To open a restaurant takes a strong desire and the willingness to put everything you have on the line—everything. Naha, the restaurant owned by my cousin Michael Nahabedian and me, is the culmination of years of being in the only business I have ever known. The idea of owning a restaurant had crossed my mind many times, but for some time it was just a passing thought. Over the years the thought evolved, until there was no mistaking restaurant ownership as the inevitable, natural progression of a career that had started while I was still in high school.
Michael Nahabedian was a kinesiology major at the University of Illinois when the course of his life suddenly changed. Needing to take some time off after an accident, he spent a few months in Europe. He returned to Chicago healed, refreshed, and definitely not wanting to pursue the career that he had studied so hard for. In a short time, Michael found himself behind the bar at a restaurant whose main clientele were chefs and restaurateurs, and he quickly found his place in the industry. Michael and I spent a lot of time together; my passion for food soon became his.
I had been working in Los Angeles and Santa Barbara as an executive chef for Four Seasons Hotels, but the desire to be involved in a family project and to return to my hometown, Chicago, kept growing. Our large, predominantly Armenian family supported our new venture from the start. It was agreed that the restaurant would be designed by Michael’s brother, architect Tom Nahabedian. Everyone knew my style of cooking and Michael’s expertise in handling the dining room and wine service, but we were all excited to see what Tom would create. Tom left Los Angeles, his job, and his new bride (temporarily), and set about creating our dream.
Michael and I shared the same vision for Naha, and in only one sitting Tom was able to visualize the design and style of the restaurant. We commissioned our good friend and Chicago artist Lora Fosberg to create art especially for Naha. Like Tom, she left all her other projects behind and devoted herself to the restaurant. The focus of Naha would be on the food and on giving our guests excellent service in a great atmosphere. We took over a well-known restaurant site and began the seven-month construction of Naha.
It was an educational journey, and a difficult one, because for the first time in my career I was out of the kitchen. The mental and financial demands began to take their toll. Michael and I immediately knew who could help ease the pressure. We asked my two sisters to leave their jobs and commute for an hour by train every day to join us at the restaurant. Without hesitation, they both agreed, anxious and nervous to be part of such a wild business. Chris still oversees the reservations and office; Cathy manages the financial end. Both contribute support and humor.
Often during those long months of construction, we would call on our good friend Robert Perry, who was joining us as general manager. Little by little, we were building a small management team. One day I received a call from an old friend in California, who said he was bored with his current chef job. Could I possibly ask Andy Brooks, who had never lived outside of southern California, to come open Naha with us and endure Chicago’s icy winters? After seeing the menus and understanding that he was about to become part of a special enterprise, Andy boarded a plane, leaving the sun and fun. He is still our sous chef and has never looked back. Michael called on yet another friend to fill the position of private dining manager. Lisa Smith promptly joined us and, with no definite opening date yet in sight, began to book private parties. By September, the team was complete, and the million-dollar question of when we were going to open could finally be answered. On November 17, 2000, with all of our family and friends either dining in the restaurant or working there, we opened!
My father has often commented that I have spoiled everyone in the family by taking them to great restaurants and by cooking fabulous family meals. I always disagree and say that I am just a product of my environment. Fine dining is the only level of cooking that I know and love—my twenty-five years in the kitchen have been spent in fine restaurants. I have cooked classic, nouvelle, and contemporary French cuisine, as well as regional American. When I was a cook, I was like a big sponge, absorbing all the knowledge I could from the great chefs I worked for. I also realized that they drew from me, as they knew that I had the will to learn and the stamina to do the work. Having come up through the ranks of every position in the kitchen, I am still a line cook at heart. I like the fact that I can be hands-on all the time. I am blessed by having trained and worked with people who have extraordinary standards, and their influence remains with me to this day.
With a restaurant, you have to set the tone from the very beginning, because sometimes you have only that one opportunity. What I truly loved about my ten years with Four Seasons Hotels was their unwavering commitment to exceeding the guest’s expectations every time. It sounds easy, but when guests walk into a Four Seasons Hotel, they already have extraordinarily high expectations. Michael also understands this commitment to excellence. He is in tune with me when we talk about serving beautiful tea cookies with coffee and the need, though costly, to offer club service in our bar and lounge.
Michael and I are obviously the base and roots of the restaurant, but it is largely thanks to our great staff that we owe the success and recognition that we have achieved. The sense of camaraderie encompasses the bartenders, who know how to mix the music to set the right tone, and the hostesses, who greet each guest with warmth and style. The knowledgeable wait staff includes our personal friends or individuals referred by friends in the business. Everyone in this friendly and loving group knows what Michael and I have vested in the restaurant, so they do their utmost.
My kitchen team has understood my approach to food from the beginning. This tightly knit group knows that a weak link could easily hurt the team effort. In turn, my cooks can count on me to teach them and to share my past experiences. They know that I will stand next to them and cook if someone is sick or needs time off. I am used to cooking for kids, vegans, vegetarians, and those with other dietary restrictions. In fact, I am so used to honoring a guest’s request that I don’t even think of saying no. Here, too, the kitchen team is cooperative and enthusiastic.
The menus and staff have evolved since we opened. I remember when we first put Barigoule of Artichokes on the menu and how long it took to explain the different flavors of such a subtle dish. Now, when a winter dish of venison with hubbard-squash gnocchi and root vegetables is sauced with a traditional grand veneur, our kitchen staff knows to prepare it the way Chef Jean Banchet taught me and the way Chef Paul Bocuse taught him to create the sheen, flavor, and deep richness of the sauce.
As a chef, I have a responsibility to create, utilize, and respect the bounty of the season. Without our local farmers, there would be no food. Chicago’s Green City Market supports organic and sustainable agriculture. From early summer to late fall, almost every chef in the city gets produce from this market. I create our Mediterranean-influenced American cuisine daily, taking into consideration what is available and in season. In fact, I cook only what I myself would like to eat if I were a guest in my own restaurant. And I teach my cooks to cook as if they were cooking for themselves. Cooking, after all, is about love: the love of the food has to come through, or the dish fails.
After two years, Michael and I have the same enthusiasm as when we first started. It is still a pleasure to walk into Naha and know it was created just for us. In this very demanding and time-consuming business, it makes a difference to be surrounded by family and friends who share our commitment. My mother, Helen, taste-tested and picked our own blend of coffee, since this is her expertise. To see the bags come in with the “Naha Blend” label makes me smile. Michael’s mother, Pauline, taught us the recipe for Our Mother’s Feta Cheese Turnovers, which appears on the menu. The secret to these turnovers is the cheese, which my aunt has grated for us and hand delivers, along with freshly baked pita and lavosh from the Armenian Bakery.
Michael and I are very fortunate to have had such excellent reviews and client support, but it is the day-to-day rewards that come from our many guests that are most satisfying. The thought, the dream, and the vision have all come together to create wonderful food, great music, and attentive service. Even on the worst day, the joy I take in Naha is greater than I ever could have imagined.