Chef Zov Karamardian’s passion for cooking began at a young age. When most girls start dabbling in fashion and makeup, Karamardian was glued to her television.
“Julia Child was my mentor,” she says. “Each day I would run home and watch her after school.”
As Karamardian became an adult, her passion for Julia Child did not wane. When the iconic chef embarked on a nationwide book tour, Karamardian took note.
“I followed her everywhere,” she says. “Eventually, I became a good friend of hers.”
Karamardian’s time cooking alongside Julia Child taught her one important thing: cooking is all about technique.
“You can cook anything if you know the basics. Braising is the same. Steaming is the same. The ingredients may change, but the technique stays the same,” she says. “Some people can cook great meals, but turning that skill into a successful business is far more challenging.”
Armed with her passion for food and her pristine culinary technique, Karamardian took Julia Child’s invaluable knowledge and started her own little empire here in Orange County. Starting in Tustin, she began serving her take on Mediterranean and Armenian food. Signature dishes such as lamb burgers and golden lentil soup helped change the local culinary landscape. The fresh, albeit bold, flavors put her namesake eatery, Zov’s, on the map. Now nearly 30 years later, the restaurant has expanded and evolved from its Tustin roots to also include eateries in Irvine, Newport Coast, Anaheim, and two locations at John Wayne Airport.
“Each restaurant has its own culture,” says Karamardian. “We try to keep our menus the same, but there are certain items that are conducive to each restaurant.”
In Tustin, the piece de resistance is Zov’s five-hour braised lamb. Karamardian takes a young lamb shoulder and sears it, locking in the juices, before braising it with fresh aromatics such as thyme, garlic and rosemary. The savory dish is slow-cooked for at least five hours with sliced carrots and tomatoes, giving it an unctuously rustic flavor. Since this is truly a comfort food dish, Karamardian serves it over mashed potatoes or rice pilaf.
While most female chefs need to choose between family and career, Karamardian believes that her success stems from having her family close. Her son Armen is the CEO and her daughter Taleene dabbles in a bit of everything.
“My husband Gary, although he’s retired, is our ambassador,” she says.
On a recent afternoon, Gary is strolling through the dining room, welcoming diners and making suggestions to customers queuing up at the dessert counter. As Karamardian works her magic behind the scenes as the restaurant group’s culinary director, he is one of the most recognizable faces at the bistro.
Zov’s expansion includes private events at the Tustin location, local delivery services for nearby residences and a take-out menu on the website. Banquets and holiday gatherings are hosted annually and since Zov’s has been such a local institution, the restaurant is regarded as an Orange County gem, with menus changing with the seasons.
In the spring, Karamardian plans for a slew of dishes inspired by the season’s finest ingredients. Working with local purveyors and artisanal farmers, Zov’s will serve braised eggplant, stuffed artichokes and bountiful salads with crisp garden lettuces garnished with sweet roasted beets. But, remember to save room for dessert. The pristine white coconut cake, layered with sweet pastry cream and covered with freshly shaved coconut flakes, is a longtime favorite. The light texture and sweet filling make it a popular staple in the bakery. On a recent afternoon, a blonde woman starts gabbing with us.
“I’ve ordered this cake for my birthday for the past 10 years,” she says. “Coconut is my favorite. There are times when I dream of this cake.”
Zovs.com 714.838.8855 (Tustin)/949.760.9687 (Newport Coast)