On the Line: Ali Kihanmahd of Al Forno Caffe

It was on the recommendation of a previous subject, Jonathan Bendall, that brought me to a cozy Italian spot in Costa Mesa. Offering comfort cuisine with warm service, Al Forno Caffe was a place I’ve probably driven by many times before, but never found myself having a meal there until only recently. I’m glad I finally did.

Where does the name come from?
The name has double meaning: oven roasted and roasted coffee, which was perfect for our original concept: a fast casual cafe for breakfast and lunch, and a full-service trattoria at night. The cafe concept didn’t really take off, but the dinners were a success right away, so we are a full-service trattoria open for lunch and dinner.

Most important quality you look for in a sous chef.
He or she should be able to run the kitchen at the same level when I am not there.

What was the space before it was Al Forno Caffe?
Q Club – a dive bar and pool hall.

Food you can’t live without:
Sweets and coffee. I always say my two favorite things are sugar and caffeine.

Where was your most recent meal?
Brunch at Crossroads Kitchen in L.A. We had “Chicken” and Waffles, Impossible Meat Breakfast Sausage Sandwich and Kale Caesar with Crispy Milanese.

Tell me about your prior work experience.
I’ve been working in the restaurant industry for thirty years. I initially started out as a bartender and waiter, and worked my way through the ranks up to GM (General Manager) position. Some of the notable establishments along the way were Fiorello’s Roman Cafe, Cesca, Trattoria Di Vino and Pappardelle— all in NYC. It wasn’t until 2006, when I opened up my wine bar, Apropos Cafe, in Brooklyn that I got interested in baking and cooking, and changed my focus to back of the house.

What are the most popular items on the menu?
Pasta Al Forno, Pappardelle Funghi, Rigatoni Buttera, Kale Salad and Tiramisu.

Best culinary tip for the home cook:
Keep it simple.

Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Iran and Austria and moved to American when I was 18. After living in New York for 25 years, my wife and I moved to the OC for a job opportunity.

Favorite meal growing up.
My favorite dish was a Persian sweet and sour rice dish with barberries and saffron that is usually served with roasted chicken.

What’s your favorite childhood memory?
My mother and I standing on the roof of the house I grew up in, overlooking a beautiful park across the street.

How did you meet you wife?
We met at my wine bar in Brooklyn. She came in for a glass of wine. And here we are, 10 years later, still drinking wine together.

Did you always plan on being a chef? What did you go to school for?
I always say restaurant business was my plan C. Plan A was becoming a film director, and plan B was becoming a super star DJ/producer. I went to school for film making.

You’re making breakfast; what are you having?
Ricotta pancakes or mushroom frittata with sun dried tomatoes, goat cheese and black truffle pate.

Tell us something most people don’t know about you.
I am a DJ/producer, and back in the nineties, used to play raves all over the country.

Hardest lesson you’ve learned:
The many rules and regulations involved in opening and running a restaurant. Paperwork isn’t as fun as cooking.

What would you like to try if you weren’t in this business?
If I wasn’t cooking, I would probably be still playing and producing music.

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