Ask Zov Karamardian what the culinary scene was like in Orange County when she decided to turn her popular home catering businesses into a tiny Tustin brick-and-mortar in 1987 and she'll tell you one word: nothing.
"There really was nothing here 30 years ago," she says.
Restaurants serving the kind of home-made artisanal food she was passionate about just didn't exist.
Even if they did, they definitely wouldn't have been serving croissants and charcuterie alongside then-exotic items such as couscous, hummus and her mother's famous lentil soup.
By the time Karamardian decided to open the first Zov's Bistro in the quaint Enderle Center just off the 55 Freeway, the Armenian immigrant (who was 14 when her family fled revolutionary Baghdad and landed in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury neighborhood) had already spent over a decade building a word-of-mouth reputation as a gracious and versatile event chef.
She got the idea to move the business out of her own kitchen one day when wandering around Enderle Center while waiting for a gift purchase to be wrapped.
Her vision: Turn A to Z Gourmet Catering into a casual coffee shop and marketplace like the ones she remembered seeing everywhere from France to the Middle East.
"My whole intent was to have a Starbucks, a small place with good coffee where you could get artisanal food to go," she says of the 1,500 square-foot former ice cream shop where she eventually opened the first Zov's Bistro. "But I was way ahead of myself. Back then, nobody took food home, everybody cooked. … But people liked everything I made so much that they didn't want to leave. So slowly but surely, we evolved."
Karamardian is now one of Orange County's most beloved local chefs and her restaurants are one of the few around that can claim to have fostered multiple generations of hardcore regulars.
Part of the success lies in a menu full of "Zov-y" versions of familiar favorites — pasta, burgers, salads, flatbreads — all made with French techniques buried beneath layers of Mediterranean flavors.
But much of the restaurant's appeal lies in Karamardian herself, who is as humble about her role as the heart of Zov's as she is about her achievements as one of O.C.'s first recognizable food personalities.
Over the years, the accomplished self-taught chef has cooked at the James Beard House, organized charity dinners with Emeril Lagasse and even counted Julia Child — a woman who Karamardian watched on TV every day as a teenager and considers a mentor — as a close personal friend.
She self-published two cookbooks and was named both Restaurateur of the Year by the California Restaurant Assn.and California Chef of the Year by the governor's office.
All this before "celebrity chef" was even a term.
"It was never about making money or being a businesswoman," she says. "As strange as it may sound, it's not about me. It's about customers. It's about the community. It's about helping other people."
Today, as the company celebrates 30 years in business, there are four Zov's Bistros across Orange County, which doesn't include the two counters inside the John Wayne Airport or the Zov's Bakery & Cafe and Zov's Marketplace, which both nest within the sprawling Zov's headquarters, built around the original bistro in Tustin.
The Marketplace, which opened in 2012, is a return to her original coffee shop concept, where you can get a gelato or a cup of joe and buy daily doses of muffins, rugelach or nut-packed jumble cookies, all made by Karamardian's longtime pastry chef, Michelle Bracken.
Karamardian's two children have joined the family business; son Armen is leading the expansion of the Zov's brand as CEO and daughter Taleene manages the creative side of the restaurants, including recent updates to the brand's look and feel.
Karamardian's husband, Gary, now retired from a career in aerospace, is a fixture at the Tustin Zov's, greeting customers at lunchtime and sitting down with regulars for a drink.
At 72, Karamardian herself is as energetic as ever. She's cut back on her on-site cooking classes and doesn't hobnob with the big-name chefs as often anymore, but she's still as strong a force as ever at her namesake restaurants, working up to six days a week, many of them in the kitchen, making jams and pickling things and experimenting with her signature spice blends just like she's been doing since day one.
"My goal was to retire at 50," she says with a laugh. "But retirement is hard when you're doing what you love, and even harder when you come from a long line of survivors, who know that life is too short to not take risks or fear failure.
"All I can say is that if you have the will to do what you love and the passion to do it, you can't fail," Karamardian says. "It's true. If you love what you do and you're not afraid to work and you have the perseverance, how could you fail?"