Nourishing body and soul – Talking food and recipes with Homeira Goldstein

Homeira Goldstein at home, preparing Goat Cheese Eggplant. Photo by Richard Nastasi

by Bondo Wyszpolski

We know we’re in for a culinary journey that is off the beaten path when the opening salvo is, “I don’t cook, I create,” with a foreword penned by a composer-conductor, Erica Muhl. Outwardly, Homeira Goldstein’s new book, “Create: Art, Food, Life,” is a lavishly produced collection of upscale recipes, but inherently it’s something else quite different, elegant and refined. As the author notes, “For me, food is a multisensory art that engages our entire being.”

Clearly, this isn’t a cookbook à la Julia Childs. But what exactly is it? Let’s see if we can find out because, truly, everything that Homeira puts her mind to aspires to the grace of a work of art.

Goat Cheese Eggplant. Photo by Richard Nastasi

A palette for the palate

In her downstairs office, Homeira begins by saying, “You’ve got to know that I’m not a cook, nor am I a chef. A cook makes food and follows the recipes. I think a good cook is fabulous, but that’s not what I do. This book is really the story of my inspiration. It’s very much based on my philosophy in life of creating — live life artfully. Be creative. Always ask yourself the question, the question that I ask all the time: What if?”

What this means is, use the book and its recipes as a guide. Yes, cooking is something of a science, some things you can pair… and with others beware. At the same time conjuring up a meal can be an art, and to infuse art and science on the cutting board and in the skillet requires not just imagination and inspiration, but intuition.

Kuku coronets. Photo by Richard Nastasi

Many of us know Homeira Goldstein as the local arts patron who dresses fashionably in black, with the stunning accent of a bow or a ribbon, headpiece, scarf, sash, etc.; and who once or twice a year curates exhibitions at the Manhattan Beach Art Center, in the city where she lives with her husband, Arnold, described as “the legend” in her dedication.

So why a book that favors food over painting or sculpture?

The first reason goes back to the birth of her son, Joshua, who was slurping pureed lamb whereas the rest of us were turning up our infant noses at Gerber’s mushy carrots or broccoli. Homeira says she’d never cooked until Joshua was born, but when she began she apparently went straight to the ultra-nutritious and the unconventional. Joshua survived it, and today is doing very well, thank you.

“The other reason that I chose food is because food is something that brings people together. When somebody is born there is a celebration, there is food. At somebody’s birthday there is food. Holiday celebrations are held around food. It’s just a fact of life. It’s something very nourishing.”

But we’re talking about more than just stuffing one’s belly with pizza and hamburgers.

Homeira Goldstein, Gail Bershon, and Jaclyn Smith at the “Create: Art, Food, Life” book signing last week in Beverly Hills. Photo by Simon Ouwerkerk

Food, as we’re discussing it here, is a multisensory congregation. “You look at visual art,” Homeira explains, “and primarily you’re using your eyes. You listen to music and primarily you’re using your ears, your sense of hearing. But when you’re around food and you eat food, when you create food, it’s about all your senses. What you see, what you smell, what you touch — because in the old culture they ate with their hands. And so when you handle food, when you mix or cut something, it’s very sensual.” Right about now one can cue Peter Greenaway’s film, “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover.”

“For me it’s the ultimate joy,” she continues, “an ultimate form of creation. And then the sharing of it — from how you present the food to how you serve the food, the table that you set, the people that you invite, the clothes that you wear, the music you play, the light, the candles, the flowers; it’s just endless.”

In other words, there’s an experience in store that doesn’t simply begin with the ringing of the dinner bell, and conclude with “May I be excused now?”

To illustrate this further, Homeira mentions the closing reception at the Manhattan Beach Art Center in December for “Fly High Dive Deep,” by artist Lynn Aldrich. It was followed by a talk and demonstration about the development of ballet, and then continued, for the invited few, with a dinner at Homeira’s art-filled home. Some people told her, “I’ll just come to the house. And I said, No, the idea is that you go and indulge your eyes, and you’re learning, and then you come and combine all of that with the food and share it with other people.”

It’s a bit like an elaborate form of dinner theater or a wine-and-food pairing when a sommelier discusses why he or she has partnered a certain dish with a certain vintage.

As it’s probably clear by now, the ideal experience of dining, fine or otherwise, is also about feeding the soul. Homeira has a parable that she often repeats in which an out-of-work day laborer is offered a job for one day, but the employer can only give him one dollar. Fine, he says, I’ll take it, and he crosses the street after being paid and spends half the money on a loaf of bread. Next door there’s a flower shop, and the man forks over 50 cents (we’re assuming there’s no tax) for a flower. He sits at a table, places the flower in front of himself, and starts munching on the bread. The employer sees him, waddles over, and says: Man, you’re nuts, you’re crazy. You haven’t had a job all this time and I was only able to pay you a dollar, and here you are buying a flower with half the money. What gives?

The laborer replies, I spent 50 cents to feed my body, and I spent the other 50 cents to feed my soul.

Tuna Tartare. Photo by Richard Nastasi

Aromas of yesteryear

Unlike most of us, who grew up middle-class in places like Riverside or Long Beach, Homeira came of age in pre-Revolutionary Iran, a world that for her embraced its cultural heritage as Persia, rather than the one that handed over its destiny to the ultra-religious ayatollahs. She was also descended from a well-to-do family with royalty in their bloodline, but, more importantly, Homeira was raised to have good manners and social etiquette, and to appreciate life’s finer qualities.

For example, she says, “Fashion was so much a part of our life — We had our own private tailor; we would go out and buy fabric and then would sit and look at all the fashion journals and magazines, pick which design we wanted, and then discuss it with the tailor.”

Having the means to do so, Homeira traveled, often by herself, from a relatively early age. “I’m not saying I wasn’t fearful, but it was very exhilarating. I had this yearning that I wanted to explore and learn about the world.”

She left her native country when she was about 20. Her last visit to her homeland was in 1977. Two years later the Iranian (or Islamic) Revolution happened, and the Shah, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, was deposed. She can return, Homeira says, but will not under the present circumstances. “Since the regime has changed I would never go back.”

The above really serves to explain why “Create” pays homage to many of her now-deceased elders, family members whose photographic portraits are included in the book as if at the same time keeping an eye on their vagabond descendent, as well as to remind us that much of the food — and in particular the spices — was a savory part of Homeira’s youth.

I should point out here that the book is nicely designed and edited by Carl Andrews. In many ways it’s closer to an art catalog.

And then, besides a couple of pictures of the author, sans apron of course, there are numerous stunning photographs by Richard Nastasi that illustrate each concoction, every recipe. These are, and let’s emphasize this, not your usual food shots with utensils and napkins and glasses sneaking into the frame, but rather works of art as if Nastasi had collaborated with the French painter Georges de La Tour, or maybe Spain’s Murillo or Velázquez. That’s not to say that everyone will appreciate them. One person to whom I showed the book shook her head and then paged through a couple of food magazines in which the food is well lit, on white plates and on a light background. Her argument is valid, but personally I was seduced by Nastasi’s images. He worked in tandem with Simon Ouwerkerk, who created the settings or backdrops underneath or behind the plates of food (he created the flatware also). I’m not sure who arranged each item, but two things come across: presentation and style.

“That’s how I serve my food,” Homeira says. “They were not staged.”

After the photos were taken the food was eaten by those involved. I wish I’d been there because my mouth waters just looking at the pictures, the closest thing to edible artwork I can think of.

Homeira Goldstein signed and discussed “Create: Art, Food, Life” last week at the Kazanjian Gem Gallery in Beverly Hills. Photo by Simon Ouwerkerk

And so what’s for dinner tonight?

Homeira’s role in the process that takes food from the marketplace and puts it, prepared and garnished, on the dining room table, frankly remains a bit mysterious. Some people may be baffled by her words, “I don’t cook, I create,” because it’s hard to see how the two aren’t really part and parcel. However, she does say this:

“If I’m doing something new, I’m going to chop it myself, I’m going to go shopping myself; I’m going to go around the world, and find the ingredients I want, and I do everything from A to Z myself.” But then: “If I’ve already created a dish I pass it on (presumably to Martha Torres, who’s been working in Homeira’s kitchen for over 16 years) and I say, Okay, here is the recipe and now do it.”

This gives the impression that once a dish, or recipe, has been arrived at then there’s little or no fine-tuning.

“Literally,” Homeira says, “it has been maybe two or three months that I haven’t touched anything cooking in the kitchen.” However, “It all depends. If all of a sudden I feel inspired I’ll say, I’m going to make something, I’m going to try something new tonight.”

For those who know the working methods of artists, this sounds more like the words of a painter or sculptor than of a person who comes up with recipes for the palate.

Speaking of which, what about those recipes?

“I don’t like wordy recipes,” Homeira says. “If I’m following a recipe I would like it to be short, succinct, to the point and telling me what to do.” And, indeed, the recipes in “Create” are streamlined, with nothing extraneous.

“Anybody can use this book,” she adds. “I have written it so that you can be a total novice and, using the book, you can achieve amazing dishes.” Aesthetically, the pages with the recipes look pleasing, but the type, one person who cooks pointed out to me, is too small. Practicality, I suppose, will always rear its head where cookbooks are concerned.

Now, the food is one thing, but remember what I said about those savory spices that Homeira associates with her youth? She has created her own line, 12 different spices, each in its own packet, and she suggests that we order these from her to enliven our meals.

“My spices are all simple ingredients. They are 100 percent hand-filled. There’s no filler, they are not blended. You can typically use them across the board, but I kind of have given them a primary use.” (You’ll see them embedded with the recipes)

She then explains to me, at some length, how such and such a spice packet goes with this, that, or the other. Homeira has definitely thought it through. She mentioned one that was added to a plate of salmon that I was served, and it was one of the tastiest dishes I’ve sampled in a long time.

Similar spices can of course be found in local markets, but according to Homeira there’s a purity in hers that’s often lacking when we pluck one down from the shelf at our grocery store. As for where hers originate, she says they’re international but that some, “like the peppers that I want, I have them up north, and they’re just made for me.”

Homeira Goldstein and Barbara Lazaroff, at the book signing on Jan. 26. Photo by Simon Ouwerkerk

Well, we can’t let you go without mentioning some of the items for which Homeira has created recipes. Under Smalls we’ll find Steak Tartare and Bone Marrow, and Baked Montrachet Chevre. Seafood includes Wok Seared Shrimp with Squid Ink Fettuccine. Poultry? There’s Sumac Rubbed Chicken Lollipops. 

Among the recipes for Lamb and Pork one can prepare Pistachio Double Cut Lamb Chops. Looking for a Beef dish? How about Persian Kabob Beef Cigars? If you’re not inclined towards a meat dish, under the heading of Eggs and Vegetarian one can dive into Goat Cheese Stuffed Eggplant or Grilled Cauliflower Steak. Complements features Tangy and Savory Pearl Couscous and Crispy Smashed Potatoes. Dessert? Well, that’s left up to you.

“The most important thing,” Homeira says, “is that you take this book and really use it as an inspiration and create your own (variations). Again, my motto is, Unleash your imagination, and create. Your only limitation is your imagination.” And, finally, “Get creative with me and live an artful life.”

It’s a persuasive command, isn’t it?

To learn more about her book and how to acquire a copy, go to or to ER


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