We all know what those health food guys look like, right? All pasty with Jesus sandals and fuzzy beards and really nerdy. And as for 27 year old Azeri men, well we have our stereotypical picture of them too, don’t we? Don’t we?? Meet Chingiz Alasgarov and be ready to have your mind blown! No doubt his good looks are down to his mixed Israeli/Azeri parentage but that’s not all by far!
He’s come to my home for a chat and he sits at my kitchen table, just fizzing with positive energy, bright progressive ideas and bags of warmth and charm. His English is perfect and he is amazingly articulate by anyone’s standard. It’s no surprise to learn that he was a gifted child, my words, not his, soaking up up information like a sponge from an early age, astounding his family and teachers with his ability to rapidly pick up everything he was taught and coupling it with initiative and a gentle driving ambition. He learnt English in his early teens and has been taking lessons ever since, making the most of any and every opportunity to polish it up. And boy, does it show. This young man could talk to any Oxford or Harvard professor and express himself eloquently without batting an eyelid. Wow!
Chingiz has travelled to Georgia and worked in Istanbul but he has, as yet, never been further afield, but just can’t wait to visit the States, hopefully next year. Watch out everyone, this is a force to be reckoned with! He tells me that as a little boy, brought up in Baku by his maternal grandmother because both his parents were working in the provinces, he wanted to become an actor. Seeing on TV how people in Europe and the US lived, he decided that he wanted a lifestyle like that for himself. Fortunately, he received plenty of encouragement from his grandmother and also from his teachers.
“I wanted to stretch myself” he says.
When his beloved grandmother died in 2003, Chingiz, still only in his teens, was devastated and spent months trying to recover from this huge, painful blow, looking inward and brooding. The ultimate result and therefore the invaluable legacy his grandmother left him, was a newfound path to spirituality, physical and mental fitness –at this point he discusses Gestalt psychology with me – and a love for nature. He found within him what he describes as a richness, his intuition and inner voice. He took up daily yoga, meditation, gym practice and regular communing with the great outdoors. “It is when you are surrounded by nature, that you can have the best dialogue with yourself.We live in such a material world” he says “surrounded by technology, incessant outside stimulation and non stop noise pollution. Only when you leave all that behind for a while, can you hear your inner voice and find your true self. We all have intuition, we just have to learn how to tap into it. And when you find your intuition, you can grasp life and stop living in fear.”
With so much profundity, he is still a funky, fashionable and switched on young man, keen to throw himself into life and take on whatever is out there for him. Such dynamism has paid off. Last year, he worked as a pool bar manager at the super prestigious Raffles Hotel in Istanbul, a city which he fell in love with, where he experienced what he calls ‘an incredible journey’. On his return to Baku he was employed as supervisor at the Baku Café within ten minutes of his interview with the Saffron Group management. Chingiz learnt all about the ins and outs of healthy food, how it should be prepared, the medicinal qualities of herbs, spices, vegetables and superfoods, the health benefits of organic, sugar free, gluten free meals, here in a city where all this was still extremely adventurous, unheard of and seen as positively really quite odd. Chingiz took to it like a fish to water and so did, increasingly, the health conscious Baku community.
“We have big ideas for the development of the Baku Café. We want it to be a comfortable, inviting, but simple space for all types of people, expats and Azeris alike, to come together, to engage with each other, or to enjoy their own personal solitude, and for all of them to enjoy healthy food, which is both wholesome and tasty at the same time.”
Chingiz has tremendous admiration and respect for the Cafe’s manager, Musa, who inspires and teaches Chingiz on a daily basis, and he is full of praise for inspired Spanish chef Anna-Maria and gifted pastry chef, Rena. Together, their great aim is to bring a more nutritional approach to the Azeri palate as well as to provide all those health food products that the expats miss from home.
“We had some teething problems when we first started out, the gluten free bread was too dense and crumbled apart, there was a serving size issue and the service was not quite as it should be, but all that has been resolved now. We can only evolve well with the feedback of our guests. We always want to know what they like but particularly what they don’t like, so that we can improve what we have to offer. That’s vitally important. We want them to speak out because that is the only way we can learn.” he says emphatically.
The quality and type of products on sale are also dependent on customer input. They are all specially imported from all over the world and the Baku Café will respond to requests too. The Café’s slogan is ‘Art, Culture, Food’, and Chingiz is committed to taking a credible holistic approach and to making it more than just a place to eat well; he wants it to be somewhere that cohesively and attractively represents a whole lifestyle view.The art on the walls, downstairs and upstairs, is for sale. Currently there are pictures created by local children of all ages on display.
I found my conversation with Chingiz Alasgarov hugely stimulating. He sizzles and sparkles and has a great deal of interesting things to say for himself. For me, he personifies the pioneering spirit of his generation in Azerbaijan, which can only bode for a healthy, thoughtful and openminded future of this country. I wholeheartedly agree with his parting comment: “The more you appreciate, the more you are rewarded. The universe always hears you.”
The Baku Café serves breakfast, lunch and dinner, as well as snacks and drinks, from 7.30 am to 11.30 pm on weekdays and from 9am to midnight on weekends. Baku readers interested in a healthy lifestyle approach may also be interested in expat Helena Marsden’s blog and Facebook page ‘Green Goddess Baku. My earlier review of The Baku Cafe can be seen under ‘The Green Green Grass of Home’