There are many types of saffron, says Jamshid Kamvar. “You find it in Turkey, in Iran, in different parts of Iran. I go to the source, to the best.”
For the silver-haired kebab-restaurant owner, that means buying the saffron that he uses in Zaytoon from the border with Afghanistan and Iran, not far from Tajikistan.
“I visit a guy who knows what I want and he does that for me. Every few months, he gets it and he brings it to Tehran and gets it ready for me. It’s coming straight from there, the very best,” he said.
You might not expect the owner of a kebab restaurant to be so concerned about ingredients, but Kamvar says he is. The cut of the meat, the freshness of the tomatoes.
We’re sat at one of the dark wood tables in the cool-and-quiet Camden Street restaurant – where it is lunchtime and the diners are sober and use knives and forks and plates.
It all goes to the heart of what Kamvar says he and his partner, Azad Shirazi, wanted to do when they set up Zaytoon: to change the reputation of the kebab.
Coming to Ireland
If you look for information about Kamvar online, you’ll get just a handful of hits of company records, or domain registrations.
It’s surprising perhaps. Zaytoon may be more a straight line than a chain – there are just two restaurants in the brand – but it boasts a larger reputation.
There are plenty of reviews, or mentions of their near-cult poster image of a doctor checking the pulse of a kebab. But not much about how the restaurant came to be or the people behind it.
Kamvar came to Ireland as a student to study production engineering in Waterford in the late 1970s, he says.
He had first been in Eastbourne in England, but the UK was big and hectic and he felt lost. It was expensive too.
“I wasn’t rich, I was a student. Ireland at the time was very cheap. Eighty pounds for the year, the fees,” he says.
He recalls telling his mother in Tehran that he would be home in six months. But that didn’t happen. Instead, he fell in love with his Irish wife and stayed.
He qualified easily from his course, but has never used his engineering degree, not even for a day, he says. “It’s the reality of when you are an immigrant, it’s different.”
Especially in Ireland at the time, where there were few people from overseas. Most immigrants, after all, went to the UK where they could make more money, where there were more often networks in place.
“There were only three or four Iranians. Very few Arabs or anyone,” he said.
When Kamvar was working in kebab shops years ago, he noticed the low quality of food they were selling. “That was my first thinking, that this is not right. But that was when I was studying, I wasn’t thinking of opening 20 years later, I wasn’t thinking of that.”
Later, he and his business partner Shirazi ran a shop selling Persian carpets on Dame Street for 18 years before they decided to go into restaurants – first with the Italian restaurant Cafe Topolis, and later with the two branches of Zaytoon.
His partner was a chef. (“I can’t even cook an omelette,” says Kamvar.) Both of them had been living in Ireland for more than 35 years, so they had a sense of the landscape.
Both of them, also, had noticed the reputation that kebabs had in Europe – and wanted to change that.
“It was really two guys sitting here and looking at the market, and looking at how this food that we are familiar with and we’ve eaten it for centuries, is being treated badly,” says Kamvar.
It wasn’t just in Ireland, but in London, too, or in Germany. “It’s always presented in such a manner, people say, you have to be drunk,” he said. “That’s the image it had.”
They decided to open a kebab restaurant that would be different, that would appeal to people who grew up in Ireland, too – an obstacle that takes down some immigrant businesses, which find it difficult to move into the mainstream.
“Most of the kebab shops you see that are open, they have their own nationalities using them,” he says. “You won’t see Irish people at lunchtime sitting there.”
But you can only grow a Persian restaurant in Dublin so much that way. “You don’t have Iranians everywhere,” he said.
When Kamvar and Shirazi opened the doors to Zaytoon in 2001, they had given a lot of thought to how to change the reputation of the kebab.
Elsewhere at the time, kebabs were served in closed-up pitta breads so how were people supposed to trust what they were eating? “You couldn’t see what was inside,” he said.
They brought in a tandoor and started to serve the kebabs on an open flat bread so customers could see how fresh the ingredients were. “In Iran, this is the bread that we make, not for eating kebab, but for lunch, dinner … it’s just part of daily use,” he said.
These days, other kebab shops have also moved from pitta to open fresh bread, he says.
Kamvar and Shirazi also let people choose their salads and fillings, and put up a television screen on the wall that shows how people prepare the food.
They chose good cuts of meat and steered clear of the fatty slabs that can be found in some places, and they don’t have a freezer, he says. “Everything has to be fresh. Nothing is kept anywhere.”
Kamvar points out that if you cross the region that spreads from Iran, to Afghanistan, to Pakistan and India, you will find many styles of kebab, evolved over the centuries.
Some might not use saffron, some might not use basmati rice, or they might cook the rice in different ways.
But theirs, he says, is Persian and that’s what makes them different. “I don’t want people mixing this up with Turkish restaurant, or Greek restaurant, this is Persian.”
While some kebab shops have stayed as one-off outlets, others have expanded across the country. Abrakebabra, born in Rathmines in the early 1980s, now has 25 outlets.
Kamvar alludes to different reasons as to why Zaytoon is still just two outlets. Perhaps, it’s harder as an immigrant to get the financial backing needed for a massive expansion.
Even though he has been here for decades, Kamvar says he doesn’t think of himself as Irish. “I don’t feel it, and I won’t be treated, unfortunately.” He holds out his hands and turns them upside down, and then back over again.
If he were Irish, he would have taken the restaurant nationwide by now, he said. “But I’m glad I did something nobody else could.”
He also points to the bad timing of the recession, though, as an obstacle to growth, as well as a desire to nurture the business’s name. “We’ve been waiting for the recession to finish because there’s no money here,” he said. “I wanted to first build up a reputation.”
Recently, though, he has been moving ahead with plans to grow, without waiting around for an investor to come forward with a pile of money.
“The direction to go is expansion definitely. I’ve been looking for a shop everyday for the last few months,” he said. He has been approached by different people interested in setting up franchises, and it’s something he’s looking at.
Kamvar points to the dark-wood tables and chairs in the restaurant. He is conscious that the furniture is tired, and the decor is tired – particularly in the Parliament Street restaurant.
He has plans for a redesign, to add more colour, bring in some new furniture. “I’m in the middle of that,” he said. It’s hard to find a few days to close, though, when they’re busy.
There’s a sense of caution too, to be careful with the business that he and his partner have worked hard to build.
“It’s my [and his partner’s] baby, it can easily go down like that,” he says. “The ball is in my hand in this market, and I don’t want to drop it.”
[UPDATE: This article was updated on 8 May at 14:20pm to include the name of Jamshid Kamvar’s business partner, and to correct his name. Apologies for the error.]