Armenian-Lebanese restaurateur Nina Festekjian grew up in Lebanon during the Civil War. She and her husband, Raffi, opened Anoush’ella Saj Kitchen to share their favorite childhood recipes with the South End. She has no professional culinary training; instead, she honed her kitchen skills cooking for three sons and throwing plenty of parties and charitable gatherings. “I feel like I’m a chef by experience,” she says.
What’s the first restaurant you ever ate at in Boston? Todd English’s Olives in Charlestown. I loved his paella! We did catering for my son’s first birthday, and he delivered it himself. We got to know him when he brought it. He gave me the platter to keep, he explained how to serve it with the sauce on top, and then he left. This was in 1996.
What’s one thing you’d like to fix about the restaurant industry here? I didn’t have [restaurant] experience. My husband and I had to research every single aspect of operating the restaurant. I would love to have a single portal for chefs to quickly make decisions . . . the best way to install digital displays, or to get eco-friendly containers or custom-bottled juices, or to learn social media best practices. We did our own research in every single area. It’s very time-consuming.
What other restaurants do you visit? I love Ostra. Their seafood is so fresh. And I love B&G Oysters, Oleana, and Trade. I tend to like Mediterranean cuisine. Those are my favorites. And I loved the sashimi bar at Uni, back when it was a little place.
What’s your earliest food memory that made you think: I want to work in restaurants? I never thought I’d want to be in the business. I wanted to be an interior designer. Over the years, I learned to enjoy cooking, feeding my boys — we have three boys — hosting dinner parties, doing fund-raisers. I realized I can be good at it. My husband had this crazy idea that I could create a whole experience in the Boston food scene! That’s how we started. I grew up in Lebanon. I cook everything. Italian. Paella. I cook everything at home for my family.
What’s the worst restaurant experience you’ve ever had? I’m a positive person. Every restaurant where I’ve had a bad experience, there has been an explanation from the manager. I don’t want to be a negative reviewer. But I can’t handle clumsiness! I am a perfectionist. I like things to be in order.
How could Boston become a better food city? I wish more restaurants did sugar-free dishes and had minimal use of salt. We need to create menus with spices and sauces other than salt and sugar.
Name three adjectives for Boston diners. They have a global, diverse palate. They are critical. And loyal.
What’s the most overdone trend right now? Steak and burger restaurants!
What are you reading? I’m reading “My Brilliant Friend” by Elena Ferrante. The series just came out on HBO, but I want to finish the book before jumping into the series. Also, I’m reading “Wine by the Glass” by Oz Clarke. My son just got it as a present for me. I want a deeper understanding of the wines I’m drinking.
How’s your commute? We live in Winchester. The commute is short but sometimes challenging with traffic. Most cases, it’s a half-hour.
What’s the one food you never want to eat again? In Lebanon, we serve these little birds that are fried and served with pomegranate molasses. Some say it’s a delicacy. It’s like a tweetie bird. Frying the birds, those tweetie birds — I can’t!
What kind of restaurant is Boston missing right now? I feel like Michelin star restaurants are missing, maybe like Casa Mono in New York City or Le Bernardin. We also are missing some very good Middle Eastern restaurants, like Ilili in New York.
What’s your most missed Boston restaurant? Blue Ginger. We used to live in Lexington back then, and it was a short commute.
Who was your most memorable customer? We have a dentist who is a BU dental professor. He actually worked as a sous chef at one point with Ken Oringer! He’s a very nice person and a foodie. He and his colleagues come almost every week, and they appreciate the effort we put into creating healthy, fresh dishes. They’ve been really nice in providing critical feedback and encouragement since day one.
If you had to eat your last meal in Boston, what would it be? I love oysters, but I stay away from fried ones. If I had a last meal, it would be fried oysters at B&G.