Iranian immigrant uses past experiences to build tasty success
at Mama Mia’s
By Sheila Sanchez
Special to the Dispatch
Gilroy – Majid Bahriny proves you don’t have to be Italian to know how to cook pasta.
As the owner of Mama Mia’s restaurant in Gilroy, the Iranian immigrant learned the secrets of succulent Italian sauces and dishes outside of Italy, working in several kitchens in Nuremberg, Germany, where he immigrated as a 15-year-old to study after escaping from the old Iranian regime.
But the 47-year-old Morgan Hill resident confides that it was in the warmth and efficiency of his mother’s kitchen in Zanjan, a city located 200 miles northwest of Tehran, where he learned that food has the power to nourish the body as well as the soul.
“I love it in the kitchen. When it’s busy I put my chef’s jacket on and I start cooking,” he said.
With little money in his pocket, he willingly accepted his father’s order to board an airplane to Frankfurt, leaving behind his mother and five siblings.
While living in Germany he became interested in its cuisine. Soon, through self-training, he began dishing out Italian concoctions.
The Detective Kojak look-alike pasta guru, who’s single and has no children, is a pharmacist by trade.
“Pharmacy and cooking are very similar,” he said. “You mix different things such as herbs and other ingredients to get good tasty food.”
But there’s no trace of tough talk and no lollipop in Bahriny’s hand. Instead of Telly Savalas’ coined phrase, “Who loves you, baby?” he’s coined the phrase, “What’s cooking, baby?”
With his colorful personality, shiny-bald head and generous smile, the muscular Bahriny likes to joke and tease his employees to keep them relaxed. He’s also outgoing and friendly and enjoys giving back to the community.
“My motto is, ‘Whatever it takes,'” he said.
Bahriny immigrated to the Bay Area in 1987. He joined his brother and sister, who were already living here, in pursuit of the American dream.
While attending school to learn English to take the board exam for his pharmaceutical degree, he started working in restaurants. He was lucky enough to manage several Mediterranean kitchens in the Bay Area laboring side by side with well-known chefs.
He eventually began cooking for a corporate hotel in Sunnyvale. In 1993 he decided to venture out on his own making his specialty Italian Mediterranean food.
“I like Italian Mediterranean food. It’s healthy and it’s comfort food that everyone likes,” he said. “It’s not limited. We can do so many different things with lots of fresh seafood.”
Besides the Gilroy eatery, Bahriny owns the Mama Mia’s restaurants in Campbell, Morgan Hill and Felton.
He began working at the Felton restaurant more than 14 years ago. Then he opened the Campbell location 12 years ago. In February of 2000 he opened the Gilroy eatery and three years ago he opened the Morgan Hill restaurant.
About 30 employees work at the Gilroy restaurant.
Surrounded by dozens of tables covered with ironed white tablecloths and happy customers, mostly families, Bahriny feels at home and thinks of his clients as his brothers and sisters.
“This is my family. This is my passion,” he said. “I’m married to my work.”
Because of his love for his patrons and his community, Bahriny is involved in many causes such as the Gilroy Garlic Festival ‘s Gourmet Alley, the event’s main eatery, where food is sold to raise funds for local charities and nonprofit organizations.
“It’s a celebration of garlic to benefit the community,” Bahriny said.
He’s credited with reviving the old “pesto pasta” dish, which later became “pasta con pesto.” Sales of the item declined considerably prior to 2003 when Bahriny began transforming the recipe by changing the old olive oil-based sauce by adding new ingredients making it more appealing and lighter by sautéing garlic with pesto and adding a light cream. He also changed the pasta from spaghetti to the shorter and easier to eat penne noodles.
“There’s less oil, more garlic and lots of basil,” Bahriny says, adding that he’s continuing to perfect the recipe through customer feedback. Last year, the recipe received great reviews, he said.
He’s now serving the “penne con pesto” dish at his restaurants. A section of the Gilroy restaurant’s menu features many Garlic Festival foods such as the award-winning stuffed sea scallops, garlic scampi, eggplant scaloppini, spaghetti and mushrooms, roasted garlic gnocchi, festival calamari and sausage and bell pepper sandwich.
“Gilroy is a great community and everybody knows each other,” he said. “It’s very family oriented and I love it here.”
In mid-September, he volunteered his time for the middle school band Pasta Extravaganza event by building a small kitchen in downtown Gilroy where he cooked different Italian dishes to raise funds for school music programs.
He’s also involved in the Exchange Club with Gilroy Mayor Al Pinheiro to cook and raise funds for low-income women and children.
“I do whatever it takes to help because I enjoy it,” Bahriny said “It’s a community thing. We make our money here and we have to give it back.”
Tina Chacon, the day manager of Gilroy’s Mama Mia’s restaurant, describes her boss as an “amazing man” who should be admired for “what he has done for the community.”
Chacon, who was the chairwoman for the Gilroy Relay for Life event, said she was touched by Bahriny’s generosity when he offered to feed 2,000 volunteers for the event free of charge three years ago and continues doing so to this day. He also feeds the volunteers for the Relay for Life in Morgan Hill.
“We tell him that he does so much that he’s going to end up on the streets. He’s constantly giving food away,” she said. “It’s a pleasure working for him. He’s always changing things. He keeps us on our toes.”
For more information on the restaurant, call 847-8808, visit 1360 First St., Suite B or log onto www.mamamias.com.