Food has always played a strong role in Ariana Bundy’s life. Her early childhood in Iran was idyllic, with gatherings near the Caspian or up in the mountains, surrounded by family. Food was ever-present, a perpetual topic of conversation, and part of her DNA, with a restaurateur father and landowning grandparents who specialized in cultivating prized grapes.
“I remember my grandparents carrying in crates of different varieties. They had these champagne grapes, which are those tight little bundles, and which we used to bite into and eat almost like apples,” recalls the chef, cookbook author, and restaurateur. “And I remember the grapes going into everything. There were raisins in my grandmother’s cookies, and we would drizzle grape molasses on our rice pudding…”
Things changed overnight when the revolution broke out in Iran. Bundy’s family resettled in New York, and she was enrolled in a Swiss boarding school at the tender age of five. “Switzerland felt like a vacuum compared to Iran. It was all consommé and processed meat, and people were stern and strict…” She turned to food for solace. “Being at such a young age and away from my parents, food was my friend, like a self-soothing mechanism. On the weekends, I would explore the pastry shops. I began to see what food did to people, making them happy, bringing them together. It’s reliable, it’s comforting.”
Despite her strong proclivities, Bundy’s path to a career in food was circuitous. A talented painter, she considered enrolling at the Parsons School of Design, but was dissuaded by the potential instability of that profession. “Because I love food so much, the idea of being a starving artist was terrifying,” she says. Her experience of being uprooted in Iran, the idea that everything could be lost in an instant, pushed her towards a more stable career. “It was a decision made from insecurity, not love,” she adds. She studied international business and marketing and then began working in fashion with her mother, a couturier. Unsurprisingly, Bundy was unfulfilled.
On a visit to Los Angeles, she met her uncle for lunch at the chain restaurant Ihop. She shared her troubles with him as she played with her meal, mixing the pancakes with blueberry syrup, a dash of salt, a sprinkle of pepper… “He said to me, you love food, your dad was a restaurateur, it’s in your blood. Why don’t you find the best cooking school in the world, and I’ll pay for it.” Bundy, surprised and overwhelmed, agreed. “He then made me eat the concoction on my plate that I had made,” she recalls with a laugh. Bundy enrolled in Le Cordon Bleu. On her first day, she felt that she had found her community. “My classmates and I sat together and talked for hours about the texture of chocolate mousse, and baguettes, and how rare steak should be, without thinking we were weird or crazy. After that, I never looked back.” Earning her Grand Diplôme in patisserie, Bundy soon landed a job as a pastry chef at the Mondrian Hotel in Los Angeles. Within the first week, the head pastry chef was fired. “They pointed at me and said, ‘Okay you, you’re now the head pastry chef!’ It was a high-profile, glamorous, but arduous job, catering the Oscars, Golden Globes, and Vanity Fair parties.
In recent years, the restaurant industry has had a reckoning with its treatment of women, and Bundy drew from her cultural experience to navigate the particularities of working in the early 2000s. “As Iranians, we’ve learned to be flexible. As we dispersed across the globe, we adapted to fit in any society, any country. I couldn’t barge in and start barking commands like the other chefs. I should have because I have the same rights. But I would have been eaten alive. I had to find that balance. Luckily, I wasn’t mistreated at all. But, as a woman, I feel that we are certainly not looked at the same way in the restaurant industry, and there is still room for much improvement.”
Bundy left the Mondrian after two years to follow individual pursuits. She published a cookbook, Sweet Alternative, in 2005, followed by Pomegranates and Roses: My Persian Family Recipes, a part cookbook and part memoir, in 2012. Between these projects, she got married, moved to Dubai, and started a family. In 2015, she hosted a cooking and travel series, Ariana’s Persian Kitchen, which launched on Nat Geo People and was broadcast in Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. It was the show that caught the attention of some very important people. In 2016, two months before Bundy planned to move back to the States, she got a call from the office of HH Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai. “My first thought was, uh oh, what did I do?” She wasn’t in trouble – Sheikh Mohammed had watched her show and wanted to invite her to an iftar he was hosting. She was in Iran at the time, and booked a flight back to Dubai for the next day to attend the red-carpet affair. Bundy met His Highness, exchanged pleasantries, and thought of it as an occasion that capped off her memorable time in Dubai.
A few months later, as Bundy was settling into her new life in the San Francisco suburbs, she received another call – this time from the Investment Corporation of Dubai. The call was an offer of her own restaurant in the soon-to-be opened Atlantis The Royal, asking her to fly back to do a 10-day pop-up restaurant. “Absolutely not, I am not doing it,” she said adamantly. “We had just moved with our container of furniture, and our son was already enrolled in school. I wasn’t going back.” She agreed to host a lunch in lieu of the pop-up. It was so well received, that Ariana changed her mind – she decided to take on the restaurant project.
She moved her family back to Dubai in 2017, with the restaurant slated to open in 2019. The pandemic and various construction delays pushed the opening by three months, which stretched to several years. In the meantime, her marriage fell apart. “It was a stressful time. It probably should not have cost my marriage, if it was strong enough, but clearly it wasn’t,” she shares candidly. However, there were some bright spots during this challenging period. She spent more time in Iran, her son learned to speak fluent Farsi, and she purchased a historic home in Kashan, renovated it, and turned it into a culinary center.
When Ariana’s Persian Kitchen finally opened its doors in February 2023, the interiors were modeled on Bundy’s home in Kashan and its spectacular domed arched interior. She hand-selected everything, from the colorful zeligge tiles in the bathrooms to the silverware and cups. All artworks on display are by famous Iranian artists. A fountain gushes into life, its blue waters gushing over the dark green of a watermelon placed there “to keep it fresh, as we do in Iran,” she quips. The experience for the diner is very personal, as though guests are entering her home and eating the food she has prepared herself. Bundy, with her bubbly personality and warm smile, is often there chatting with the patrons. She is, at times, incredulous to her achievements; the fact that she is a restaurateur when she never aspired to be. “Sometimes I think, this is crazy; how am I going to be able to handle it? But somebody believed in my capacity, and I’ve had help along the way with a great team. I realized I’m a true restaurateur and being back in the kitchen reminded me that I’m truly a chef. I had forgotten what that was like. I know now who I am and I love it.”
Originally published in the Spring/Summer 2023 issue of Vogue Living Arabia