From dentistry to diners - how man swapped career plan to run sushi restaurant
When Ali Zandi moved to Norwich six years ago from the Netherlands, his goal was to become a dental hygienist.
But two and a half years ago, he found himself instead at the start of the steepest of learning curves - running his own restaurant.
The 28-year-old had been faced with challenges in his journey to dentistry, and it was while working at a Norfolk restaurant, at Christmas, that he met the previous owner of Ciscoe’s sushi restaurant in Norwich.
Impressed by his service, Mr Zandi was later offered work there and, after it went well, the chance to take over the Ber Street restaurant.
“I didn’t have any experience but I think sometimes what’s meant to be is meant to be,” he said. “I feel like I’m in the right place. I’m excited about what I do.
“I didn’t have any idea about anything, about payments, anything. All I had was a feeling of ‘I can do this’.”
With a transition plan in place, Mr Zandi was soon in charge, opening for the first time on Chinese New Year 2018.
“We had a record day,” he said. “And the only thing I did was the service. I thought if we can do this every single time we can do this.”
Now ahead of that plan, Mr Zandi, who lives just outside Norwich, has seen an increase in bookings and takeaways and growing demand for occasions and parties.
An eye for opportunities has seen the business focus on clever marketing - prior to the pandemic, Ciscoe’s ran sushi classes with David Lloyd gyms, hosted a sell-out vegan sushi event (Mr Zandi said they’ve seen a huge increase in the number of vegan diners) with the River Green Cafe in Trowse and has recently launched a YouTube channel.
It’s headed up by chef Francisco ‘Cisco’ Papica, who shows viewers how to create some of his dishes, including a new fish and chip inspired sushi.
For Mr Zandi, the rapid rise in responsibilty has meant looking for role models where he can find them - and nothing has been more influential than football, in particular the leadership style of Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp.
“I compare everything in life with football,” he said, describing head chef Cisco as his restaurant’s captain and saying that their success comes down to team work.
But the industry has, over the last six months, been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic.
Mr Zandi said it had been tough, with the business down from opening 70 hours a week to 20, having to adapt to the new 10pm curfew and, like many other restaurants, seeing an increasing number of no-show diners.
“It is more difficult now,” he said, “and I don’t know what’s going to happen in the next few months, but I believe you have to see the positive in everything.”
As an example of that spirit, he said coronavirus had taught him more about saving money than anything else could, adding that despite the hurdles he remained optimistic for the business’ future.
Looking forward, his priority is to expand on the restaurant’s freestyle sushi - intricately presented platters of nigiri and maki sushi tailored to each customer, allowing for preferences and personal taste.
Diners can set a price, tell the team their preferences or dislikes and wait for their custom plate to arrive.
“Freestyle is us creating art on a plate in a very different way,” he said, “on glass, wood or bamboo. It’s always different. When it comes to the table the first reaction is ‘wow’ and that ‘wow’ has given me encouragement to do even more.
“It’s about the chefs’ creativity - sometimes there is food even I don’t know about.”
He said they were hoping to have new, personalised boards designed by a local producer, and is even looking into dry ice to increase the drama of the platters.
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