BED! on the Barbican
PUBLISHED: 13:31 24 April 2008 | UPDATED: 15:07 20 February 2013
Coming to England was a real culture shock for Iranian Mehdi Taheri, but hard work and a 'can do anything' attitude has seen his restaurant, BED!, become one of Plymouth's 'must visit' places to eat
When Mehdi Taheri arrived in England, his relatives expected him to take up a profession and follow in the family footsteps. The expectations were tough, not because Mehdi wasn't bright, but that he'd arrived in England from his native Iran, without his parents, at the age of 14. He spoke no English and was plunged into a culture that was remote from his own.
It's hard to believe that at 23 Mehdi now runs one of Plymouth's most successful restaurants. BED! restaurant opened three-and-a-half years ago and is a buzzy place, fast becoming the hub of the city's eateries. BED! - Beverages Entertaining and Dining - lives up to its name, with bring-your-own-bottle as well as a good wine list, reasonable prices, tasty food in man-sized portions - no sculpted radishes here - and with a great ambience.
A far cry from an Iranian background
Watching him being mine host, working the tables with such charm and panache, before disappearing back to cook, is a far cry from the upbringing Mehdi knew in Iran.
"The three McDonald's we had in Tehran have now been closed down. I would never be allowed to have contact with women, such as waitresses or customers. In Iran if you walk down the road with a female cousin, you have to prove identity. If you are a married couple holding hands you have to show your passport. A girlfriend and boyfriend seen touching could get lashings or even prison."
Mehdi's parents - his father is an architect and his mother a teacher - sent him to Plymouth to live with his uncle because they felt he would have a better life.
"I cried for weeks when I arrived. I spoke no English and everything was so different. I went to school and was shocked to be put next to a girl - what's more, a girl who was wearing a skirt like a pelmet," he says. "I couldn't get over how liberal everything was. People my age drank. In Iran you would be fined and whipped. My friend got caught with a girl and had to unload a cement truck using a coffee cup as part of his punishment. Another one had to stand for eight hours in the heat over a large hole, forbidden to move.
"People who deal class A drugs there get the death sentence with no argument. Here, I still can't get used to the liberal attitudes. I never grew up with free speech and was always aware of people who might shop you to the secret police, and then you could just disappear without trace."
Adapting to equality
Since he's been in England, Mehdi has had to adapt to equality. "In Iran women are expected to do as their husbands tell them. I'm not happy about that. I wouldn't want a woman to do all the domestic stuff."
Hard work is something the Iranian doesn't balk at. "My uncle had a restaurant in Plymouth, and as soon as I arrived here I would work there every hour I had to help out and earn a bit of pocket money. I realised then how much work was involved in running a restaurant."
Despite the language difficulties, Mehdi took his GCSEs. "I went on to do a Business Management course at the College of Further Education and when I wasn't there spent time washing pots for my uncle. I went on to do A-level 1 and 2 in catering. My dream was to open a restaurant."
Where one dream was shattered, another was born. Antonucci, the multi-million-pound lottery winner from Plymouth, was forced to sell properties when his money ran out. Mehdi, fortuitously, managed to get backers to take on one of those properties - an old gabled building in the Barbican, once home to a tattooist.
"Uncle bought the building at auction," recalls Mehdi. "It was filthy. I cleaned for days and then decorated it - all on a shoestring. I wanted to start small and build up, and opened as a coffee shop. One day I worked from 7am until 10pm and made £2.50.
"My uncle encouraged me though, and gave me ideas. He has become my best friend and I listen to him. He talked to me about thinking big, doing a restaurant. My catering course had been mainly theory and I knew very little about practical cooking, but I took the plunge.
"I really didn't have much idea other than that I wanted to succeed. In the early days members of the Plymouth Argyle football team would come in - they knew I was starting up and they'd bring in their own pasta and ask me to cook it, or would overpay me for dishes and wouldn't listen to me protest. They were very supportive. My school friends would come in too and I'd try out food on them for free - they'd been fantastic to me in difficult times, helped me with English and it was the only way I could say 'thank you'.
"The restaurant took off very fast - my uncle would come in to help and we'd have 40 covers - I would be cooking, then running in and out of the kitchen trying to pour drinks and take payments. I worked very long hours and when I wasn't working would spend ages looking for new recipes and inspirations."
Now Mehdi is trying to help others. "My young nephews come in every Saturday morning for a cooking lesson," he says. He is also happy to display up-and-coming artists' work on the walls of the restaurant to give them some exposure. As if that's not enough, he's expanding BED! with a private dining room to take another 30 diners, and expanding his staff of ten.
"My grandmother in Iran doesn't approve - she still asks when I'm going to train as a doctor," he grins, picking up a box of food and disappearing beyond the kitchen door.