during college. He’s a self-taught chef but says he owes much of his food knowledge to the six years he worked under Rezaz’s previous owner, Reza Setayesh. He also learned a great deal about the management side of the business while working at the Texas Roadhouse. He also spent a few years at Pomodoro’s, another Asheville favorite, where he was schooled in the art of cooking.
“I didn’t come from a cooking family but was always drawn to cooking shows,” he says. “I used to watch the ‘Galloping Gourmet’ and have put together quite a library of books. Laura and I have one big wall at home that is mostly devoted to them.”
Xpress recently spoke with the couple about cooking, working together and how their business has evolved since they purchased it from its original owner.
Mountain Xpress: What’s the secret to working together and staying together?
Brian Smith: We anticipate each other’s needs and try not to be selfish. If Laura needs to sleep in one day, she does. I can always tell when she needs a little time alone, and I’ll say something like, “Hey, why don’t you go walk the dogs for a bit?”
Laura Smith: Yeah. We’re here all the time – and I mean all the time – seven days a week. I can just look at Brian and tell when he needs a break. You have to support each other, or it won’t work.
You bought the place from its original owner, Reza Setayesh. Does he come in to eat?
Brian: Yes. He comes in with his family. That’s the main reason he sold the place — to spend more time with family. He loved this place and continues to influence us; we have a very symbiotic relationship.
How do you divide your chores?
Brian: We’re both very hands-on. I’m the executive chef, and Laura continues to be the pastry chef. She also handles the payroll. We both work on day-to-day stuff and have a wonderful staff of about 20 that we know we can rely on to make it all work.
What kinds of changes have you made since you bought the business?
Brian: We were both taught a great deal by Reza and continue to embrace the place’s Middle Eastern roots. We are working to give some of the dishes a more authentic foundation. For example, we serve a rice pilaf made from an ancient grain, freekeh. After the grain is harvested, it’s set on fire so only the wheat and chaff burn, not the seeds. Change is not something that happens overnight. We have a devoted clientele, and people have come to expect certain things. We’re a work in progress. Our first change was a slight name change from Rezaz Mediterranean Cuisine to Rezaz Modern Mediterranean Cuisine. We don’t want to seem too old-school. We’re working with more farmers and trying to reel in a younger generation of clientele. We want to be part of all that Asheville is. We’re doing more special events and tastings too. We don’t just want to be that place you come for a special occasion.
Laura: We’ve also given the place a little makeover inside. Among the changes, the colors have changed to a cool blue, and we’ve added some great food photography and lively art to the walls.
You also own Enoteca, which is attached to Rezaz. Tell me about that place.
Brian: The Enoteca offers more deli-style dining during the day and serves up a wine bar atmosphere at night. It’s for people who want more grab-and-go and less service.
If you could have dinner with anyone in the business, who would it be?
Brian: Thomas Keller — he’s mastered the art of being a restaurateur.
Laura: Escoffier. We still rely on him centuries later.
What’s your favorite kitchen tool?
Brian: Fish spatula.
Laura: A hot towel and a rubber spatula. One thing I hate are timers. I never use them. Brian doesn’t either. Cooking is intuitive. You just know when it’s done.