Bringing a community together with a love of food and hospitality
Since 2015, Beaumont Street’s Persian restaurant, Limoo The House of Persian Cuisine, has been balancing a quality selection of local ingredients with the perfect amount of authentic herbs and spices, offering guests a unique cultural dining experience.
Sadaf Tootoonchi Moghaddam is one half of Limoo, who together with husband Shervin have gathered a loyal list of regular diners, and friends, keen to experience their unique homely flavours.
Meeting at Limoo for our International Women's Day Series chat, Sadaf shared where her love of food and cooking came from, the challenges of being an immigrant, and why a life in hospitality won out over architecture. Here’s our chat…
Prior to coming to Australia, what were you doing in Iran?
I was studying architecture, it was a program similar to TAFE and I did two years of study in Iran which qualified me to be able to study at an Australian TAFE. I was also working in a cafe, in a busy area of Iran and as soon as I started I loved the environment. I started doing the dishes, then onto coffee and progressed from there, and I just loved it.
Did you ever think one day you would be running your own restaurant?
Always. My plan was, when I was in my early twenties, to finish my architecture degree, get a masters in psychology, and when I retired I would open my cafe. I didn’t do psychology because it is in English and it’s very hard for me to do the reading, so I studied architecture instead.
Was the plan to open a cafe in Iran?
It was an open concept to me, and still sometimes I think I would love to go back and open a cafe, but because of the political situation I don’t know. It is very uncertain times at the moment and I love the life we have in Australia, so I am kind of torn. You always want to go back to your family and country, but I feel very safe and loved here. It’s hard to leave it now.
Is it easy for women to open businesses in Iran?
It is, there are lots of women opening and running businesses but you have your challenges. Based on the law your husband needs to allow you to work, I don’t have this problem with Shervin, we wouldn’t be married otherwise, but based on Islamic law he can stop me from working and studying.
Lots of my friends are running cafes, galleries and restaurants, and if you have a supportive family it’s possible, but it is hard. You need to be up for challenges.
Was moving to Australia something you always wanted to do?
No. At first I didn’t even want to come, I was very attached to my family so I just wanted to come and finish my studies and then go back, but things changed.
I arrived in October 2012, and I had met Shervin in Iran the year before. He had always wanted to experience life in another country, but never had Australia in mind. Before he left he needed to finish his masters and there are military requirements, if you are male, you need to work out before you can leave Iran, so it wasn’t until September 2014 Shervin moved to Australia.
Did you both continue with your studies in Australia?
Shervin did another masters degree whilst he was here and I finished my architecture degree. We went back to Iran to get married but then returned to Australia and decided then to start the food business.
It was a big decision not to move into the areas we had been studying. Shervin had two masters degrees, one being in renewable energy which is a big industry in Australia, but we were crazy enough to decide hospitality. We loved it, it was a common love for both of us.
What is it about hospitality you love so much?
When you are an immigrant, anything you do still has you feeling as though you are separated from the main community. Simple things like going to a bar, you are drinking like everyone else, but you always feel like there is a wall between you, because you can’t talk like them, you can’t joke like them, you don’t look like them.
But when you’re in hospitality, you have an open home, and people come in and feel you, you serve them, and it makes you closer.
We didn't have any Australian friends before we opened Limoo, all of our friends were immigrants, or close to our culture, but since we opened we have friends who we would never have had the chance to meet. I’ve found a new Australian family through Limoo.
Where did your love of food come from?
It was my grandma. I haven't had a relationship with my mum since I was 13, I have a step mum and I love her, I call her mum, and her mum was the inspiration for me. Even though I wasn’t her real grandchild she loved me like everyone else and I always felt welcome to the family through her, and she always showed her love through cooking and raising children.
My uncle and aunt all lived with my grandmother in the same building, so we had every breakfast, lunch and dinner together, at a big big table, like 20 or more people and my grandma was cooking for everyone.
If there was something that you liked she would cook it for you, your favourite dish, and she had the best cooking skills, I would sit in the kitchen and just watch.
She didn’t talk a lot, was quite reserved and felt she couldn’t share her stories, and no one would ask questions about when she fell in love with her husband, but I was asking those questions and she would tell me stories from 60 and 70 years before whilst she was cooking, which was a very special thing for me. We had a very special bond.
You initially started selling some of your goods at local markets, did this help to test the waters?
Yes we wanted to see people’s reaction to what we can make, and see if they accept us because there was not much Iranian food in the market, and the farmers market was the best way to get a feel for this.
What was that first market like for you?
The response was very good. We put everything we had in preparing for the first market, both Shervin and I had less than a $1 in our accounts [laughs] and we thought, what if no one buys anything? But we came home with $700 which was an amazing feeling, and this gave us the energy to try other things.
At what point did you decide to open the restaurant?
We started doing the markets in June 2015 and we opened Limoo in October 2016, we kept going to the market whilst we had the restaurant, which was very hard and became too challenging so we stopped to focus on the restaurant.
How challenging were those early days in the restaurant?
For 2 or 3 years it was very hard, we were doing all the festivals in Hamilton, and offering very low prices just to get people to come in and try our food. We couldn’t afford staff so for a long time it was only Shervin and I. No one knew what Persian food was.
I remember this one day Shervin was sick and it was Father’s Day. We didn’t think it would be busy and one of my friends came to help with the dishes, but he couldn’t speak English and couldn’t make coffee and when I opened within 5 minutes all the tables were full, and I had to do everything. Within 20 minutes I was sitting on the floor in the kitchen crying and I called Shervin to ask him to please come in. I kept apologising to customers and asking them to be patient.
How is the workload shared between Shervin and yourself?
We basically do everything together, but Shervin does the financial side of things, I am not good with money. He also takes care of the service, he is best to manage the busy service, I get panicked but he is very calm.
I am good with the crafty, building side of things. If something needs fixing in the restaurant I usually take on that work. I also do the shopping, and trying new foods. I love the creative side of the business. The baklava and cakes, it’s all on me, also the meatballs, they take a lot of time to prepare as you need to make them very beautiful. Anything that requires patience is on me.
You obviously work well as a team, it must have its challenges though?
It is hard to work with your partner, and at first it was very challenging. Initially there was so much pressure with the new business, our money situation, new marriage, everything was very stressful. But now that we are past that, things are good. We've made the rule, on Sunday and Mondays when we are closed, not to talk about work, nothing at all. That helps.
What does the Limoo Café team look like now?
We have three great staff, we have Naser who helps in the kitchen, he is amazing, and two beautiful staff out the front. So things are good now.
What do you find most rewarding about the business?
You change the mood of people through food, customers often come in tired and not happy, but then they have their food and glass of wine, and everything changes, they feel comfortable, and start to talk to you, and ask questions.
There are not many jobs that you can offer your service and get comments on your service instantly, it’s very rewarding. It is very challenging, both physically and mentally, but I love it.