Chicago musician Liam Kazar had broken through after spending the past decade as a member of Wilco frontman’s Jeff Tweedy’s backing band. He’s also collaborated with the likes of Steve Gunn and the late Daniel Johnston, Kazar reached a point in his career many only dream of: making music full time.
That all changed in March 2020 when the pandemic hit. In January, Kazar opened Isfahan, a virtual restaurant in both Chicago and Kansas City that’s traces his family’s journey from Armenia to the United States by way of Iran, Lebanon, Syria, France, Australia, and Turkey.
Kazar isn’t new to the service industry. When there weren’t enough gigs to cover his bills, he picked up bartending shifts in Kansas City (where he lives part time). COVID-19 negated that revenue stream too, and when bars partially reopened, Kazar didn’t feel comfortable with the risk. By the summer, his savings had nearly run out. In the face of a creeping sense of desperation, Kazar — like many other creatives displaced and underemployed during the pandemic — looked inward toward to his heritage, family, and the thread that connected him to his past: food of the Armenian diaspora.
With Isfahan, Kazar wants to highlight the multicultural nature of Iranian and Armenian cuisines, drawing attention to the impact of immigrant populations on the food, in much the same way as Lebanese immigrants invented tacos arabes in Mexico.
That means that locals won’t find his versions of menu items, such as aashe-e dogha (yogurt soup, lamb meatballs) and mussakhan (Palestinian roast chicken, sumac, caramelized onions) at other Persian restaurants in town. Other offerings include a whole roasted trout (sumac, lemon, tarragon), khoresh fesenjan (beef stew, pomegranate, walnut), and desserts like fereni (rose water pudding, fig preserves, pistachio).
Kazar delivers the meals family-style for groups of two to 10, and encourages patrons to choose a few appetizers, a main dish, a “carb” of abzi polo with tahdig (Persian crispy rice, fresh herbs, saffron) or mashed potatoes (dill, brown butter), and a dessert. Patrons can place online orders by email and pay via cash, check, Venmo, or PayPal.
What began as a bid for financial survival has become an exciting exploration of self for Kazar. “If you’re able to make food and share with people, you’re tapping into one of the best parts of living,” he says. To leave the cooking to someone else is to miss out on a beautiful thing — “a truly essential human thing.”
His transition from one ailing industry to another hasn’t always been smooth: “I sort of failed my way through it at the start,” he says, acknowledging that he’s never cooked in a restaurant before. Though he had plenty of experience cooking for family and friends, “cooking with consistency for something that’s about to get transported is a whole other ballgame.” His Kansas City operations are a currently a one-person show (though local chef friends have offered advice), but his sister Sima Cunningham helps coordinate the Chicago portion of the business.
Though it’s not how he imagined spending the past year, Kazar says Isfahan has kept him busier than he ever imagined. He’s even at work on plans to expand, aiming to open a pop-up by March. Still, he’s looking forward to a future where he can get back on stage: “With COVID, I got tired of playing in the mirror,” he jokes.
Time Out Chicago first reported this story.