Behnam "Ben" Alimirzaei
"This program has been very helpful to me because it's not just about cooking. It's about management, business, how to run a business, how to open up your own business. You learn, every day, something new."
Behnam "Ben" Alimirzaei, already a professional cook and sushi chef, came to HCC for his associate degree in Food Service Management. He says he's looking forward to finishing his program next semester at the new HCC MGM Culinary Arts Institute in downtown Holyoke.
South Hadley. Originally from Tehren, Iran
Food Service Management — associate degree program
Anticipated graduation date:
What brought you to the United States?
My wife is American. She was born in Texas. We met in Tehren, and we got married in 2009 in Orange County, California. After six months I got homesick and went back to my country. Three years ago, I came back here again to go to school. My brother-in-law is living here. He told me, come over, I'll help you to go to school and get a job.
Why did you choose HCC?
My wife goes to school here. Sara Taheri. She is a photographer and she's getting her associate degree in Electronic Media. She told me HCC is a good college. I researched on the computer, and I saw they had a good program for Culinary Arts and Food Service Management. I compared HCC to other programs and I see this is the best, and it's very close for me.
I went to university in Tehren to be an industrial engineer, but I didn't like it. I don't like to sit at the computer for a long time. I like to move, you know. It's my personality.
I was cooking a lot in my country. I got my certificate as a sushi chef. I was very interested in the cooking so I came here to go to school for Culinary Arts to be an executive chef, but things change. I decided to get more involved in management instead of cooking and the kitchen. I already know a lot about the back of the house. I need to get develop my skills in front of the house management.
So you already have experience working in commercial kitchens?
I work at Mount Holyoke College as an on-call cook and a horse trainer, and I work at Ledges Golf Club in South Hadley as lead cook. I used to work as a sushi chef at UMass and after that I moved to the Hotel Northampton as a pantry cook, line cook and banquet cook. I have also worked at two restaurants in West Hartford, Grants and Bricco. I still need a lot of experience, more hands-on skills. I came to HCC to develop my academic information, to read English books, to develop my language. That was the main reason, but I've learned a lot.
Has the HCC Culinary Arts program helped you?
My friends told me, you don't need to go to school for cooking, but this program has been very helpful to me because it's not just about cooking. It's about management, business, how to run a business, how to open up your own business and this is really good for me. I really like the program. It is really good. You learn, every day, something new. And I'm really excited about the new building, Cubit (HCC MGM Culinary Arts Institute). I'm excited to work with MGM, maybe. We'll see.
You're a cook and a horse trainer?
At Mount Holyoke College. Actually, my whole family are horse trainers. I grew up with horses. My father was a very good instructor, and my sister and my mother are all horse trainers and riders. I started as a horse trainer at Blue Star Equiculture, a draft horse sanctuary in Palmer.
What do you like to cook?
My signature? I don't have a signature plate. I love everything. I'm really good with spaghetti and meats, like stew, stew meats and rice, which is a traditional food in my country. And sushi too.
What have been your favorite classes and teachers at HCC?
All of them, actually. Culinary 101 was really fun. All of the classes were in the kitchen. You learn how to make food, knife skills, how to clean up the kitchen, how to open the kitchen, close the kitchen. Everything. This semester I have bakery class and events skills, which is usually front-of-the house — how to take orders and how to take care of the customer. Chef Warren Leigh as been really helpful referring me to restaurants for possible job opportunities.
What's your favorite thing about HCC?
Everybody's so nice. Everybody's trying to help you to fix your problems. This is really good. Here they push you and they help you and this is very interesting for me. I like the environment. I like the atmosphere here. I like it. A lot.
How do you feel about HCC Culinary Arts program moving downtown to the new building?
I'm going to be there next semester to finish my program, and this is really good. We had tours a few weeks ago. That's a huge building and very nice. Very fancy. I like it. I am really excited to work with the MGM company. There are a lot of good things coming.
What's been the biggest challenge for you at HCC?
People talk so fast and this is my second language. I got here with not much English speaking skills. I had just grammar skills from university, but no speaking or listening. I have to be fluent. I'm trying to be. I study sometimes more than eight hours a day. All day on the computer. I don't like it but I have to finish. To have strong communication with people, this is most important for me to be a manager or assistant manager in a restaurant.
What's your plan after graduation?
We'll see. After I finish my degree maybe I will transfer to Johnson and Wales, if I can't get a good job as a manager or assistant manager in an upscale restaurant in a big city — that's my goal, actually. Otherwise I'm going to go to university to finish my bachelor's.
PHOTO of Behnam Alimirzaei by CHRIS YURKO