He runs back and forth in the kitchen, opens the walk-in fridge and freezer, checks to see if the line is ready and chops up fresh vegetables all while keeping an eye on a pot of simmering fresh tomato sauce. Baci Bistro executive chef and co-owner Reza Azeri is always busy making sure his Kailua Italian restaurant is up to standard.
Born and raised in Italy, Azeri grew up running around with his siblings and “causing trouble.” His father owned a restaurant, and he also spent a lot of time watching his grandmother cook family dinners of traditional Italian pastas.
“So simple, but taste like heaven,” Azeri said.
His grandmother would have to kick him out sometimes because he would get in the way. However, food was not his first passion. Travel was.
Azeri traveled to many places in Europe–Germany, Hungary, France, but mostly Spain–and learned about different foods and cooking techniques. He later came to the U.S. hoping to expand his knowledge of food and culture.
In the 1970s, he made his way to Los Angeles without knowing anyone, with hardly any money and not a word of English.
“Work, work, work,” he said, “That is all I did.”
He worked three jobs at one point just to support himself. He eventually got bored, so he made his way to San Francisco, attended culinary school and found a job in a restaurant. He also met some business people and got tips on how to be an entrepreneur. But he wanted to travel more.
Hearing that Hawai‘i had different foods and places, he decided to come to the islands in 1980. The first thing he did was find a job at a restaurant in Hawai‘i Kai.
“It was not easy taking three different buses just to get to work, but I had to do what I had to do,” he said.
He met friends who were trying to open a restaurant and needed a chef. They recruited him and opened a restaurant on Wai‘alae Avenue in Ka‘imukī.
The restaurant was a success and attracted many people, making it almost impossible to get in without a reservation. Unfortunately, the lease was too expensive to renew, and his partners moved back to the mainland. So it closed.
Wanting to open another restaurant, he met Bill Duval through friends, and the two became partners and started looking around for a new spot. They found a small place in Kailua that was affordable and reasonable. They opened Baci Bistro in 1985.
It was not easy at first. With few employees and not many customers, he worked mornings and nights, often the only one in the kitchen. Eventually more people started dining in.
“Everyone needs to eat … take care of them, they take care of you,” he said.
“Working with Chef Reza is an honor,” said Matt Sargent, a manager who has worked at Baci Bistro for five years. “During work, chef is a ‘bad ass,’ pardon my language … outside of work, he is an enjoyable person to be around. He is witty with the best of them and is not afraid to call you on your faults at any time.”
Sargent added that Azeri is a jokester and likes to joke around with ticket orders or crack jokes with the waiters.
However, Azeri had many obstacles to get to where he is now. One tragic incident happened in January 2014 when he was jumped from behind while unloading groceries. He was brutally beaten and left with a broken jaw, a few stitches and a long road to recovery.
The random act of violence forced him to take months off of work to recover. Being away from the restaurant was painful for him.
“Without chef, the restaurant would not be the same,” Sargent said thinking back on those months.
“He has the biggest heart out of anyone I’ve ever met,” said Kevin “Taylor” Kuhia, a busboy who has been working for Azeri for 10 years.
“Rez treats us like his kids … you can talk to him about anything, but I am (more) scared to tell him some things than my dad,” he said while giggling because he knows Azeri will be more hard on him, like a father would be.
“Chef is very smart but can be grouchy when we don’t do things right,” said Johnette Fulton, a waitress who has been working for him for two years.
Even though Azeri himself has worked under different chefs and tried many different foods, he said his grandmother’s cooking is the absolute best, and he misses it.
He learned everything from her, but when he tries to recreate her dishes, they’re nowhere near the same.
“I wish I could eat some of her food today,” he said while sipping a glass of wine.
by Kristen Kumakura, Special to Ka ‘Ohana