ref:topbtw-3061.html/ 17 Agosto 2021/A
Le buone notizie da San Francisco..
The chef who brought shish kebab to America escaped from a Turkish prison first.
Somehow, George Mardikian channeled the pain and hunger from his survival of genocide:
He went from a dishwasher to a world-famous San Francisco restaurant owner who won the Presidential Medal of Freedom and dedicated his life to feeding people.
All of this he did with a smile.
Omar Khayyam's - an Armenian restaurant with elegant Middle Eastern decor named after
an epicurean Persian poet - was destination dining for San Franciscans for more than 40 years
at its underground location near the corner of Powell and O'Farrell streets.
Celebrities and professionals paid upscale prices while armed service members and refugees ate for free.
Its shish kebab and bulgur pilaf were the main draw for a largely white clientele unfamiliar with such food.
But the restaurant drew its life force from, as poet William Saroyan called him,
"the big man with the bright face coming over to your table."
Mardikian was among America's first celebrity chefs and was as close to a Guy Fieri figure as San Francisco had -
in terms of fame, relentless optimism and generosity.
Fine-dining guides and Chronicle columnist Herb Caen celebrated him, NBC gave him his own radio show in the 1940s,
and he wrote an autobiography and cookbook.
When Omar Khayyam's went up in flames in 1980, it marked the beginning of the end for Armenian restaurants
in San Francisco.
Today, no specifically Armenian restaurant exists in the Bay Area.
Mardikian, who died in 1977 at 73 years old, nevertheless inspired many in the food business.
One of them was Levon Der Bedrossian, an Armenian who emigrated from Lebanon and opened his first Le Méditeranée
in 1979 in San Francisco - it is still serving Middle Eastern and Mediterranean food there and in Berkeley.
Der Bedrossian's first memory of Mardikian was as a 12-year-old in Beirut, where he saw Mardikian, in his
customary all-white outfit, speak at an Armenian college while traveling to bring Middle Eastern refugees to the U.S.
"I don't remember any words, but it is a subliminal image," Der Bedrossian, who is 74 now, told SFGATE.
"We all are survivors of the massacre.
I consider my parents and grandparents as refugees.
Our collective experience has been one of there wasn't a big role model for us.
We were surviving.
"Here is this man as an Armenian who is helping. It was a good role model that made me proud."
Mardikian's enthusiastic love for America began before he got here. He was the child of a prosperous, landowning
family in present-day Istanbul when his father and other
family members were rounded up and slain by the Ottoman Turkish government in 1915.
An estimated 1.5 million Armenians were killed in the resulting genocide, with many more displaced.
Mardikian sought to fight back as a 15-year-old guerrilla fighter.
After Armenia's independence was briefly recognized in 1918, he organized Boy Scout troops before war broke out against invading Russia.
Lt. Mardikian was captured by Turkish forces and imprisoned for about two years, forced to chop ice on a frozen
river while fighting starvation.
It may have ended that way if not for some intervention from an American friend Mardikian had made.
Capt. Eddie Fox, who was directing Near East Relief, urged Mardikian's captors to release him on account
of his being an American.
The Turks apparently bought the lie.
Mardikian boarded a ship for Ellis Island and took a train to San Francisco to join his brother and sister in 1922.
Mardikian often talked of his Ellis Island stopover as a foundational moment in his life, including on
Edward R. Murrow's "This I Believe" radio show in the 1950s. "My feelings when I first saw the Statue of Liberty cannot
be described," he said.
When Ellis Island opened as a national historic site in 1976, Mardikian was one of six U.S. immigrants honored.
In San Francisco, almost penniless and living with his siblings, Mardikian was hired as a dishwasher
at Coffee Dan's on O'Farrell and Powell.
Mardikian wrote in his cookbook, "Dinner at Omar Khayyam's," of his transformative first days
in San Francisco, witnessing hundreds of happy beachgoers and walking past people who smiled at him
when all he had known was hostility. He vowed to let go of his own anger right there.
"Since then, my ability to smile has been of the greatest help," Mardikian wrote.
"I could smile when I couldn't talk English, and while I was learning to cook.
I think my ability to smile, even when I was losing money, gained me the many friends who have made the restaurants
Mardikian spent several years working his way up to floor manager at Coffee Dan's while working hard
to eliminate his accent because
"I was young and proud and I didn't want anyone laughing at me," as he said in a 1962 interview with the Chronicle.
He had been promoted to cook when he received his citizenship in 1928, and he vowed to make food his life's work.
Mardikian left town and spent two years on an international food odyssey - learning recipes and techniques on cruise
liners, working for a master chef in Egypt and reading manuscripts at an Armenian monastery in Venice, Italy.
"It was through these musty, old manuscripts that I came to realize that Armenian cuisine goes back 3,900 years," he wrote.
After seeing the world, Mardikian settled down in Fresno.
Which made sense as a proving ground for Armenian cooking, given it had one of the largest Armenian
populations in the U.S. He opened his first Omar Khayyam's there as a lunch counter in 1930, with his new wife,
Nazenig, working as greeter and cashier.
What vaulted an immigrant cook in Fresno to international fame? Says one expert, it was a breakout
magazine feature produced by two traveling food writers-slash-secret lovers.
John Birdsall, himself a food author, points to a September 1934 Sunset Magazine article about Mardikian's food,
produced by Genevieve Callahan and Lou Richardson.
It included recipes for his shish kebab and brining fresh grape leaves for dolma.
"Gen and Lou discovered these new and exciting foods like tacos, pozole and guacamole and introduced
them to Sunset's white, upper-middle-class readership,"
Birdsall told SFGATE, adding that they "were the first to really champion and write about George Mardikian."
The timing was perfect - America was falling in love with outdoor barbecues and fresh ingredients,
and Mardikian was more than happy to share his novel-yet-accessible menu.
He became a regular, smiling presence in Sunset, with sketches of him cooking alongside recipes
for his Omar Khayyam's specials, such as chicken tchakhokbelli (braised chicken in tomato juice, sherry and paprika)
and rice pilaf.
( GAGRULE - Greg Keraghosian )