In a second-floor apartment tucked in the Silver Lake foothills, a group of 10 strangers gathered to share a meal. Clustered on a beige leather couch, pomegranate-rosewater cocktails in hand, the guests introduced themselves as painters and art directors, professors and massage therapists, LA newcomers and longtime residents, almost everyone queer. The coffee table was hidden under bowls of labneh with sumac, garlicky hummus, and a lush plate of paneer-o-sabzi, or cheese and herbs, with Bulgarian feta, mint, and dill. The dinner’s host, Parisa Parnian, instructed her guests to fill sangak bread with a chunk of feta and fresh herbs and take a bite. When she ducked back into her apartment’s small kitchen, the group of strangers took turns folding salty cheese and green herbs into the bread, cooing over their good fortune to be here tonight, the conversation flowing easily, as if they had known each other for years. Jahan Sharif, who has attended four of these dinners, remarked to me, “Parisa knows how to curate a room.”
Savage Taste is a queer, Persian pop-up dinner series in Los Angeles, run by Parnian out of her apartment since July 2017; that November night was her version of Friendsgiving, the millennial feast day, featuring Cornish hens stuffed with walnuts, pomegranate, and barberries, based on a recipe passed down from Parnian’s grandmother; a sweet potato braise of her own invention; and adas polo, or a rice with lentils and raisins, with a crunchy tahdig sibzamini, or potato-rice crust. Somewhere between a restaurant and a dinner party, Parnian’s events are notable not just for their accomplished cooking, but for the remarkable connections Parnian creates between attendees. In a fragmented, lonesome Los Angeles, its queer institutions fraying just as the city floods with newcomers who, however subconsciously, expect the city’s lush lifestyle to improve their life, dinners like these are creating a much-needed community hub.
Parnian’s background is in fashion — she was a senior menswear designer for Guess — but she grew disillusioned as fast fashion leeched creativity out of the industry, and turned to her own projects. Parnian came out in 1992, and has been embedded in the queer cultural scene for decades — she spent time as a professional drag king (name: Eddie Goldlust) and started one of the first genderqueer fashion labels back in 2005, called Rigged Out/Fitters, which was featured on The L Word.
The dinner series is one facet of Parnian’s overall lifestyle brand, called Savage Muse, that encompasses her work as a designer, an illustrator, and a curator of experiences. She hopes to grow by hosting larger and larger events, or even applying for art grants, not by opening a restaurant. “The intersection of design and style and storytelling and experience curation, usually around food, is this whole new world,” she says. “I feel very strongly that this undefinable place I’m standing in is actually the wave of the future.”
Food might seem like an odd addition to this brand, but Persian cuisine has always been tied to Parnian’s queer way of being in the world. Born in Iran, Parnian grew up in Scottsdale, Arizona, where food anchored her family. “Even when things got hard financially, we always had a lavish Persian meal,” she says. “That’s how I knew we were going to be okay.” Starting when she moved from Arizona to New York in 1992, she cooked large Persian meals for her ever-growing chosen, queer family; when she came out to her parents over the phone, she was cooking ghormeh sabzi, an herb-packed stew which Parnian says, traditionally, is one women must master before getting married. “For me as a queer woman who was raised to understand that it is essential as a mother and wife to know how to replicate these complicated, layered dishes,” she says, “there was something very poignant that my coming out happened while cooking.”
A good pop-up offers an intoxicating sense of crossing boundaries, sharing a meal in the house of someone you don’t know, one you pay money for (in Parnian’s case, a sliding scale from $55 to $70), but that is hosted with the warmth of a dinner party. But the profound queerness of Parnian’s event is unlike any other pop-up dinner I’ve attended — it reminded me of Cuties, a queer coffee bar in Los Angeles which started as a pop-up, but smaller and more intimate. Parnian’s decades of expert cooking and hosting create a sense of welcome people seek in queer spaces but often don’t find.
By the time we were seated for dinner, BYOB’d bottles of wine dotting the table, a warm, occasionally bawdy camaraderie had blossomed. Single dinner guests railed against the tyranny of apps, where a picture of a headless torso wins out over a picture of a face; a man in a long-distance relationship shared how he and his boyfriend made it work; everyone detailed their very 2018 philosophy of boundaries. Lesbians bemoaned missing femme night at the dungeon, and gay men explained that they U-Hauled, too — shacking up after the second date knows no gender. One side of the table commiserated over fighting for workplace diversity; the other shared recommendations for constitutional acupuncturists. The Los Angeles cliches were abundant, but so were moments of genuine social risk and connection. S. Lee Robinson, a painter and friend of Parnian’s, declared, “I’m pregnant with the ideas around this table.”
Azure Jones, a massage therapist, mourned the lack of lesbian bars and spaces in Los Angeles. “I keep coming to this for that reason,” she said. And while Savage Taste is open to all, there is a distinctly queer, femme energy to the project, one Parnian says reflects her, and also the culinary culture in which she grew up. “When it comes to Persian cuisine, it’s always been matriarchal, with a strong, dominant female energy,” Parnian says. That’s an energy sorely lacking in contemporary queer nightlife throughout the country, which is dominated by bars and clubs for gay men. Sometimes, Parnian tailors her dinners for queer and trans singles; her favorite dinner thus far was queer femmes only.
Sharing a family meal with a group of out, queer people of all genders is also especially powerful for those new to Los Angeles. Jahan Sharif, who moved to Los Angeles two years ago, says Parnian’s dinners helped him feel at home in a city where connections are formed more often in private spaces than public ones. “LA can be so lonely until you find your people,” Sharif said as we sat next to each other. “You can only hike so much until you’re like, what do I do now? Community in LA happens in places like this.”
Dinner ended with a Persian tea service; akbar mashti ice cream, which is made with saffron, rose water, pistachios and chunks of cream; and a flaky pile of assorted baklava for dessert. Conversation splintered into ones and twos, as people shared their Thanksgiving survival plans, whether they involved making elaborate grocery-shopping spreadsheets or girding for more difficult family visits, a ritual other queer people around the table plainly understood.
Nearly every guest, at some point, asked Parnian if they could help; every time, she rebuffed them. “I’m a kitchen top,” she joked. After clearing the dessert, she sprawled on the couch as the last few guests finished their cardamom-scented tea. Parnian mused about which Korean spa she would unwind at the next day; everyone had suggestions. Then the last guests bid their goodbyes and slipped out into the cool November evening, laden with leftovers and armed with several new phone numbers, promising to keep in touch.
Find more information about Savage Taste on Instagram.
Meghan McCarron is Eater’s special correspondent.