Food & Drink

From Iran to Oklahoma to Charlotte: A chef’s path to Bistro La Bon

Chef Majid Amoorpour, 42, grew up in Iran and Sweden before bringing his culinary talents to the Queen City at his Plaza Midwood restaurant, Bistro La Bon. Here he prepares Saffron Cream Mussels in the kitchen at Bistro La Bon at 1322 Central Ave.
Chef Majid Amoorpour, 42, grew up in Iran and Sweden before bringing his culinary talents to the Queen City at his Plaza Midwood restaurant, Bistro La Bon. Here he prepares Saffron Cream Mussels in the kitchen at Bistro La Bon at 1322 Central Ave. rlahser@charlotteobserver.com

Chefs often take a circuitous path to the kitchen. Majid Amoorpour’s journey to Bistro La Bon winds it way from Iran, Sweden and Oklahoma City to Plaza Midwood.

Amoorpour, 42, the youngest of eight children, grew up in Southern Iran speaking Farsi and eating Persian food. When he was 12, he said, his parents smuggled him out of the country and sent him to live with his older sister in Sweden.

“It was (during) the Iran-Iraq war,” Amoorpour says. The government was conscripting boys into the military at age 12 and preventing them from leaving the country, “so my parents sent me away.”

Amoorpour had to adapt to a new school, language and cuisine. “I didn’t like the texture of the food,” he says. “It was a lot of potatoes and poached fish.”

By the time he graduated from high school in 1990, Amoorpour was fluent in Swedish. At 19, he enrolled in art school and took a job as a dishwasher in a Chinese restaurant to pay the bills. His second restaurant job proved to be a turning point.

He was hired by Swedish chef Mats Persson, despite having no experience or skills in the kitchen. Persson took a chance on the untrained art student because he had also attended the art school where Amoorpour was studying.

“Food is a way of art, too,” Amoorpour recalls Persson telling him. “You create something using all of your senses. You can see it and feel it and taste it and smell it. The only thing you can’t do is hang it on your wall.”

Amoorpour eventually dropped out of art school and spent 2 1/2 years working in that kitchen, moving up to line cook.

“Chef Persson is the one who made me realize this is what I want to do,” Amoorpour says.

Coming to Charlotte

By 1999, Amoorpour had spent eight years working in the kitchens of some of Sweden’s finest restaurants. He felt he was at a crossroads, with both art school and culinary school beckoning. He decided to move to the United States, thinking whatever option he chose he would pursue in America.

Amoorpour moved to Oklahoma City, where his older brother lived. He didn’t like it. A family friend invited him to house-sit in Charlotte, and he has lived here, off and on, ever since.

Amoorpour began with a job making bread and pastries at Dean & Deluca. In 2001, he became the pastry chef at Noble’s, working alongside Brian Stockholm, who now owns the food truck Papi Queso.

“He is one of the most passionate food people I know,” Stockholm says of Amoorpour. “It has been interesting to see him grow as a chef and come back from his travels with new skills.”

Once he committed to honing his culinary skills from experience, rather than school, Amoorpour set about to do just that.

He moved to Chicago in 2003 and worked for chef Charlie Trotter for eight months. The “kitchen was small and intense, with two to three people working on each plate,” Amoorpour recalls. He moved on to working at another upscale Chicago restaurant, Tru, with acclaimed pastry chef Gail Gand, before returning to Charlotte.

Amoorpour worked as a pastry chef at several restaurants, including Fig Tree and Sonoma, before again giving in to his wanderlust. While visiting a cousin in Brighton, England, in 2006, Amoorpour became enchanted with a pastry he ordered at a new restaurant helmed by chef Jean Jacques Martin, who was the sous chef to Amoorpour’s idol, chef Alain Ducasse. He talked to the manager, who introduced him to Martin.

“I want to come work for you,” Amoorpour told him, realizing that this was the closest he could get to working alongside his favorite chef, Ducasse. He was told there was, in fact, an opening and he would have to return in three months to do a cooking demonstration. He said his stuffed calamari and butter-poached oysters won him the job.

The “hours were killer,” but Amoorpour says he “learned more than I did at any other job.”

Going with tapas

He returned to Charlotte in 2008 and served as a consultant for the launch of SouthPark’s Café Monte. After designing the menu and hiring and training employees as a consultant, Armoorpour was finally ready to open his own place.

“I always wanted a bistro,” he says. “A place with good, fresh food that is not as expensive as fine dining, but is a cut above a sandwich shop.”

At Bistro La Bon, the menu reflects things he learned during his travels and the many kitchens where he has worked. There are Swedish meatballs in honor of the years he lived in Sweden, along with a mussels dish that re-creates “the best mussels I ever ate in my life.” He makes his own brioche every day and all of the bistro’s pastries and desserts.

He decided to downsize the entrees and go with tapas plates so that both he and the diners can be more creative.

Amoorpour hopes to carve out time to return to drawing and playing with colors. Channeling his inner artist is not something he will do instead of cooking, but will instead enhance his cooking.

“They feed off each other,” he says.

Want to go?

Bistro La Bon is at 1322 Central Ave. in Plaza Midwood; 704-333-4646; www.bistrolabon.com.

Saffron Cream Mussels

4 cups fresh live mussels

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 medium shallot, diced

2 cloves garlic, minced

1/2 small tomato, diced

1 tsp. fresh thyme (or 1/2 tablespoon dried thyme)

1/2 cup dry white wine

1 cup heavy cream

1 pinch saffron

1 pinch of salt to taste

1 pinch of crushed red pepper to taste

CLEAN the mussels using cold water and discard any open mussels.

HEAT medium-sized saucepan. Add extra virgin olive oil, diced shallots and minced garlic. Saute for a few seconds until you can smell the shallot and garlic.

ADD mussels, diced tomato and thyme. Continue stirring for a few more seconds. Immediately add white wine, cream, saffron and salt and red pepper to taste. Cover the pan.

STEAM the mussels for a minute or two until all of the shells are open. Stir gently for an extra 2-3 more minutes.

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