Of the fourth generation of the Nayeb family, and born in 1964, Helen Nayeb is one of the few women in her line of business, who is single-handedly running one of the most luxurious and oldest family restaurants in Tehran. Her great-grandfather was Naser al-Din Shah Qajar’s personal chef.
“Haj Ali, who was originally from Tabriz, shared a close friendship with Naser al-Din Shah Qajar in his youth. Once on a hunt together, he decided to grill a kabab for Naser al-Din Shah Qajar, and the king was very impressed. Later, when he moved to Tehran, he became the Shah’s personal chef, and went to be one of the favorite chefs of the Royal Household.”
What makes a brand live long like Nayeb?
Age, quality, love, credibility, passion, and quality control are what establish a trusted brand.
History-wise, Nayeb is almost 160 years old; my father’s grandfather set up Nayeb, and my grandpa set up Nayeb in Tehran Grand Bazaar, and then later, each son set up a new branch.
What is the story behind the name?
Naser al-Din Shah Qajar once told my great-grandfather: “You are the successor (meaning ‘Nayeb’ in Farsi) to this role,” and that is where he picked up the name.
What secret lies behind restaurant-made kabab—especially koobideh—that it always tastes better than what we make at home?
Although the quality of the rice and lamb plays a big role, the Iranian kabab—koobideh in particular—has its own method which can only be mastered over time and through experience.
This is why kabab made in restaurants is usually more delicious than homemade kabab. Also, kabab made in restaurants is grilled on fire, whereas homemade kabab often isn’t.
How would you define real Chelow Kabab?
To make the best Chelow Kabab, you need to really put all your heart in it! You should also always try and uphold the highest quality standards.
Traditionally, every person would be served a plate of rice with a piece of local-made butter in its center along with grilled tomatoes, egg yolk, sumac to season, and then a server holding skewers of kabob would bring the lamb.
Later, we—at Nayeb Saei—added mango pickles as a fixture side that goes with our Chelow Kabab.
When did you begin working at the Restaurant?
I was 24 years old, and despite my father’s strict disagreement, my mother and brother (a year my senior) supported my decision to start working at Nayeb.
My father had a very traditional mind frame, which is why he didn’t want me to work at the restaurant; but my mother always pushed her children towards having independent thought and character.
Also, I’d studied French translation and was initially looking to work in a field relevant to my studies. However, one day I thought why not just work at the restaurant, and so I did.
My father wanted my brother [who passed away ten years ago, and whose memory lives with us forever] to take over because of his gender. When I told him I wanted to work at Nayeb to help my brother out, my father said he’d pay me the salary without me having to work, but I didn’t care about the money—I wanted to learn how to work.
Considering you work in a male-oriented environment, were there times when you felt vulnerable or weak? When have you felt most proud?
I think Iranian women, even housewives and those who work from/at home, should have discipline and management skills to be able to do well in life. That being said, I’ve applied those characteristics in my job, and I believe I’ve seen improvement throughout my work.
What were the challenges for a woman working in your profession?
I started working in an environment in which there’d been no women before; it was difficult for others to have to accept a woman in a managerial position. So I made it my policy to be dead strict and serious yet to never fall out of touch with a soft heart.
The society and the environment that I worked in weren’t very accepting, and despite the support of my brother and father, I felt like I was on my own. So when I started working, I did almost everything from serving on the customers, to attending to the kitchen, or delivering food.
It was a fight all around. Also, my father only agreed to me working if I wore loose and baggy clothes, but none of these were a barrier to me. It was just a rule of work by which we needed to abide.
Later, I employed several women in many positions such as accounting, and my younger sister has been assisting me on the job for two years now.
Which branches are affiliated with the original Nayeb and which are not?
The ones affiliated are those in Sa’adat Abad, Aban, Niavaran, Pesyan, Vozara, and Sohrevardi. We also have a take-away food delivery kitchen in Jordan [Street] that we’ve named Khanegi (meaning ‘homemade’) Food.
The branches abroad and the one in the [Grand] Bazaar, however, are not affiliated with the original brand.
What is the specialty of Nayeb Saei?
Of course the national dish which is the Chelow Kabab. This consists of one Kabab Barg and one Kabab Koobideh along with grilled tomatoes, an egg yolk, sumac, onion, fresh herbs, and our specialty mango pickles on the side.
Do you believe that the secrets of making a good kabab will one day be lost to the next generations? Is the world of kabab similar to that of couture in this particular way?
Aside from the techniques and all, the quality of the foodstuff is very important, which has been going downhill—not only in Iran but also in many parts of the world—due to everything becoming less and less organic. I think that even if these techniques are maintained over the years, the quality loss will be inevitable in the future.