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Mazdack Rassi

Milk co-founder reflects on a childhood split between Iran and Illinois

"My childhood was really split in half, and I experienced two lives. I was born in Tehran, the capital of Iran, then when I was nine, the revolution happened, and we ended up in Champaign, Illinois, which is in the middle of two corn fields.

I haven't been back to since we left, so my memory of Iran as a kid is that it was a beautiful, beautiful country. My father was a diplomat, and we were very well-to-do. Our house in Iran was unbelievable. We had an entire floor of the highest skyscraper in Iran. It was on a hill and it overlooked the entire city. It was really wonderful and very modern. I remember my mom going to Europe to buy the latest bedroom sets and gadgets.

Tehran is a big, booming town. I think it's changed a lot since I was there, but I have very fond memories of the food and the people. The entire Iranian culture is based around food, and it's always home cooked.

There is this rice dish called tadig. Persian rice is very light and fluffy. It's not sticky and it's a long grain. When you make rice—and you have to be very talented to do this—you cook it so slow that you don't overcook it, and you burn the bottom a little bit so it gets crispy, but it doesn't affect the rice, it just burns it. That’s tadig.

When you’re a kid, that's the part you go nuts for because it's a treat. If you're a good kid, your mom saved the tadig for you. Today, man, if my mom comes here or we go to a Persian house, if we get the tadig, it really, really reminds me of being a kid, and it's the best part of the meal.

When the revolution happened in 1979, we lost everything. We ended up in Illinois, and it didn't even compare to Iran. It was just completely such a different world, but when you're a kid you adapt really well. I kind of forgot about the other part, and within a month, me and my brother were on the football team, the basketball team; we were as American as apple pie. When you're a kid and you're nine years old and you get transplanted, you really adapt to your environment.

We've had to escape. We've had to migrate. We've had to go places where we didn't know how they would receive us. Wherever we ended up, the family was home.

It was a beautiful, safe Midwest town, and a great place to grow up, but we came to America and started with nothing. The only thing we got out of Iran was what we could carry in our suitcases. My mom brought some photographs and a few tablecloths. That was it. They were the only thing that gave us a little bit of a warm feeling from back home.

My parents were teaching at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, so we were living in faculty housing, which was so small. Me and my brother shared one bedroom, and my parents had the other. We had a kitchen that was probably three feet by five feet, and my parents were buying furniture from garage sales. We started from scratch.

But it was just so wonderful to be in America. My parents started to move up a little bit, and we eventually moved into a little bit of a bigger place. I remember finally when I was about thirteen I got my own room. When I was in high school, my parents were at a point where they could buy a house, and it wasn't even a stand alone. It was a duplex, but it was in a nicer neighborhood. My mom still lives there today. We remodeled, and she’s very happy.

When I first came to New York, I had dropped out of university and borrowed five hundred dollars from my mom. I rented a little studio in the West Village at 560 Hudson Street that was $600 a month. I got a hundred dollars knocked off my rent by being the super of the six-unit building. I didn't know what I was doing, and I was broke.

I didn't have a kitchen, it was just a hot plate. Those were the best days of my life. It was New York City, I was 22, and I was just loving it. I was there for two years. It was above a falafel store. I remember all my clothes used to smell like falafels.

I started working two or three jobs. I just rolled up my sleeves, and worked very, very hard. I got my real estate license. I started showing apartments and I moved into a little bit of a bigger apartment, though still small. I worked my way up, and I got lucky that I was able to build a great business here at Milk Studios. It's kind of a New York story. Today I live in a beautiful loft, and I have a house in New Jersey.

It was an incredible feeling to buy my first home because that's really when you feel like you've done something in your life in America, when you own a piece of America. The first house that I bought with my wife is in Middletown, New Jersey. We wanted to find an old, beautiful farmhouse, and we stumbled upon this home that's called the Hartshorn House. It was built in 1671. It's one of the oldest homes in the state of New Jersey, and one of the oldest homes in America. Only nine families have owned it.

Today, we have two-year-old twin daughters, Rumi and Juno, and they are home for me. A home is where your loved ones are, it's where your family is. We've had to get up and leave our homes. We've had to escape. We've had to migrate. We've had to go places where we didn't know how they would receive us. Wherever we ended up, the family was home. My parents did such an incredible job by putting that tablecloth down and making it homey and making it warm for us, and at the end of the day all you need is four walls and a roof over your head. If your loved ones are there and your family is there, that's home."

For Home Sweet Home, Curbed talked to 30 engaging personalities across a range of industries to learn about where they grew up and what home means to them. Follow Mazdack Rassi on Twitter and Milk Studios on Instagram.

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