From Syria, With Love

Ross Newhan is The Times' national baseball writer and a member of the writers wing of the Baseball Hall of Fame. He last wrote for the magazine about baseball agent Scott Boras.

It is a survival story. A survival of family, of career, of so many sweet memories and aromas from a grandmother's dirt-floor kitchen in a remote mountain village in Syria, where the goat cheese was ripened in earthen pots buried in the ground; a survival of the sights, sounds and, especially, the smells of the open-air markets, the bustling souks, where the freshness of the fruits and spices seemed at odds with the eroding problems of the region.

Zovag Soghomonian Karamardian was born in another troubled time in the Middle East, the oldest of four children whose parents' search for stability and security took them from one volatile country to another and, finally, to the United States, where the father, born in Turkey and orphaned by the Armenian genocide, arrived with his family in the foggy shadow of the Statue of Liberty, kissed the ground of New York City and leaned on the limited English skills of his 15-year-old daughter to help them navigate their new home country.

That was 1959.

Today Zovag is one of the nation's most honored chef/restaurateurs. She is the Zov of Zov's Bistro in Tustin, and her success may be the most improbable element of her survival story, given that she had never worked in a restaurant kitchen and had no formal culinary experience when Zov's opened in 1988.

Now, the little girl who could not be persuaded to leave those bare and distant kitchens when her mother and grandmother were stirring soups and baking breads has cooked and lectured with Julia Child and Emeril Lagasse, among many other celebrated chefs. She has seen her initial concept of a takeout deli expand into an award-winning restaurant and bakery that attracts about 1,100 customers daily. She is one of only seven people to receive the Angel Award from the New York-based James Beard Foundation (Beard, of course, being the late father of American gastronomy) for her "independent vision and . . . significant contributions" to the culinary world, and she can laugh when recalling that her husband, Gary, responded to her desire to open a restaurant by asking, "Are you crazy?"

Gary Karamardian admits to a momentary lapse in memory.

"Zov," after all, means "whirlpool in the ocean" in Armenian, and wasn't that the force with which his wife approached life, the force she would bring to her restaurant?

For Zov, now 59, the message goes beyond the enticing soujouk arrabbiata, or the lamb shishlik, or the seafood tajine on a menu that combines contemporary and California influences with her Mediterranean roots.

"Tell me I can't do something, and you're going to lose every time," she says. "Survival is all about taking a risk. If you believe in yourself, are passionate about what you want to do and willing to work hard, then you shouldn't be afraid to take that risk. We may not have recognized the magnitude of what we were doing initially, but I really believe in that Nike commercial: 'Just Do It.' "

Nike would be proud to know that its "swoosh" could be the logo for Zov's spirit, inherited from her late father, Artin Soghomonian. She describes him as a sometimes reckless entrepreneur in his search for ways to support his family. Her mother, Araxi, is still vibrant at 82, still "chairman," as she puts it, of her church kitchen in the Bay Area and still an occasional Zov's visitor, making sure her daughter is following the generations-old recipes for golden lentil soup and other dishes.

When Gary questioned his wife's desire to open a restaurant in what had been a dilapidated ice cream shop in a fairly nondescript shopping mall near the 55 Freeway, his mother-in-law remembers telling him, "Don't worry, don't worry, Gary. I know Zov. I know she can do this."

Araxi was so convinced that she took a second mortgage on her house and loaned the Karamardians $73,000, which has been repaid in full. The loan carried one proviso.

"Cook what you know," the mother told her daughter. "Then elaborate, if you want."

It is this connection to what she learned in other times and places that translates to a sense of family and familiarity among customers, who often arrive saying, "We're home. What's for dinner?"

Says author Dean Koontz, who eats at Zov's almost every day: "If they had cots for us to sleep on, my wife and I would move in full time. The food is excellent and consistent, but in the end it's the personality of the owners. Going for dinner there is like visiting family."

It is certainly like visiting the Karamardian family.

Gary, 66, who left Lebanon at 21 to receive an engineering degree from UCLA, has long since given up his job at Hughes Aircraft to serve as the amiable host, shaking hands, patting backs, offering a little dessert or a bag of homemade bread or confections to his regulars. Son Armen, 32, a UC Riverside graduate and devoted Dodger fan in a sea of Angel rooters, is the general manager and often joins his father on the floor and handles the restaurant's business affairs. Daughter Taleene, 30, who attended City College of San Francisco, is in charge of catering and marketing.

Koontz is so enamored that he dedicated his best-selling "Dark Rivers of the Heart" to the Karamardians and set part of his thriller "Hideaway" at Zov's, describing the meal as ". . . such a perfect sensual experience that the monochromatic bistro seemed ablaze with color." In fact, when he hosted a dinner for the 450 people who had contributed to the building of his new house at Newport Coast, he had Zov's do the catering, with a menu featuring filet mignon.

"It was like a military operation out of a mobile kitchen," Koontz says. "It was so spectacular that it took everybody's breath away, and it simply exemplified Zov and her family's commitment to excellence."

Zov arrives at the restaurant at 7 each morning and seldom leaves before the last customer, refusing to take shortcuts, ordering only the highest quality ingredients and listening and adapting to the wishes of her patrons, who recently convinced her to open for Sunday brunch in addition to her regular schedule of breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Zov says that each dish is prepared with family in mind, and that her travels to Vietnam, France, Italy, China, Mexico, Greece and Morocco have merely expanded the possibilities. "Food is the bridge to our memories, to the people and places we love," she says. "It connects cultures and generations. It has the potential and power to unite people when all else has failed."

Zov was born in Jaffa, Israel, in 1944, four years before the outbreak of Israel's War of Independence prompted her father, conditioned to sudden and swift departures after fleeing Turkey as a youth, to pack one suitcase and take his daughter, son and expectant wife to the home of his wife's parents in the Syrian mountain village of Kessab. There Zov began to learn food practices that were generations old. She also began to develop the pallet that she believes is critical to her profession.

Ultimately, after also living for a time in Lebanon, the family settled in Baghdad. There Artin developed a profitable shoe business, and Zov took ballet lessons from a teacher who also tutored her in English. The family lived in comparative peace only a block from the Tigris River until the 1958 overthrow and execution of King Faisal II, when their attempts at rooftop sleep on steaming summer nights were shattered by the unnerving sound of bullets.

By the following spring, the family left relatives they would never see again and boarded the steamer Julius Caesar out of Naples, Italy, to head for New York City and a reunion with distant cousins, who would be the first to open Zov's eyes to the treats of a supermarket. They also would wail with concern when Artin bought a station wagon, packed up his family again and embarked on another survival saga to San Francisco, driving on an international license he received in Iraq. They were unfamiliar with U.S. traffic laws and only Zov spoke English.

Some way, somehow, they made it without dents and moved into a house that Artin's sister had rented for them in the Haight-Ashbury district, which was about to blossom with the flower children of the '60s. The Soghomonians opened a small grocery store, with their residence above it.

As a teenager, Zov remained immune to the rock and revolt at her doorstep. "We were so happy to be here, so focused on adjusting to a new home and life, and so centered on school and family as the nucleus of our life," she says. "Well, to us everything was new and strange, and we just figured that what was happening on the street was the way it was supposed to be."

She also was centered on her cooking, and she began clipping recipes and bringing items home from gourmet shops. "My dad would say, 'What is this now?' " She seldom missed Julia Child's TV series or the opportunity to buy one of her new books.

"I truly believe that Julia is responsible for the recognition of fine food in America," Zov says. "She taught us what fine food is and how to prepare it, and she made it look easy. She was one of us, not one of those grandiose, intimidating people standing behind a kitchen counter. Later on, I followed her everywhere. Santa Barbara, San Diego, L.A. Just to attend her cooking classes. I feel fortunate to be able to call her a friend."

If it can be said that Zov pursued Julia Child with passion, Gary Karamardian similarly pursued Zov. She was 21 and he was 27 when they met at an Armenian youth seminar in San Francisco. He took her to dinner at the Tonga Room in the Fairmont Hotel and proposed at the end of their first date.

"I was flabbergasted," Zov says. "I told him, 'You don't even know me.' He said, 'I know everything I need to know.' I went to my parents and told them that I thought we should date for a while. They were from the old culture, of course, and they said it wasn't right to just date with no purpose in mind for marriage. So after one date we became engaged, and for the next year Gary flew up from Orange County every weekend. I was attracted to his sense of humor and the fact that he was a true gentleman, and it was nice, too, that he brought me flowers every time." Married now for 37 years, Gary still gives Zov flowers every week.

Zov's love of cooking was still just a hobby in 1973, when she began a catering business out of their Irvine house so that she would be there when Armen and Taleene returned from school and/or needed to be driven to soccer practice. She called it A to Z Gourmet Catering because she wanted to be listed first in the phone book. Its success during days that often stretched more than 18 hours convinced her that she could do more. How much more has been illustrated by the success of her bistro and bakery, and by her dedication in the tenuous early stages.

She would often leave the house at 2 a.m. to drive to the wholesale produce market in downtown Los Angeles, returning to Orange County to begin preparations by 7 a.m.

There were times during that period when the restaurant remained empty, when Zov thought she had made a mistake. Yet the place that opened with three employees and 1,500 square feet is now in its 16th year, with 95 employees, 12,000 square feet and a menu that ranges from the more formal bistro side to the more casual cafe/bakery.

Speaking from her Santa Barbara home, Julia Child says that what Zov has done is "absolutely marvelous. I really admire her for the energy and creativity it has taken to build and operate such an incredible restaurant."

Nothing could be sweeter to Zov than her mentor's accolades, but there has been so much more: A Restaurateur of the Year Award from the Southern California Restaurant Writers; selection as Woman Business Owner of the Year by the Orange County chapter of the National Assn. of Women Business Owners; dozens of awards from the many charity and culinary organizations for which she has raised funds, including the coveted Angel Award from the Beard Foundation after she raised $112,000 at a weekend benefit attended by Child and Lagasse.

The Beard House in New York's Greenwich Village is something of a culinary Carnegie Hall, and Zov's award was followed by an invitation to prepare what turned into a seven-course dinner there for 65 foundation members.

"I would describe Zov as a California phenomenon," says foundation president Len Pickell. "Who she is, what she is, the winning formula she has created at the restaurant has definitely worked its way East. And what really impresses me is her incredible sense of philanthropy. She has done so much for so many different organizations."

There is so much more to do.

Zov will continue giving cooking classes to youngsters at Santa Ana Valley High School and teaching at her restaurant's cooking school. She also will continue offering intern positions at the restaurant and speaking to any organization interested in the "Just Do It" message that anything is possible with passion and hard work, anything is possible in her adopted country.

Zovag Soghomonian Karamardian has authored a survival story in all ways, but, she says, "We're still trying to make it better. The book is still being written."

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