Individuals from other countries have made a profound and lasting impact on Westchester’s rich, layered landscape, and their influence is no more apparent than at a table in one of the county’s multi-cultural restaurants. As these foreign-born business bosses immerse local diners in distant tastes and the cultural insight that usually only comes with a passport, they serve up a backstory of grit, guts, determination, and dreams; with a side of know-how for anyone looking to follow their lead.
Longtime restaurateur Par Shakiban, who owns Medi Bistro in White Plains, spoke no English when he left Tehran at the age of 15 in 1959, seeking an education in New York City. He emigrated alone, without any relatives in town to lean on for support, and he enrolled at The New School, and then Columbia University for engineering. “My education was the most helpful way of advancing through life,” he says. “It gave me the means to move forward in any area I wished.”
Less than ten years later, Shakiban opened his first restaurant (in Armonk), followed by 22 others over the next five decades. And before every launch, he studied. “I learned how to cut and age meat, how to make Italian classics, grill kebabs, cook rice,” even though he wouldn’t be doing any of the cooking. “You will be vulnerable if you don’t educate yourself on all aspects of the business,” he says, noting the importance of having “an education behind you, even if you don’t use it.”
Similarly, chef and restaurant owner Jeevan Pullan (VEGA and NH44, Hartsdale; TAKO, Yonkers; Jaipore Xpress, Briarcliff Manor/Ridgefield) emigrated for educational purposes, also entirely on his own, from northeast India at 23 years old. He obtained his MBA at Pace University in Pleasantville while working in NYC restaurants, where one of his bosses hailed from the same region of Indian and also went to Pace. “To this day, he guides me as a mentor,” says Pullan, who relied on this support when he took a chance and opened his first restaurant, VEGA Mexican, in 2010, four years after arriving in the U.S.
“Find a good mentor,” says Rafael Palomino, owner of Port Chester’s Sonora (as well as restaurants in Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and Florida), who left Bogota, Colombia, with his parents as a kid. “And a lawyer to help navigate the obstacles of opening a new business.” A trained chef, Palomino says getting a handle on the business side of running a restaurant was his biggest challenge. “Being a good chef is not enough to make it; you also need to know how to manage a business.”
The biggest challenge for any restaurant owner, according to K Dong, who was born in China’s Fujian Provence and years later launched KUMO in Scarsdale, is building a solid team. “Always try to improve and help people around you grow,” he says. “Work hard, maintain a positive attitude and work ethic, and be humble.”
Pullan echoes that sentiment, noting how personal success in any business is derived from being mindful of others, not just oneself. “Your employees are your family and you must treat them with respect, from the dishwasher on up,” he says. “Never forget where you’re from; we all start at the bottom.”
All restaurateurs acknowledge that every bit of the success they savor today began with yesterday’s pie-in-the-sky imaginings. “It sounds cliché, but you have to chase your dream,” says Croatia’s Zeljko “Jerry” Tomic, owner of Dubrovnik Restaurant in New Rochelle. “Pull up your sleeves, give 120% to make a name for yourself and maintain your reputation, and don’t give up.”
Philip McGrath, veteran restaurateur and chair of Culinary Arts and Hospitality Management at SUNY Westchester Community College acknowledges that immigrants have always been the “lifeblood” of the hospitality industry; only now, they’re kicking it up a notch and becoming its leaders. “The new generation is not only food savvy, they are also tech-and business-savvy entrepreneurs.” He says: “They’re taking their native cuisine, techniques, and ingredients and turning them into something new and exciting.”
And Westchester eaters are still the lucky ones.