From South Asia, With Love

In Eat, October 2022 by Matt LardieLeave a Comment

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Vidrio chef Saif Rahman keeps the love of cooking in the family via a handbuilt kitchen in his mom’s backyard.

“A lot of us who migrated to America—who left their kitchens, their villages, their souls and belongings—[did so] for a better life,” says local culinary titan Saif Rahman. “But we moved into apartments, and we’re cooking on an electric stove, which didn’t exist before for us.”

Now he’s extending that modern wonder to his mom by building her an outdoor kitchen to replicate the kitchens she and his grandmother grew up in back home in Bangladesh. And he’s building it himself—by hand!—in his mom’s West Raleigh backyard. 

Talk to the Vidrio executive chef and NCRLA 2021 Chef of the Year about almost anything food-related and you’ll quickly be caught up in his exuberance for cooking, food traditions and feeding others. In an interview with Raleigh Magazine this past February, he touched on his grandmother’s cooking, how food helped him grieve the loss of his father, and the joy he gets when he serves guests at Vidrio familiar dishes like roast chicken with new and exciting twists to the preparation.

Talk to him about this new kitchen and that same enthusiasm comes gushing out. After just a few minutes breathlessly describing his plans for the space, he pauses. “Want me to show you?” he asks.

The call cuts out, quickly replaced by the familiar trill of the Apple FaceTime ringtone. Rahman’s smiling face pops up on screen—he’s barely able to get out a quick hello before he’s off and running, almost quite literally, through the backyard of his mother’s house. He points out the banana, peach and pear trees planted by his late father; the olive tree for his daughter; and the garden where the family usually grows a variety of vegetables each year. He arrives at a corner of the yard, near a large shed, where an area has been cleared for the kitchen. There are already two small stoves built of brick, one with a massive copper pot sitting atop it, where Rahman had been cooking just the day before. 

As he continues to talk about his plans for the kitchen and what it will mean for his mother and his family, it’s hard not to be swept up in his excitement for the project, and for the style of rustic home cooking he champions. 

This kitchen will be a direct link to his family’s past. He will fashion it out of clay; the bamboo that makes the framing will come from a neighbor; and the roof will be thatched. It is the kitchen of his dreams—something he has thought and dreamt about to the point of obsession, especially since becoming a father.

“Have you ever been so deeply in love that even when you’re driving or drinking a glass of water or eating, you’re thinking about that love?” he ponders, adding: “We are so tied up in the busy world that we forget to cook with mom or grandma. This new kitchen will be the place where those taste memories can continue to be passed down from generation to generation.”

When the kitchen is complete, Rahman will invite neighbors, friends and family to his mother’s house for a dedication ceremony. He will light the wood-fired stove while his mother pounds away at a mortar and pestle, preparing any number of dishes for their guests. The kids will run around the yard and perhaps someone will lounge in the shade of the same pear tree where his father used to sit for hours, munching on the sweet pears above him. 

All the while, smoke from the cooking fire will waft up through the thatched roof of the kitchen, mingling with the laughter and conversation from those gathered. Food will be shared and new memories will be made in a scene as familiar to a Raleigh yard as it is to a village in Bangladesh.

As Rahman sweeps his cellphone camera across his mother’s backyard, it’s easy to see all of this playing out in his head. He recalls the meals made during visits back home, time spent watching the women of his family cook, and the sounds of a neighbor’s ducks at his grandmother’s house (coincidentally, his mother’s neighbor in Raleigh also has ducks).

“How do you not recreate that memory for your children?” he asks.

Sure he has access to an entire restaurant—the gleaming open kitchen of Vidrio and a staff of cooks at his beck and call. But this kitchen, this gift he will build with his own two hands for his mother, for his daughter, for those who came before him and for those who will come after, will clearly be where he will always love to cook. @chefsaifrahman

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