Passionate Pursuits: The Love Language of Food

Medical school student and chef Avi Kohanzadeh at work in the kitchen of his Einstein campus apartment. (Photo by Bernie Restrepo)

The Love Language of Food

By Wayne Coffey

It’s a Friday afternoon in the Bronx, and Einstein student Avraham (Avi) Kohanzadeh is unwinding after a long week. In the kitchen of the apartment he shares with his wife, Dafna, a third-year medical student at New York Medical College. Mr. Kohanzadeh is poised over his favorite oak cutting board, wielding a knife with the skill of, well, a surgeon, as he prepares ghormeh sabzi, a traditional Persian meat stew that includes beef short rib, fresh herbs, kidney beans, and dried limes.

“Cooking is a reward to myself after a busy week,” Mr. Kohanzadeh says. “I just let my hands go. It’s very soothing and relaxing. I get lost in the process.”

Second-Generation Chef

Mr. Kohanzadeh, 25, has been immersed since childhood in a passion for cooking. A native of the small city of Hamilton in Ontario, Canada, he grew up watching his father, Yosef, a professional chef, make gourmet Persian dishes. Some of Mr. Kohanzadeh’s fondest memories are of coming home from school on Fridays to find his mother, Janet, assisting his father in the kitchen, preparing food for family and friends, the house rich with pungent, enticing aromas.

“There are certain smells that still take me back to when I was 5 years old,” Mr. Kohanzadeh says. “Food was my parents’ love language—the centerpiece of so many family, community, and religious gatherings. Food brings people together. I learned a lot just being around all of that.”

The second-year medical student’s Persian Jewish parents were born in Iran and endured the violence and hardships that were part of everyday life after the 1979 Iranian Revolution. His father, on the way home from work, would see people hanged for being the “wrong” sexual orientation or religion. Mr. Kohanzadeh’s parents fled Iran and ultimately emigrated to Canada, where they had relatives and where Mr. Kohanzadeh was born. The family moved to California in 2016.

A Culinary Artist

Although he enjoyed growing up in Hamilton, Mr. Kohanzadeh says, he yearned to live and study in a big city. He earned a scholarship to Yeshiva University and was off to New York City, where he began to cultivate his own culinary skills, much to the delight of his roommates.

“Avi was the chef of the apartment. Every day we’d wait to see what he was going to cook up next,” says close friend and Einstein third-year medical student Benjamin Wajsberg. “He’s like this wonderfully creative artist when he cooks. He doesn’t follow recipes. He doesn’t measure spices. He is so passionate about it. He’d wake up in the morning and get all excited when he’d tell us what he was going to make.”

Mr. Kohanzadeh, who posts photos of some of his creations on his Instagram account, @Medschool_chef, savors the whole experience of cooking, from shopping for fresh ingredients to sharing his dishes with friends, whether it’s ash reshteh (a traditional Persian soup) or tahdig, a classic pan-fried rice dish infused with saffron and other spices.

An aspiring clinician and surgeon, he sees parallels between the operating room and the kitchen. “When I visit my father [at work] and see how he handles the knife, the way he has an obsession with cleanliness and order, it’s like he is conducting his kitchen staff in a symphony of culinary performance,” Mr. Kohanzadeh says. “A surgeon is like a conductor too, coordinating the efforts of colleagues during an operation.”

Being a medical student is stressful enough. Add in a pandemic that has persisted for more than two years and those stresses become exponentially greater. For Mr. Kohanzadeh, it means Friday and Saturday nights in the kitchen will continue to be a welcome respite.

“Cooking is such a great outlet for me,” he says.

Avi Kohanzadeh’s culinary creations, clockwise from top left: broiled lemon-mango sea bass with mashed potatoes and grilled vegetables; a vegetable-filled pita taco; café latte art; a platter of grilled salmon; and a pepper-olive-tomato-feta pizza.

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