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Immigrant finds recipe for success in the kitchen: 'No better place than America'

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Posted at 11:08 AM, Nov 07, 2022
and last updated 2022-11-07 20:51:06-05

RICHMOND, Va. (WTVR) — On most days, the lunch hour orders pour into the Greek Taverna in Richmond, Virginia. From takeout to dine-in, it can be controlled chaos in the kitchen.

“It can get pretty crazy back here,” owner Gee Suleymanian said. “This is the kitchen. The most important spot. As they say where all the magic happens.”

His eatery is heaven on earth.

Suleymanian opened Greek Taverna in 2017.

His dishes with a Mediterranean twist keep loyal and new customers coming back for second helpings.

Suleymanian didn’t learn his recipes at a posh culinary school, the seeds of his success were planted 6,000 miles away in a place where food was scarce.

“It kind of tells a story,” Suleymanian said. “You know, it is where you came from.”

Gagik Suleymanian was born 43 years ago in Armenia, a small country nestled between Europe and Asia.

“Even though Armenia was part of Communism you’re not aware of that as a child,” he said about his country's ties to the Soviet Union.

Growing up, basic necessities were virtually non-existent.

“So we got to a point where we were getting one hour of electricity a week. No hot water. No heat,” Suleymanian said.

He remembers under Communism his family was given a ration of just bread.

“Imagine you walk into a grocery store, Kroger, Food Lion, and Publix and it is empty. Every shelf is empty,” Suleymanian said.

A delicacy was when his mom brought home a chicken.

“We were so excited that day because it had been a minute since we had meat,” Suleymanian said.

Envisioning a better life for his family, Suleymanian’s college-educated father landed a job as a researcher at what was then MCV in 1992.

“I was very excited and waiting impatiently for that day to leave and come here,” Suleymanian said.

Two years later, a 14-year-old Gee, his older brother, and his mother joined their father on the most American of days.

“So I moved to Virginia July 4th, 1994. And I moved here from Armenia. Directly to Richmond,” Suleymanian said.

One of the most vivid memories in his new country was not kissing the ground.

“The first thing I did when I got here was take the longest shower or bath whatever you want to call it because it had been so long since we had hot water,” Suleymanian said.

Gee’s father enrolled him at Thomas Jefferson High School. The student had serious reservations.

“Well my first reaction was like, ‘I don’t speak English. I’m going to school there and I don’t speak English?’ He is like, ‘Yeah.’”

Two weeks after immigrating, Gee Suleymanian rolled up his sleeves and started working. He hasn’t stopped.

“That is the thing you got to grind,” Suleymanian said. “If you want to achieve anything in life you got to grind. You know?”

The new American was not about to waste time in this land of opportunity. While attending VCU, Suleymanian met Toulah Panos. The love of his life and now the mother of their two children.

“He is in love with America,” Toula said. “He is so passionate and grateful that he is here.”

They’re not only partners in life. Toula and Gee are business partners at Greek Taverna.

“He’ll go in that kitchen. He works hard,” Toula said. “He does what is needed in this restaurant.”

He is a proud immigrant who still relishes his fresh start that began 28 years ago.

“Sometimes I joke that maybe part of being an American citizen we should send everyone over to a third-world country for a week and bring them back so they can appreciate how it is over here,” Suleymanian said.

Gee Suleymanian always remembers where he came from and the hard life he left behind.

“So what would I be if I was still there? I don’t know. I couldn’t tell you,” Suleymanian said.

Those lessons shaped the man he is today.

“It is not going to be a smooth road,” Suleymanian said. “But if you work hard and you put your head down and you grind it out you’ll make it.”

His Armenian roots run deep.

“Honestly I had never eaten at a restaurant till I came to America,” Suleymanian said with a laugh.

But Gee Suleymanian will always have an appetite for his new home after getting a taste of the American Dream.

“Just roll with the punches,” Suleymanian said. “Make the best of it. Always understand. No better place than America.”

This story was originally reported by Greg McQuade on wtvr.com.

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