In the course of a decade working in the fashion industry, Maral Arslanian did everything from sales to design and production management. In 2019, her dream career was at full speed, but the 32-year-old found herself wanting a change.
It was just a nagging feeling — until last year when the pandemic hit and, like many other unemployed professionals, Arslanian started to reshape her life the best way they could.
"Six months prior to being furloughed, I wasn’t happy about my job anymore and I didn’t know what the next step was going to be," Arslanian tells New Times. "When COVID struck, I realized that it was the kick in the rear I needed to finally make the move I've been waiting to."
Through conversation with her mother and an Armenian friend, she realized that her new career path lay in her heritage. Descended from a family of survivors of the Armenian genocide, Arslanian was born in Argentina. Between South America, Syria, and Greece, her family found refuge after leaving their homeland. While her grandmother, mother, and aunts were cooking for the family, Arslanian would sit in the kitchen, learning the essentials of Armenian cookery.
"I watched them cook and bake, and I memorized their rituals," she says. "It is an edible heritage that I continue to treasure. The continued practice of dishes like this gives Armenian identity an opportunity to continue existing."
Last year Arslanian started a cooking business, the Spicy Dolma, out of her apartment in Bay Harbor Islands, initially supplying small batches of mante to her friends, who longed for an authentic homemade version of the traditional Armenian beef dumplings. Her Instagram account, which she set up as a digital recipe book, became her display counter, and it didn't take long for orders to come in.
Within a few months, the waiting list for mante was stretching to as much as 12 weeks, and Arslanian began offering other family specialties that had been passed down through generations, including lahmacun (flatbread topped with a spiced ground beef and vegetable mixture), belén salad (a salad of roasted eggplant, red pepper, and red onion, with dates and toasted cashews), and several varieties of dolma (vegetables stuffed with meat and/or rice, and spices).
Arslanian is now spending two to three full days a week in her home kitchen. She posts weekly specials on Monday, then takes orders on Tuesday and Thursday. She preps and cooks everything singlehandedly, packing dishes and handing them to takeout customers, or delivering them in her car on Saturdays.
"I had to learn how to do this month to month," she says. "I started with 12 dishes for 12 people, now I'm up to 25 to 45 to 70 pans a week."
Recently, Arslanian’s former employer offered her job back. She refused. What began as a way of making ends meet during a pandemic has become a vocation. Pricing her dishes from $18 to $25 and offering catering services, Arslanian says she's taking home the same amount she was from her office job. She says she's considering moving the operation to the kitchen of an events space at St. Mary Armenian Apostolic Church in Cooper City.
“Even if I wasn’t making as much, I would still not go back to the office job," she says. "I don’t want to sit at a desk eight hours a day anymore. The opportunity to connect more and more to the Armenian community has been more fulfilling than I’ve ever dreamed a job could be.”
Most rewarding of all, she says, is the chance to put her heart and soul into the cooking that shaped her childhood.
"Armenian food, like in many cultures, is tremendously elaborate — there’s a history to it that goes beyond what can be explained,” she says. “It is a conglomerate of all the places we've been as a community, a community that rebuilt globally in the form of a diaspora. For some, I believe what's intriguing is the idea of tasting something new. For others, like me, it’s the idea of getting a taste of home."