From dumpster diving to haute cuisine by Vahid Mortezaei

Uncertainty, loneliness and failure are the nature of entrepreneurial life. But, being an entrepreneur in a foreign country has its own extra bumps. In fact, you should start from “below zero” since you have to overcome the cultural and language barriers and build a network from scratch. At the same time, being an entrepreneur is a tool to really pursue what you want and offers you unlimited possibilities for creativity.

Couple of weeks ago I was invited to share my story as an immigrant entrepreneur in Finland with Yle News, Finnish National Broadcasting Company’s audiences. Priya Ramachandran wrote a very nice article out of the interview, which you can read it here. Thanks a lot Priya!

Meanwhile I participated in the podcast program, the All Points North to discuss the very same topic with two other guests and the three hosts of the program. You can listen to the podcast here. Thanks Wall Denise, Mark B. Odom and Zena Iovino for having me in your program!

Thank you very much Mustafa Salam from Startup Refugees for recommending me to them!

I’m very curious to hear your thoughts and opinions about it in the comments. What do you think?

Michelin & Me by Vahid Mortezaei

Michelin & Me

A few days ago I bought a new set of tires for our family car. When I was carrying them in the trunk, the car was filled with the smell of new tires. All of a sudden this aroma took me back to my childhood, to my grandparents’ beautiful garden in Iran. The garden was full of different kind of flowers including a variety of colorful roses, a couple of fruit trees with and there was a huge walnut tree in the middle. In front of the balcony with pickled tomatoes jars behind the windows, there was also a shallow pool.

The house itself was huge. It was like a residential complex. I think they had bought three to four houses next to each other and gradually attached them together, because the house had several entrances from different streets. It had four kitchens, many rooms, four toilets, storages, my grandma’s tailoring workshop, a scary cellar, etc. There was a big yard too where they kept many kinds of poultries. Spending time in that house and getting pampered by grandparents was the best possible holiday for us, the grandchildren. It was the best playground on earth, with the best places for hide and seek. You could hide in the morning and get found in the evening.

[click on the photos to see in full size]

The garden was surrounded by different kinds of brand new tires. The garage, some of the storages and maybe even part of the cellar were full of black tires and other rubbery stuff related to tires. The smell of roses was mixed to that of the tires. Either I was very small or back then truck tires were very big. A pile made of a few tires laying on top of each other was like a deep well to hide in. While I was hiding inside that rubbery well, I had a chance and the time to study the tires closer, smell them and feel their texture. I was mainly fascinated with their patterns. From the inside they looked really interesting, like weaved thick black fabrics. If you were wearing brightly colored clothes, when you left the rubbery shelter, they were all nearly black.

My uncle Alireza owns a tire shop. In fact, many of my mom’s relatives are in the tire business (or other car related businesses). When I was a kid, Alireza was single and lived with his parents (later on, when he got married, they gave him part of the house so he actually continued living there with his family). He was new in the tire business and had a small shop with no storage. That’s why the house was full of tires.

[Enjoying Alireza’s birthday gift in his own company. 1982 Tabriz, Iran]

Alireza was young, kind and fun. Spending time with him meant eating yummy stuff, possibly getting toys and lots of attention. Actually he was really into toys himself -specially model cars. Such a kind uncle was excellent company for playing too. I would try to charm him in very sneaky ways in order to get a part of his toy collection. He had lots of car magazines and car games. My passion for cars obvious comes from him.

Since the age of seven, every summer I would “work” a few days in his shop. Imagine a tiny boy trying to carry tires or mop the shop floor. Obviously I couldn’t really do any of the jobs but I would get tips from the customers because of my effort. For the first time I met the Michelin Man in the shop. Bibendum was everywhere: on the wall, in the ashtray, on the roof top of the trucks. I never really understood what was the relation of this weird guy with the whole tire industry.  

Later, when I was a young adult, Alireza became an authorized Michelin dealer. That was the time when Michelin became an important topic in our conversations. You should see how passionately him and his sons spoke about Michelin tires at our shared dinner table.

I always have been a foodie but frankly I didn’t have any clue why some restaurants are called Michelin-starred until I got into the culinary world. With a strong background in design I knew very well what kind of food I want to cook; food is my storytelling media. An internship in Olo, the Michelin-starred restaurant in Helsinki was the moment that for the first time I experienced the Michelin madness. An army of extremely dedicated, competitive and perfectionist people (with tattoos) were treating a carrot like a piece of gold. Soon my forearms were burning proudly with boiling oil drops while I was making charred onion petals.

Nowadays every single day I hear about Michelin but still for me Michelin is the smell of roses, new tires and wet earth while Hababa (my lovely grandpa) was watering the garden.

[Riding my motorcycle with Hababa and Mum. 1980 Zanjan, Iran]

Background

Michelin & Me is all about beauty and contradictions.

I tend to spend hours and hours admiring the beauty of natural ingredients and wondering how I could make them even more beautiful. Once we get used to beauty, we simply do not perceive it anymore. As a food designer I try to discover unfamiliar angles to nature.

Herbs and flowers are very delicate and perishable. The freshness of vegetables is measured by their firmness, fragility and crispiness.

Exploring the contrast between the colorful, fresh, natural ingredients against a black, artificial, industrial object -like a car tire- is the main aspect of the project. This contradiction is also part of one of the world’s largest tire manufacturing company’s -Michelin’s- brand. The same company is also highly influential in the global haute cuisine. This story is at least as interesting as the story of tires themselves.

The invention of the wheel is, in fact, one of the turning points in our civilization. The discovery of pneumatic tires a lot later was a paradigm shift for the transportation industry. Tires are amazing. They are carefully fabricated to be tough and durable but at the same time they should be soft and elastic. They are also associated with movement and progression. Having them static in still life photos create a delicate suspension.

The monochromatic tires also have their own aesthetic value. They are uniform sculptures that in the first glance look like boring donuts. But a closer look at their surface reveals a beautiful play of light and shadow.

In the end tires are not that far from nature either, even though we tend to set them against it. In reality, nature has been the main source of inspiration for many technological innovations.

Backstage

I had been thinking about doing a project with the photographer, Petri Juola, for a while. As a car-lover, his portfolio is full of amazing car-related photos. Working with Petri was a truly enjoyable experience!

The main problem was how to find a few brand new Michelin tires for the photo shooting. Luckily we found Sari Péry, who has a long history in the business. A big thanks to Sari and Suomen Euromaster for providing the tires for the photos!

The social media guru of our team, Juliette Frank de Cuzey, is also a foodie and French by nationality. Without her expertise in media and marketing this project would not be what it is!

Milla Mäkinen, my love, has an indescribable role in my life. Without her I would have quit a long time ago. She gets more focused and determined when things get tough, exactly opposite to me. I love you Milla!

Baba, Maman and Narges: I love you, my life-long worriers. Alireza, thanks for those lovely childhood days!

And -last but not least- thank you Mimis Kotipellon Puutarha for the beautiful edible flowers and micro herbs, Silmusalaatti for the tasty and fresh sprouts, Vihannespörssi for the very inspiring collection of produce and Hotel Jollas89 for having us there.