2005_08_nazliparvizi_big.jpgVital stats:

- Nazli Parvizi
- 28 years old
- Born in Tehran, Iran; grew-up in Westborough, MA: "A charming little town of 14,000 about 15 minutes outside of Worcester." [Ed note: Worcester is a charming city about 50 minutes outside Boston.] Now lives in Ft. Greene.
- Volunteer guru (read: Executive Director), Mayor's Volunteer Center of New York City; also Chef Emeritus, Night Kitchen Catering.

Nazli's world:

How does one decide to become a "food anthropology" major in college? Furthermore, how does one convince her school -- especially one like Barnard -- to let her design a "food anthropology" major?
I was a biology major for 2.5 years at Barnard with an interest in infection diseases, and basically I burnt out and realized that a life spent alone in the lab was really not what I was cut out for. I was always interested in food, and the only classes I liked outside of my bio courses were the few anthro classes I took. So I approached the department, asked them if they thought I could complete the major in the last 1.5 years of school and if I could focus on food in all of my classes. They were extremely wonderful about it, and very supportive. Food anthropology is not really about Big Macs and such (well, not always at least). My main interest in studying food was actually the lack thereof and issues surrounding hunger and malnutrition. When you study malaria and AIDS and other infectious diseases, you soon realize that these are diseases that run rampant because of certain societal behaviors, and it’s just as easy to make widespread change through education and addressing the social aspect of these diseases as it is working for a cure in a lab. You need both, but until we find cures for all of these diseases, there are very effective means of curbing infection rates through societal interventions.

With a degree in food anthropology and experience running your own catering company how did you end up as the Executive Director of the Mayor's Volunteer Center of New York City.
It seems like a rather strange jump, but I think any liberal arts major just basically teaches you how to look at a situation with a new and interesting lens. That said, I also think a liberal arts education is not necessarily practical -- so I always liked the fact that I was a cook and could get a job in a kitchen any time my education didn’t quite pull me through. After I graduated college, I was a program assistant at the Social Science Research Council, an academic think tank that addressed gaps in international academics in very innovative ways. I was working for the Middle East program and happened to notice that when we held meetings, we served our guests sub-par midtown catered food. So, I offered to cater a meal and everyone was happy with the results and it sort of snowballed from there.

As for where the mayor’s office works in to all of this, my catering partner’s cousin’s wife (yup), who worked for Bloomberg, really liked the way I ran the business, and we did some volunteer things together during 9/11. So when there was a job opening at MVC, she recommended that I apply for the job. And the rest is history.

How long ago did you join the Mayor's office? What’s your set up like?
I’ve been at the mayor’s office for three years now. Our office, in a nutshell, provides resources that enable every New Yorker to volunteer. I currently have a staff of three. We have a tiny little budget and a small staff, so we really rely on all the city’s technological advances to get our work done and spread the word. We utilize 311, nyc.gov, NYC TV, etc. like there’s no tomorrow.

What's the most time-consuming part of your job?
The most time consuming part of the job is explaining what we do. We are at a point now where we have created a great organization with excellent infrastructure and we want to brand ourselves -- not for money of course, but to see the numbers of volunteers go up. I seem to spend much more time in front of email then I ever anticipate but communications are very efficient around here, which I appreciate.

Does the City bureaucracy ever make you run screaming wanting to return to full-time catering?
I’m sure city bureaucracy is frustrating, but the beauty of working for Mayor Bloomberg is that it’s really been cut down to an absolute minimum. I wouldn’t work for the city if there were barriers perpetually being placed in front of me. The thing about smaller city agencies like mine is that they get just as much support and appreciation from the Mayor’s office as the larger organizations.

You seem very altruistic and pretty liberal, yet you didn't start working for the City until the Bloomberg administration. Did his being Mayor give you pause in taking the job?
I wouldn’t work for anyone but Bloomberg -- where he goes, I go. I’m not big on cults of personality nor do I easily place my trust in other people. With the Mayor, I took the job and thought I’d give it a chance and make my own decisions about what this Mayor represented and how he ran his administration. I’m still here which tells you something.

First of all, there is no one more altruistic than Bloomberg and as far as liberalism -- the meanings of liberalism vs. conservatism or republican vs. democrat were all thrown out the window after the elections of the past several years. I will work for anyone who sticks with their ideals and visions and doesn’t pander to special interest groups or get bullied by life-long politicians. People in the Bloomberg administration have widely varying views both politically and socially, and that doesn’t stop them from getting the job done at the end of the day and serving in the best interest of New Yorkers. I appreciate the diversity in the bullpen even if I don’t always agree with people on certain issues.

What do you think are some pretty common misconceptions about Bloomberg? What do you think many of New York's more left-leaning folks don't understand about him?
I think the most common misconception, and the most popular of course, is that Bloomberg is out of touch with the everyday New Yorker because of his money. I just think that’s false. Don’t forget, my job is to get people to help out the City, and I don’t see the people who complain the loudest lining up to do their small part in improving the lives of those around them. I think if most people had the Mayor’s money, they’d be relaxing in the sun and not giving schools the largest overhaul in it’s history, making sure NYC maintains the lowest crime rates it’s ever had or seeing that unemployment is kept below the national average. So, I resent the insinuation Bloomberg doesn’t empathize with the everyday New Yorker. He is an everyday New Yorker, and he wouldn’t be doing such a thankless job if he didn’t care about this City.

How much credit does he deserve in advancing the idea of philanthropy through volunteerism in New York City? How involved is the Mayor directly in your work?
I think he deserves all the credit. I don’t think anyone knew about this agency before he started in office -- it lay pretty low under the radar. MVC had no website to speak of, no phone services, no radio presence -- nothing really. When Bloomberg came in, he introduced 311 and had every agency design a website that was cohesive in look and feel with nyc.gov. Basically there was a huge push to use technology to address any gaps that budget cutbacks might have caused, and for us, this was huge. We went from serving 1000 individuals a year to having 10,000 check out our website every month. The point of Bloomberg’s support for our agency, is, sure, not everyone can afford to give money to a cause they care about, but every New Yorker can find some time to give back to their communities through volunteerism, and it enriches their lives and makes their communities stronger and safer. And if you don’t know where to start, let MVC point you in the right direction.

Do you have his home number, or do you have to call 311 like everyone else?
If I need to speak to the Mayor, I usually just lean over the cubicle where I meet with my supervisors. He sits in the bullpen with everyone else so it’s not hard to get his attention.

The MVC website states your office's mission is "to provide the resources that enable every New Yorker to become a volunteer." In a city where many people find themselves working a 60-hour week just to barely afford tiny apartments, what do you say to people who claim to not have time to volunteer?
This is definitely the big question. First of all, I always tell people that volunteerism does not need to have an official job description; it’s all about what you can do with your resources to improve your own life and the lives of the people in your community. I work 60-hour weeks, and I live in a studio -- yet I volunteer. You just need to make it a part of what you do and get those around you involved so that you’re more likely to sustain it. But that said, think about the smaller acts of kindness you can do, like picking up a piece of trash as you’re walking home from work. There are big ways and small ways to help, and they all go in furthering the quality of life. It’s just that easy. If you’re serious about helping out and don’t want to just pay lip service to the concept, think about one thing you can do or one chunk of time you’re willing to take out of your time -- either weekly, monthly, or yearly -- and we can tell you how to best utilize that time.

The new VolunteerNYC.org website, created in partnership between your office and the United Way of New York City just launched a few months ago. What's the purpose? How's it different from your office's main site?
We used to make people come down to our offices if they wanted volunteer referrals, and I thought that was a fairly inefficient way to conduct business. United Way of New York City came to us with the database, Volunteer Solutions, which we co-branded under VolunteerNYC.org. It’s a fantastic partnership as it allows both of us to support nonprofits On the flip side, it gives New Yorkers a website that provides information on nonprofits, what they do, where they are, what they need, and how you can go about contacting themIt’s been a huge success so far and nonprofits have been thrilled with it -- especially smaller organizations that don’t have the marketing pull of larger nonprofits.

Is there any type of volunteer that seems to be in short-supply? Any particular non-profit sector in need of more help than some of the others?
No, we need all types of people to volunteer, though we have heard from Big Brothers/Big Sisters that men are needed to serve as mentors and tutors to young men around the City. There is such a focus on education in this administration, and so we’re always really eager to encourage people to get involved in tutoring or reading to students at a nearby school or library. It makes such a difference to kids to have volunteers spend even an hour a week with them.

I read somewhere that you enjoy eating mayonnaise and Wonder bread sandwiches. Ew? Is that why you got out of full-time catering?
Have you had mayo and Wonderbread together? Please, that’s why I got into catering. I love mayo, Wonderbread, fast food, and all that nasty stuff. That said, I love food of all kind. I’m no snob. Night Kitchen Catering serves American Food, and I love that because our menus our Thai, Vietnamese, Turkish, Greek, Georgian, Persian, Indian and Mexican inflected, and that to me is the quintessentially American: the fact that you can have a Jewish guy from Miami and an Iranian from middle-Massachusetts cook all these different foods in an authentic but quirky way and introduce them to folks who have never tasted them before. That’s a beautiful thing.

I just got out of catering because it’s not so easy to work full-time for the city and run a catering company at the same time.

You actually do continue to cook and work with your former business partner at Night Kitchen Catering, right? Is it primarily a hobby or do you see yourself returning to that in a more full-time capacity one day?
I moonlight with the catering company on a volunteer basis. So if there’s a big job or consultations are needed, I’m always there to help. And it’s my friend, Aaron Unger, who runs it, so it’s a nice way to spend time together. Of course, it’s in my interest to see the company thrive even if I’m not a part of it anymore. I’d love to go back to the catering company full-time one day in the future. And if the Food Network is interested in having me host a show, they should call 311 right away to get in touch with me.

Do you have a favorite dish? A favorite type of cuisine, or some sort of specialty? Has your background influenced your tastebuds in some way?
Well, of course I love Persian food, but really only if my mom makes it because she’s the greatest cook of all time. I really embrace my New England upbringing: I love my chowdahs lobstahs, and all that good stuff, and I have a serious weakness for southern food -- beef ribs and mac 'n cheese make me so happy. That said, Caesar Salad might be the all time perfect food. And I think that Vietnamese and Thai food bring together everything that is good in this world. Despite my weakness for the mayo and the Wonderbread (Hellman’s only, by the way), the Iranian in me eschews anything processed and store-made. I come from a culture where everything is made fresh and from scratch using great local and seasonal ingredients, and I really wouldn’t it want it anyway else.

Where do you go for home cooking in New York, or do you just whip something up yourself?
I really don’t like to eat at restaurants that much, as my friends will attest. I’m a fairly hellish customer. I have standards, and I like them maintained. Call me old fashioned. So, I usually have people over 3-4 times a week for dinner and brunch. As for where I get my fixes:

Spoonbread Too: Best southern food this side of the Mason Dixon line.

Joya: The best thai food in town. And home of the $12 paradox. It doesn’t matter how much you order, you’ll only ever pay $12. it’s weird. And wonderful.

Pho Viet Huong: Great Vietnamese food in Chinatown and a very authentic pho rendition. And home of the salty plum soda. Delicious.

Amorina: The tastiest pizza pies in town. And no, my friend the chef did not pay me to write that.

Cake Man Raven: The best red velvet cake in the world. Cake puts all his heart into his baking, that’s why it’s red!

Things to know about Nazli:

What's the best thing you've ever purchased/salvaged off the street?
These amazing wooden wine boxes. I’m going to paint them and use them for storing things.

Which city establishment sees more of your paycheck than you do?
Food purveyors tend to have a large chunk of my wallet. Florence Meat market gets my steak fund, and Fresh Direct bread, how I love you so!!

Personality problem solving: Would you consider your personality more hysterical or more obsessive, and have you changed since living in New York; has "New York" become a part of you?
Since when are hysteria and obsessiveness on opposing sides? That said, I’m much more obsessive, bit of a germ freak really. Not a trace of hysteria in me. And yes, I’m much more efficient, street smart and outgoing now that I live in the City. Brooklyn has been genetically embedded in me, it’s fabulous.

When you just need to get away from it all, where is your favorite place in NYC to be alone, relish in solitude and find your earthly happiness? (We promise not to intrude.)
Anywhere on the bikepaths or beaches near the Rockaways, Marine Bay, and Sheepshead Bay.

What's one thing you've done (or regularly do) in NYC that you could not have conceived doing anywhere else?
EVERYTHING, that’s why I love it here. When I woke up yesterday, I never thought I would be biking down to DUMBO to check out the Singapore Chili Crab Festival, see the dragon dance performance, get chocolate from Jacques Torres, take a walk by the water, drink margaritas at a Mexican restaurant, and have Thai food for dinner. All of this a mile from my house, and with all my friends since we all live within 5 blocks of each other. That’s what makes NYC the greatest place in the world.

Assuming that you're generally respectful of your fellow citizens, was there ever a time when you had to absolutely unleash your inner asshole to get satisfaction?
Please! I’m trying to coin the phrase for our office right now: "NYC’s Nicest!!"

Besides more square footage, what luxury would you most like to have in your apartment?
I’ve heard that some people have these contraptions in their homes that wash their clothes. And another one that dries them. I would like some of those.

There are 8 Million stories in The Naked City. Tell us one, but try to keep it to a New York Minute.
You know how people always dread jury duty? I was picked for a jury and sat on a case last week for attempted murder. With me were 11 other jurors: men, women, Asian, white, black, Hispanic, young, old -- and somewhere in between, -- gay, straight, sort of rich and not so rich. You couldn’t have picked a more diverse group of people with less in common. We remained silent for 4 days of testimonies, and when we finally hit the deliberation room, we were all ready for an afternoon of fighting out our ideals. We reached consensus in 15 minutes. As the presiding judge said, “When you sit around with a group of New Yorkers this diverse, it doesn’t take long to figure out that your differences are much less persuasive than the values you hold in common. That’s the beauty of being a New Yorker.” Amen to that.

For more information on the Mayor's Volunteer Center of New York City, visit their website at www.nyc.gov/volunteer where you can see the services they provide and some great events happening now. The MVC website also links to their new online database, which you can reach directly by going to VolunteerNYC.org. In New York City, you can also utilize MVC's services and get information about volunteering by calling 311. For more information about Night Kitchen Catering, contact Aaron Unger at 917-482-0708.

-- Interview by Aaron Dobbs and Lily Oei