Thirty years ago, no one drove to Orange County for a meal. “It was a culinary wasteland,” says one food writer. Then in 1987, to our great good fortune, Karamardian opened her first bistro. Its menu was so unfamiliar that it included a glossary. Karamardian—born in Israel to Armenian parents; a childhood in Iraq with picnics beside the Tigris River; teenage years in San Francisco, besotted with Julia Child—brought eastern Mediterranean food to Tustin. It no longer was a culinary desert, and Zov and her namesake restaurants are institutions. In conversation, the 71-year-old is everything you could want: in love with food, reminiscent of your favorite aunt with the big laugh. And teaching, always teaching.
What was it like at the beginning?
The restaurant was small, maybe four tables. I started making these eggplant sandwiches: I used hummus on the bread. Then you have grilled eggplant, grilled zucchini, roasted red pepper, feta cheese, and tomato. That sandwich was to die for.
How did you approach the first cookbook?
A good cookbook is a teaching tool. I explain at the beginning of the recipe where it came from. What it is. Why it’s good. What you could serve with it. It’s like somebody standing there and talking to you, you know?
What do you tell novice cooks?
People shouldn’t be intimidated by cooking. … Wherever you are, to make soup you do certain things. You cook your aromatics in oil, your carrots, celery, onions. You braise those. You add your stock and you put in your vegetables. And that’s soup.
1972 Starts A to Z Gourmet Catering out of her Irvine home at friends’ urging.
1987 Opens Zov’s Bistro in the former Blum’s Ice Cream Store in Tustin. It was a to-go-only menu.
1990 The bistro takes over the adjacent liquor store.
2000 Self-publishes her first cookbook, “Recipes and Memories from the Heart.” “Simply Zov”published 10 years later.
2001 Invited to cook at the prestigious James Beard House; she has been a Beard House guest chef three times—so far.
2003 Cooks with Emeril Lagasse and Julia Child for a James Beard fundraiser at Zov’s Bistro.
2004 Receives Chef of the Year award from the State of California.
2007 Opens new restaurants in Irvine and Newport Coast; now has spots in Anaheim and at John Wayne Airport.
2014-15 Receives Restaurateur of the Year award (California Restaurant Association)