I believe I owe Kian Kazemi an apology.
It was easy to brush him off as one of those hard-partying personas I'm all too familiar with—super club habitués numbed by alcohol and shallower than a Kardashian sound bite. I met him when he was fresh off his reality-show gig, high from his brush with celebrity and life in the limelight.
Years later, I encountered a totally different Kian, ironically at a brunch where he invited me to try his food. "Let me cook for you," he said. I was intrigued by his raw sincerity and humility that I obliged more out of curiosity—about his realness than his food.
This Kian I am sitting down with now is deep: he quotes Kippling, gives inspirational talks to students, and values family. He talks about how he is done with show business, that it chewed him up and spat him out when he "refused to sell (his) soul to the devil."
Necessity compelled him to open Persia Grill in Salcedo Village 10 years ago with his dad, an Iranian immigrant who moved to Manila in the '70s to escape the feverish political climate at the time. The older Kazemi came here to study dentistry, and was forced to learn how to cook for himself as a student living alone in Sta. Mesa. It was his mother's recipes that sustained him then and they are now the backbone of their Persia Grill chain that is currently 10-stores strong.
However, Kite Kebab Bar is Kian's spin-off of his original venture, the Hobbit to Persia Grill's Lord of the Rings. He found the spot while having drinks at Señor Pollo across the street. It wasn't available for lease, but incidentally he was chatting with the right person at the right time. "Apparently the dad of a friend owns the house," he chuckles. "So now I'm a believer, that if you want something, say it out loud to the universe and it will be given to you!"
While Persia Grill is more commercial, Kite allows Kian to apply his creativity. The interiors showcase splashy murals on the walls and ceilings, while knickknacks from his family home add interesting clutter to the space. The specialties of the house—essentially, meat on sticks—are flavorful, moist, yet priced so you can have your fill of ox tongue, Wagyu cubes, spicy herb kebabs, and shrimp tandoori.
The LTO (Liver, Tomato, Onion) and ox brain are Persian street food staples, the lamb biryani—cubed lamb shoulder simmered six hours, buried beneath a mountain of fluffy, aromatic basmati rice—a Persia Grill favorite that's so good Kian couldn't help but include it in Kite's menu. Still, he needed to stand on his own two feet. "I told my dad he had to allow me to strike out on my own," the eldest of four children says. "Aside from (Kite) being my creative outlet, I needed to prove that I can do it."
And do it well, it seems he did. When an apartment space down the road from Kite hung a "For Rent" sign on their gate, Kian immediately walked in, handed the owner a bundle of money as a down payment, and told him to put down the sign. It now houses Lobo Filipino Tavern—Kian's take on our local cuisine (with much help from his Ilongga mother) while celebrating the national penchant for a good drinking sesh. Hard-working and ambitious, the HRIM graduate took on the menu development on his own when finding a chef consultant was impossible. "Everybody was busy!" exclaimes Kian. So, with his loyal kusinero, he devised a crowd-pleasing selection of local classics (chicharon bulaklak, kinilaw na tanigue, ensaladang talong, kare-kare) that draws in families into the rather bright and airy space in the ground floor. The walls are a stark white to showcase paintings of local artists, mostly young 'uns waiting to be discovered. The modern art complements some of Kian's more experimental fare and, like the tender, ginataan lamb adobo and the mountainous sisig nachos draped in aioli, we hope they are rapid successes.
Buzzed from the rosé, traces of the hard-partying Kian would surface sporadically, but in very controlled doses. That is no longer him, his energy invested on building his empire and making his family proud. We move to the balcony area of Lobo where a motley crew of foreigners have gathered to enjoy beers with a pleasantly surprising breeze. The Kazemis were there with friends (Kian got his soft features from his mestiza mom), and it was an honest-to-goodness love fest—the son who obviously worships his father, Baba Kazemi, who, in turn, is beaming with pride at his eldest who at 30 is coming into his own.
I ask Kian: "Why Lobo?" Being the smartass that I am, I recall the mural at Kite and attempt to answer my own question: "Oh, "balloon!" Like, kite, right?" Kian politely smiles and drops the Rudyard Kippling quote on me: "'For the strength of the pack is the wolf (or lobo, in Tagalog), and the strength of the wolf is the pack.' For me, Filipino food is about family." Kian—the show biz survivor; the persistent entrepreneur; a believer. You can't help but root for him.
Kite Kebab Bar is at 5772 Ebro Street, Poblacion, Makati City; Lobo Filipino Tavern is at 4898 Durban Corner Polaris Street, Poblacion, Makati City.
Photos by Eugene Constantino