When chef Bardia Ilbeiggi opened a modern Persian eatery two years ago, he hoped combining true-to-his-roots Iranian flavours with Pacific West Coast terroir would alter the fabric of Vancouver’s dining scene. His restaurant, Delara, serving up humble stews, charcoal-kissed meats and amped-up classics like gheymeh, a dish of braised beef short ribs with tahdeeg (crispy rice), is now a British Columbia standout.
Having recently received a Michelin recommendation (a designation for notable establishments that slightly fall short of a star) for a second consecutive year, Delara is transporting diners to an underrated part of the culinary world. “It’s definitely a great source of pride to showcase the culture and just how I see it,” says Ilbeiggi.
But cooking as a profession wasn’t exactly part of Ilbeiggi’s life plan – at least, not at first.
Ilbeiggi moved to Canada from Iran in 2003 to study aerospace engineering but gave up a stable job at IBM to work in kitchens. “Every day after work, I was either watching the Food Network or cooking in my tiny kitchenette,” he explains. Unsatisfied, Ilbeiggi enrolled in a six-month intensive culinary program at the prestigious École Grégoire-Ferrandi in Paris in 2011, which included a further six-month apprenticeship at Frenchie (the one Michelin-starred modern bistro made famous by Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations).
After returning to Canada, he learned firsthand the symphony of restaurant service – working his way from chef de partie to sous chef – in bustling French-influenced kitchens, including L’Abattoir and Farmer’s Apprentice. A decade later, it was time for the Iranian-Canadian chef to open a restaurant that was unique to him. “I am very comfortable with my identity, my culture and I’m proud of who I am,” Ilbeiggi says.
That conviction is part of what’s getting him noticed. Michelle Sproule, co-founder and managing editor of Vancouver food and culture resource Scout Magazine, calls Delara “a special place” and boils down its success to this: “I call his vision for Delara ‘simple’ because I sense none of the clutter that can come with insecurity or lack of identity.” The result is “honest and nourishing food and hospitality, ensuring every guest feels genuinely received and looked after.”
Born and raised in Tehran, Ilbeiggi shares details of his childhood, where large gatherings in his backyard, family feasts for the soul and candlelit poetry reading by night were the norm. “I’m biased, but it’s just a nice culture,” says the 39 year old, smiling. To this day, much of his culinary inspirations tap into a romantic catalogue of fond memories. “My grandfather used to fill a wheelbarrow full of charcoal and cook kebabs on them, so the smell of smoke and charcoal is huge. That’s why I have a barbecue, and we finish most of our meats – and even vegetables – on it,” he explains.
At the top of that list is his deep appreciation for his mother’s home cooking. “We would always end the meal with ‘Mina, this is too delicious, now our stomach hurts,’” he jokes. These days, you will find Mina working four days a week alongside her son. “It organically happened. She loves it and has gotten a lot more energetic in the past few years,” says Ilbeiggi. “She’s like a mom figure for everyone, and that changes the texture of the kitchen,” he adds.
On any given day, Mina will prepare her signature chicken and barley soup for the lunch rush, rolling walnut, date and honey baklava, and delivering the restaurant’s addictive Barbari-inspired seedy sourdough flatbread with seasonal dips to guests, along with an amusing spiel of “I’m chef’s mom. He studied aerospace engineering.”
It’s not just about the nostalgia of the past but manifesting a future of endless possibilities., which includes the creation of new combinations and dishes – even if it means receiving criticism. His not-so-traditional salad dressing with tangy barberries or his tender grilled chicken and barberries dish with rose water and orange zest are prime examples.
While the reaction is overwhelmingly positive, he does encounter Iranians now and then who are somewhat offended when they find barberries in their salad. “Because barberries only belong to dry rice; you eat it with dry overcooked chicken – I can’t do much about that,” he says. “There aren’t a lot of Iranian chefs who want to do their own thing, treat it as art.”
But that’s exactly what he does, as with his reimagined chicken and barberries dish. The buttermilk, saffron and turmeric marinated halal B.C. chicken gets cooked at a low temperature via sous vide for precisely an hour and 20 minutes before hitting the charcoal grill. Next comes a ladle of aromatic sauce, earthy celeriac and crisp roasted Brussels sprout leaves. “Now chicken and barberries is a part of the diet in Vancouver, which is kind of crazy to think about.”
In his Iranian-Canadian kitchen, responsibly caught Pacific seafood from Fresh Ideas Start Here (FISH) and Organic Ocean, seasonal produce from Hannah Brook Farm and Klippers Organics, and wild edibles from forager Lance Staples find harmony alongside staples like saffron, pomegranate molasses and dried limes. “For me, it was important to, at least, get ingredients and inspiration from what’s available in our backyard. It also pushes creative boundaries of Iranian food,” he says.
With approximately 70,000 Iranians calling B.C. home, Ilbeiggi hoped Delara would “be a place that Iranians are proud of and it would become a sanctuary for us to show the world that we are smart, artistic, kind, welcoming, hospitable people.”
Over the past two years, that has become a reality. Take, for example, Delara’s once-barren walls, which are now brimming with works from acclaimed Vancouver-based Iranian artists, including Saeedeh Keshvari and Mehrdad Rahbar. After experiencing the cuisine through Ilbeiggi’s eyes, Keshvari – who combines intricate line work and calligraphy with Persian poetry and literature – gifted him four of her works. “It has been really nice to have people stand behind me and be like, ‘Yeah, this is good, let’s promote our culture,’” he says.
Ilbeiggi strives to foster a kinder, healthier, more empathetic working environment guided by his homey, family-centric upbringing. But even he underestimated the power of cultural representation. He says he easily fills vacancies because Iranians who come in to dine want to be part of what he’s created.
That was the case with not only Parmida Poustchi and Amin Parvania, who went from patrons to newly promoted sous chefs, but another five or six of his 30-person front- and back-of-house team. Now, with the recent arrival of his second child, the sparkly-eyed chef is working toward achieving a more sustainable work-life balance for himself. “I don’t want to burn out. I love this so much. I just want to love it,” Ilbeiggi says. “The goal is to maintain the restaurant, empower the right people and hope they are hungry for responsibility.”
Now, Ilbeiggi wants to take the cuisine to new heights. “Just look around the world; there aren’t a lot of chefs – younger Iranian chefs – who open restaurants. I want Delara to be a vessel for others to showcase their creativity,” says Ilbeiggi. “I want Iranian food to have a say on a global scale. The majority don’t know about it unless they have an Iranian friend. I want people to eat it and appreciate the nuances, and I hope they like it.”