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Persian Pioneer 

by Ann M. Colford

It's just a small yellow house on a busy corner near the hospitals, so small you'd hardly notice it. But inside is a feast for the senses - scents of garlic and cinnamon and other indefinable yet mouth-watering flavors combine with the visual array of colorful salads and pastries behind glass. Fery Haghighi moves efficiently about the kitchen preparing fragrant lentils with rice and savory chicken curry while her husband Ahmad removes delicate pastries from the oven. The former owners of Au Croissant now work six or seven days a week satisfying customers' palates at Fery's Catering and Take-Out.

"My cooking is Persian, with an accent of French," she explains. "We do Italian, Greek - we do almost every kind. I go to New York every year and go to restaurants and find out what is happening. It's fun and it keeps us updated."

The Haghighis came to Spokane from Iran more than 20 years ago, soon after the 1979 revolution ousted the shah and brought the Ayatollah Khomeini and his Islamic Republic to power. Although Ahmad, a geologist and mining engineer, had studied at UCLA previously, the couple made their way to the Northwest because of family connections.

"My brother was a heart surgeon here," Haghighi remembers. "He sponsored us. We were very fortunate."

Once settled, the couple had to earn a living. Unlike now, Spokane had no artisan bread bakers or European pastry shops - and no one had heard of espresso. "We have a lot of French pastries in Iran, and this town didn't have anything like that," she says. "We thought [a shop for] French bread and croissants would be good."

Thus was born Au Croissant, in its original location on Howard Street. Soon, baguettes and croissants flew out the door and customers stood in long lines to be sure of getting their favorite treats. The business expanded to multiple locations and hired a pastry chef from France, who helped Haghighi refine her techniques. She also traveled to France for classes at the famed Cordon Bleu and La Varenne cooking schools.

But then came the headlines proclaiming the dangers of cholesterol, and suddenly customers shied away from buttery French croissants. At the same time, the variety of foods available in Spokane grew; baguettes and croissants could be found at the supermarket - even at Costco - and espresso shops blossomed on corners all around town. In the mid-'90s, the Haghighis shuttered Au Croissant and took a well-deserved break from the food business.

Still, it didn't take long before they were back, this time with the catering and take-out business. More than half the business comes from catering weddings, funerals, and office parties, while retail sales account for the rest. Fery's salads and entrees may be purchased at their shop (421 S. Cowley St.) or at the Rocket Market on the South Hill (726 E. 43rd Ave.); most of the pastries and cakes are available at Huckleberry's (926 S. Monroe St.).

Haghighi now gives equal time to her Persian heritage with main dishes and salads that show a Middle Eastern flair. Even the pastries demonstrate the balance between crispiness and softness that is a hallmark of Persian cooking.

"Our bread in Iran is flat bread, very crispy and toasted," she says. "We like everything crisp. But we always have a combination of soft and crisp together. When we make rice, we make it crispy on the bottom, so you have a little bit of that crunch with the rest of the soft rice and it's balanced."

She still has great respect for classic French cooking, but Haghighi thinks the merger of cultures in the United States has produced some of the most exciting recent developments in cuisine. "This is a neo-American cuisine we have here," she points out. "Now, you go to New York, and they do better than in France. They get the crispiness and crunchiness in vegetables, and they're using French techniques for the sauces but making them lighter. I think American cuisine has gone far. They have taken a little of everything from other cultures and mixed it together. Fantastic."

Publication date: 04/17/03

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