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From The Desk of Sara Zandi

From The Desk of Sara Zandi

If you’ve found yourself in upstate New York in the past few years, chances are you’ve heard of Brushland Eating House. Nestled in the beautiful, quaint town of Bovina, it’s just the kind of welcoming, family-owned restaurant that you dream of stumbling upon with food that will blow your mind. Think warm and sophisticated NYC cooking relocated to the wild mountains. We recently sat down with Sara Zandi who, together with her husband Sohail, is responsible for Brushland Eating House, Pigeon (the chicest aprons around), and Russell’s General. Read on to get to know this hospitality star and don’t forget to check out her favorite Nette candle, Laide Tomate

Hi Sara! Tell our readers a little about yourself. 
My name is Sara Zandi — my husband, Sohail, our daughter, Violet, and I live in Bovina, NY which is a tiny town in the northwestern Catskills. Together, we run Brushland Eating House, Russell’s General Store, and Pigeon Aprons, all of which are rooted in our love of hosting and gathering around a table. 

We’re obsessed with Brushland Eating House, how did you get the idea to turn a 19th-Century factory into a beautiful restaurant-apartment combo? 
Sohail and I moved out of the city, to Martha’s Vineyard, shortly after meeting in Brooklyn. As our farming gigs were winding down there, it became clear that returning to the city felt like going backwards, and that we wanted to create something of our own. After looking for a few months, we came across this building in Bovina — a place we had only visited a handful of times and didn’t know a ton about — and felt really drawn to it. Kismet, Sohail says. It sounds a bit silly but the attraction really felt magnetic. 

Both Sohail and I began restaurant side jobs to fuel our city life during college, but they quickly took centerstage for us. I worked at Frankies 457 in Brooklyn during my freshman year of FIT and it totally blew me away — I really fell for food and hospitality, and fashion PR seemed to dull in comparison. 

So, when we were looking to get out of the city and eventually landed upstate, opening our own restaurant seemed very natural. 

What was the biggest hurdle that you ran into while getting Brushland Eating House up and running? 
In the Catskills, and maybe now in the industry nationwide, staffing is tricky. We’ve had so much luck over the last seven years and can thank a group of our friends who we coerced into relocating to help us in myriad ways. But to start, it was a bit of a struggle. 

Thankfully, Sohail is a genius with food and we both love to work and get our hands dirty, so the physical and technical aspects of opening felt straightforward and pretty fun. 

Any victory moments you cherish that made you pause and celebrate?
I’m constantly amazed by our ability to work together since day one. When we decided to get the building and open a restaurant, we simply divided and conquered — “what’s your strong suit? Okay, go for it. You like doing this? Great, it’s yours!” 

And then we looked up at the end of year one to realize how much we’ve accomplished together and how much we’ve grown as both partners in work and love. It’s not for everyone — and I say that a lot — but for us it’s a huge achievement and something we are so happy we can do. It feels very victorious, our teamwork. 

Any tips and tricks for starting a business with a loved one the way you’ve done with Sohail? 
It took about six of the seven years we’ve worked together to whittle it down to one foundational pillar: Trust. Trust that they will do what they say they will, that they’ll order the steak knives in time for service, that they’ll stay up all night painting the dining room walls with you, that they’ll answer all of the reservation emails and make solid decisions when you have to step away, that they’ll hire great people. If you trust that they want what’s best for the both of you, and trust that they have the willpower to put in the work, the need for arguments or stress disappears. Also, when it’s dinner service at 8PM on a Saturday night in July and it feels like you couldn’t be more overwhelmed with 12 things to do in two minutes, you take a second to wink over the pass.  You can’t forget that when the day is over, you’ll be back in bed  eating chocolate in sweats, watching The Office, as happy as clams.

How did you settle on Bovina as the home to your businesses? 
It feels like Bovina chose us, really. When the building that now houses Brushland was up for sale, we didn’t do much research about the town and only really knew what we learned while visiting. What we came to know and fall in love with is how much the community rallies around its people. The citizens are upstanding, they care about their homes and land, and there’s a deep sense of pride and history here. It feels like the quintessential old farming town, with all the wonderful layers of kind neighbors, green, rolling hills, and genuine optimism. The stream out behind our house and apple blossoms in the spring don’t hurt either. 

Why did you decide to launch Russell’s General? 
Russell’s is a long-standing Bovina institution and we are lucky enough to be its stewards for the moment. Marjorie Russell, the store’s proprietor, gifted the building to the Historical Society here, in the hopes that it would always serve the town with shelf-stable goods, groceries, and a food counter. We are trying to do right by its legacy and hope to have a little fun in the process. 

Tell us about Pigeon!
Aprons! We’ve spent a lot of time, as you would when you’re cooking and serving people constantly, reimagining tools of our trade. It was during the pandemic, when we were making more meals at home than ever before, that the need for a handsome apron — one that felt durable but also polished and smart — started to morph into the idea that we should just make them. 

We are drawn to unconventional fabrics and saturated colors with all the trappings of a very utilitarian kitchen garment (think adjustable neck loop and deep front pocket) and have realized that so many other chefs and home cooks are, too. Now, instead of tossing a messy apron aside just before guests arrive, we are straightening up our own as if it’s a sleek blazer. It should feel that good! 

You work with your husband – any tips and tricks for starting a business with a loved one the way you’ve done with Sohail? 
It took about six of the seven years we’ve worked together to whittle it down to one foundational pillar: Trust. Trust that they will do what they say they will, that they’ll order the steak knives in time for service, that they’ll stay up all night painting the dining room walls with you, that they’ll answer all of the reservation emails and make solid decisions when you have to step away, that they’ll hire great people. If you trust that they want what’s best for the both of you, and trust that they have the willpower to put in the work, the need for arguments or stress disappears. Also, when it’s dinner service at 8PM on a Saturday night in July and it feels like you couldn’t be more overwhelmed with 12 things to do in two minutes, you take a second to wink over the pass.  You can’t forget that when the day is over, you’ll be back in bed  in, eating chocolate in sweats, watching The Office, as happy as clams.

What’s your dream dinner party guestlist?
Broadly? A group with contagious laughter that helps themselves to lots of wine, offers to do some dishes, and stays late for karaoke. 

More specifically — and I think I saw this in a dream once — Elvis, Kate Baer, my mom, Meryl Streep, Lucille Ball, my husband, and JFK. Handsome, sharp, hilarious. 

Where do you take inspiration from when it comes to hospitality? 
My mother. It took me until I was away at college to understand just how warm and bountiful our home always felt. It was always because of her. Even ordinary weekdays felt like Christmas Eve — music all day and all night, low light with candles burning, and delicious, thoughtful meals. She’d put together beautifully adorned spreads (with never a plastic container or tray in sight!) and insist on dancing before dessert. 

It wasn’t The Great Gatsby or anything opulent and showy, it was her grandmother's tablecloth and grocery store hydrangeas paired with a genuine love of joy and laughter, hosting and feeding people. 

I felt then, but certainly know now, how lucky we were to be at the receiving end. I dim the lights at Brushland in her honor, it helps me channel her magic. 

You just had a baby — congratulations! How are you finding the transition to motherhood? How is it going balancing everything with this very big addition to your life?
Thank you! Violet, she’s nine months now. I have no idea where the last year went. The pandemic paired with the rate at which children develop has made my head spin and really lose track of time. Being able to create a cocoon with her and Sohail has been really special — Covid hardships and uncertainty aside — affording us time together we wouldn’t have had if the restaurant were open and needed both of our attention. I got this six-month postpartum period to really soak it all in, and I feel very lucky. 

There were those nights though, when Sohail would be getting out of the shower at 7 pm and pulling on nice trousers and having a glass of wine, to then head over to host a private dinner at Brushland. Those moments after he left had me wondering who I was, in a way I hadn’t expected. I wished for a baby and knew I’d be a mom, from the time I was tall enough to push my brother around in his stroller. I suddenly though, on day 45 or 50 of assuming the mother position, felt those pangs of wanting freedom, having the impassioned conversations around the dinner table, and showering without wondering how long before I fly out of the bathroom, dripping wet, to rescue a crying newborn. I wrote a lot too, which helped me navigate the newness and find balance in my mind before I could ever say it out loud. Now that Violet is a little older and I’ve got my legs under me, I’m able to do a little bit of both - mom a baby and mother a restaurant. 

What’s next for you and your family? Any exciting plans on the horizon?
We just bought a house in New Orleans! We aren’t moving there, but it’s such a fun creative exercise to both decorate a space in a new city, and spend time in a place that you’re so inspired by, personally and professionally. We eat through the city and drive out into the bayou, which sets off fireworks in our minds. Southern hospitality is certainly something to covet. 

There is also a joint hospitality venture in the works, and we are teaming up with some amazing folks, but for now I can’t say much else — we are so excited to share when it’s further along so stay tuned. We will invite you all in when we can!  

At Nette, we advocate for taking good care (of yourself and the world around you) — what are your tried and true self-care rituals? 
A long, hot shower full of Amy Winehouse karaoke, a red clay mask, and a bar of Honey Mama’s chocolate. And if I could teleport, a swim in the ocean in my Florida hometown, every night before dinner. 

Can you share a super simple favorite home recipe? 
There are two — hardly recipes but staples here and very much embedded into our routines. 

Milk and honey before bed. We love Clark Dairy, which is down the road in the town of Delhi, and honey from the farmers’ market, but really any combo will do. Warmed on the stove top, it’s like smoking a joint and taking a bath. You’ll be out like a light. 

And granola, because when we are busy, we need something nutritious to grab handfuls of. I really can’t follow recipes, I either get distracted or really rigid about measuring, and I end up taking way too long, so instead, here’s what I do… 

Fill a bowl halfway with oats. Stir in sunflower, pumpkin, and flax seeds, chopped walnuts and dried sour cherries, sprinkle in coconut, and grate some ginger. Toss together with one egg white and coconut oil until you can hold clumps together without them falling apart. Add maple syrup or honey  and sea salt to taste. Spread on a waxed baking sheet (or two) and bake at 325 until golden — it’s a lot less time than you think, so stand by. And try not to eat it all before it cools. :)

Photos by Paola and Murray