Zov Karamardian, owner of Zov’s Irvine in Orchard Hills, opened her first Orange County restaurant in 1987.

Irvine’s legendary Chef Zov

by BENJAMIN EPSTEIN

The grande dame of Orange County chef-restaurateurs? That would be Zov Karamardian, whose honors over the years include “restaurateur of the year” and “chef of the year” from multiple organizations. Her portfolio includes the chic and airy Zov’s Irvine, known for its Eastern Mediterranean-inspired dishes, at Orchard Hills Shopping Center.

Amazingly, she hadn’t planned to own a restaurant. “Cooking was my passion,” Karamardian says. “I wanted to do something fun, then retire at 50.”

Now, a quarter-century past 50, Karamardian takes only Sundays off. “It’s menus, recipes, training staff, writing my third book, working on a blog – people like stories!”

And whether kebabs, Moroccan salmon salad or spiced lamb burger, she’s got a story for every dish.

Asked about her golden lentil soup, she says, “My first restaurant was three tables and three people – myself, the dishwasher and a server. My mother came to help me. I asked her what soup I should serve. ‘The lentil soup, of course!’ she said. She’d made it for us when we were growing up.”

Zov’s offers plenty of patio dining in Orchard Hills Shopping Center.

And Karamardian made the soup for her children – son Armen, now the restaurant’s CEO, and daughter Taleene, its creative director – when they were growing up.

Karamardian, of Armenian heritage, was born in Israel, left Baghdad with her family when she was 14 and spent her teen years in San Francisco.

After marrying her husband, Gary, Karamardian catered out of their Irvine home for a decade – with no formal training and while raising a family – before opening her first Zov’s Bistro and Bakery in Tustin in 1987. She launched her Newport Coast and Irvine locations in 2007. Two new projects are underway: a Zov’s in San Clemente and Roxy’z by Zov’s, skewed to millennials, in Anaheim.

Karamardian counts cooking at New York’s prestigious James Beard House and her friendship with late legendary chef Julia Child as high-points of her life in food.

Her ideal meal?

“Feta cheese, fresh mint, tomatoes, cucumbers and olives, all in a bundle. As a mezze plate. Maybe on pita bread. To me, that’s the ultimate.”

The Mezze Platter sampler is one of Chef Karamardian’s favorites.