Like many people her age, Nasim Alikhani had a sense that time was running out. At 52, she had already endured the disappointment of seeing her longtime dream—opening her own Persian restaurant in New York—postponed again and again.
Her dream was deferred first by the birth of her twins at age 36, then by the demands of motherhood, and then again by the sheer improbability of succeeding in an industry where 75% of new ventures fail within two years.
And she knew that none of the additional challenges she would face—the physical stamina required, the unrelenting stress—would get any easier as she got older.
So in 2011, when she laid out her business plan to her husband, a Wall Street financier, he said, “Do you realize this is probably the dumbest business decision we could ever make?”
“Yes,” she replied. “I’m fully aware of it. But we are doing it.”
The real risk
How could she be so bold? Because age, she realized, also has its advantages.
Being well-established in life meant she was not alone: Her husband agreed to finance the venture, lend his expertise in keeping the books, and even help with the interior renovations.
Over the years, she had kept tremendously fit, running marathons and climbing the imposing Mount Damavand in Iran, the country she had left for New York City at the age of 23.
Most importantly, she had acquired the wisdom to understand that not pursuing her dream would be the riskiest move of all, dooming her to a lifetime of regret. “I can live with failure,” she says. “But I cannot live with the question, ‘What if?’ ”
A passion postponed
For Alikhani, it was now or never. She found the perfect location in the brownstone-studded Brooklyn neighborhood of Prospect Heights, but there were many more obstacles, from complex landmark preservation laws and an intransigent city bureaucracy to renovation delays. The project languished for seven years.
During the interim, she kept up her spirits and culinary chops by cooking—for homeless shelters, the weddings of friends, local charities—whipping up everything from a traditional frittata-like Kuku to salads to spicy fish in tamarind sauce.
Cooking had been a lifelong passion, but Alikhani had never worked as a professional chef; her pre-motherhood job had been running a copy shop, while earning a masters in international affairs on the side.
Making money was one thing. Cooking was something else entirely–not just something she enjoyed, but her very reason for being. “I had to cook,” she says.
So she gathered new recipes and improved old ones, went to culinary school, and even toiled for other chefs as a prep cook and line cook.
No rest, but plenty of raves
Working for other chefs made Alikhani realize how stressful kitchens can be. Her own restaurant, she vowed, would not fall into that trap.
Rather, it would be dominated by the warm feelings she remembers from the strong women in her family—her mother, grandmother, and aunts—for whom cooking was almost a sacrament, an expression of love.
Finally, in June of this year, just before turning 59, she secured the necessary city approvals, finished the renovations, and opened Sofreh.
With a minimalist décor and Persian calligraphy of the restaurant’s name carved into the concrete walls—“sofreh” is the fabric food is served upon—her dining establishment has not only received rave reviews but is generating enough cash flow that it could become profitable within its first year.
The journey has been far more difficult than Alikhani expected. Finding dependable staff has proven to be a major headache, and the hours are brutal.
Six days a week, she arrives at 9 a.m. to manage the business, cook, and prepare for the 6 p.m. opening. Then she takes a one-hour break and works until 10 or 11 p.m., making sure all the guests are well served. There are no days off.
Sofreh is closed on Mondays, but Alikhani still comes in to plan for the coming week. It’s the kind of schedule that someone half her age would find exhausting.
Living the dream
Inspired by the chance to celebrate her culture and its cuisine, Alikhani is loving every minute of it, and her customers can feel that energy as they feast on homemade yogurts, fresh-baked bread, and entrees like Fesenjan, a chicken stew simmered with ground walnuts and pomegranate molasses.
Stepping inside Sofreh and absorbing its light, airy atmosphere often makes her clientele say they feel like they’re on vacation. That is by design, with Alikhani setting the tone with her gratitude to be finally doing what she loves.
“As a 30-year-old, I would not have had the courage to do this,” she admits. “When you’re young, you’re always worried, self-conscious, scared. Now that I’m older, what do I have to lose except just living my life to the fullest? At 59, I’m working much more now than in my 40s, and in much better spirits.”
Yes, her restaurant dominates her life, leaving time for little else. But if she could do it all over again, she wouldn’t change a thing. When Alikhani arrives at the Sofreh every day, she realizes, “I’m actually living my dream. What is not exciting about that?”