A force for change

Femme Chic Patisserie, a bakery in Iran’s capital Tehran, has been making waves in the country since its opening in 2018. Started by pastry chef Shahrzad Shokouhivand when she returned to Iran from the Le Cordon Bleu cooking school in Paris, the business has a strong focus on promoting the employment of women, especially in Iran.

“As a child, my dream was to become an artist when I grew up. I often envisioned myself as Van Gogh painting the Café la Nuit; later, in my daydreams, I always saw myself drawing animations for children,” Shahrzad says.

“At age 15, I read Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel and watched the Road to Avonlea series, both of which unequivocally inspired me to dream about my future as a painter baker.

“And then came the magic world of Harry Potter! My imagination of a shop in Diagon Alley with a hundred wooden shelves full of pastry, cakes, and colourful lollipops, filled with vanilla and coffee scents and thousands of butterflies on the glass roof, took me to my dreamland.”

That dream took Shahrzad all over Iran, initially in the hotel industry, before her childhood love of baking was rekindled during her honeymoon in Paris, and she enrolled in Le Cordon Bleu in 2018.

Shahrzad finished the pastry course in Paris and returned to Iran, determined to start a business. Femme Chic Patisserie is the first bakery to fall under Shahrzad’s eponymous business, Shahrzad Shokouhivand Patisserie.

“The idea was formed in December 2018… It used to be a luxury local handbag boutique for more than 60 years under the name ‘Femme Chic’.

“The renovation was done in a way to be loyal to Art Deco, taken from the previous design and façade. It’s a pastry boutique with a unique show-case fridge displaying only one sample of each pastry,” she says.

But all of this is not the only thing that makes Femme Chic unique in Tehran. Shahrzad is also committed to making a difference for the women of Iran, who live under strict laws and rules about what they can and cannot do.

“Throughout recent history, the past 150 years, Iranian women have played a significant role in social and political changes,” Shahrzad says.

“I believe it is my duty to continue the movement in any way I may. It is said that if you want to make change in a society, you have to empower and enlighten women… As an Iranian woman entrepreneur, I oblige myself to empower women, providing an educational and work environment to middle-eastern ladies and a few talented enthusiastic gentlemen.

“By owning a business as a lady and having women employees, it is as if one is challenging the situation, trying to gradually make change possible.”

The difficulty of challenging the status quo is compounded by the hoops Shahrzad must jump through in order to keep her female-owned business open and running.

“Running and maintaining a business [owned] by a lady is a big hassle, from getting the documentation to running errands, in a country that has very complex and difficult rules,” she says.

This commitment to change is being made ever more difficult by the fractious political climate in Iran and the heavy sanctions placed on the nation, especially by the USA.

“It’s affecting all aspects, from accessing real chocolate, vanilla pods, quality butter, and flour to acquiring world-standard tools. We have to use the black market to buy all these items. Moreover, high inflation and a fragile social environment makes business very difficult,” she says.

“During the past four years that I’ve had my shops, we’ve had multiple social uprisings, COVID-19, and high inflation, all putting huge, sometimes unbearable, pressure on us.”

But Shahrzad isn’t letting any of this stop her. She is simply becoming more creative and innovative with her recipes and use of ingredients.

Something that Shahrzad and Femme Chic specialise in are fusion recipes—twists on traditional pastry recipes made using local Iranian ingredients. One such creation is a non-alcoholic version of baba—the baba Tabrizi, she calls it, named after the north-western Tabriz region of the country—that uses a cardamom and saffron syrup in place of rum.

As for next steps, Shahrzad’s second location, just north of Tehran, is enjoying the same success as Femme Chic, and she has plans to continue to expand the business further afield.

“The idea of Shahrzad Shokouhivand Patisserie is based on a unique boutique design inspired by Art Deco and Iranian elements. I won’t have multiple locations in Tehran,” Shahrzad explains.

She goes on to say that she is thinking of expanding to a couple of other locations around Iran, such as Kish Island, Shiraz, and Mashhad. However, this is not Shahrzad’s ultimate goal for her business.

“My main expansion plan is to have unique boutiques in iconic cities around the world, starting from Dubai, then hopefully to North America, and—as a dream—to Paris,” she says.

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