Seyed Mahoutchi: From Revolutionary to Wisecracking Cook


When it comes to college degrees, Lakeside cook Seyed Mahoutchi says, “Me and Bill Gates both—we didn’t need any.” The inheritance of his father’s factory meant money wasn’t an issue for him. Attaining freedom, however, took Mahoutchi from Iran to Seattle through revolution, torture, escape, asylum, and hashbrowns. 

Born in Tehran, Iran, in 1957, Mahoutchi grew up in a strict Muslim household, played soccer, and attended the top high school in Iran. His father owned a floor tile factory, and his parents publicly opposed Mohammad Reza Shah, Iran’s monarch. Just as his aunts and uncles had, Mahoutchi studied abroad after high school, leaving in 1977 to attend Shaw Prep in Boston and then the University of San Francisco.

Starting in 1963, the Shah implemented aggressive modern reforms, collectively called the White Revolution. These policies transitioned society from traditional to secularized and modern, causing backlash from those opposed to the Shah’s westernization of Iran. Additionally, financial benefits of the largely successful reforms were split unevenly between social classes, irking many Iranians such as Mahoutchi. As tension back home mounted, Mahoutchi returned to Iran in 1978 to support the Iranian Revolution as millions took to the streets to protest the Shah. In early 1979, the Shah fled Iran, and religious leader Ayatollah Khomeini became the first Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran. 

After the revolution, Mahoutchi took over his father’s factory and rose to become the head of the factory owner’s union. With that job came money, and of course, power. Still, all was not well. “I was working in an environment that was full of corruption,” he explains. “In Iran, the law is not law like it is here. You don’t have to follow the law. If you have power, you can just crush the law.” For example, reporting bribery was ineffective because superiors were often corrupt as well, Mahoutchi says. “You cannot trust anybody. It’s all about connections.” He found this system nearly unbearable. “If you want to fight that environment, it kills you, and it was killing me. I was making tons of money, but I was not happy.”

With a new regime came openings for government positions. Former Iranian Foreign Minister Dr. Javad Zarif was a friend of Mahoutchi’s, and “I could have gone into the government and had a really high position,” he says. But Mahoutchi’s stint in the U.S. had changed him. “When I came here, I learned about freedom. You don’t have to push anybody to do anything; it’s your choice. You want to have a cover over your head or follow Islam—it’s your choice.” Initially, Mahoutchi says, “Khomeini was telling us that everybody’s going to be free. He was like a father to me.” 

But once the Islamic Republic started exercising its authority, Mahoutchi and the regime became at odds with one another. “Power changes people,” he summarizes. “The things that [the Ayatollahs] were teaching us—they didn’t do any of those.” Iran’s religious leaders began implementing strict reforms, including requiring women to wear veils and instituting a new secret police, “100 times worse” than its predecessors under the Shah, Mahoutchi says. When Khomeini began rounding up his opponents, Mahoutchi was arrested and jailed. “I was so close to getting executed,” he recounts. “I was lucky, but still—a lot of torture…”

In prison, Mahoutchi reflected on his journey and his beliefs. “The Shah was a really bad person. But when you compare the Shah with the new government, the Shah was like a saint.” So what went wrong in Iran? Mahoutchi believes, “Freedom is something that needs a lot of support and sacrifice. In the Middle East, people do not totally know the meaning of freedom and democracy.” For example, he recalls watching the military quell an uprising in southern Iran. As soldiers arrested the rebels, one of his close friends began beating a prisoner. “I told him, ‘Hey! Remember, we fought because we didn’t want anybody to be put in jail. Somebody is against you. You have to accept it.’ This is the price of freedom.” 

Concerning the formation of the Islamic Republic, “I think it’s wrong to have a government based on religion,” Mahoutchi says. “Religious belief, as far as private, is perfect. But when someone says, ‘I go to heaven and you don’t go to heaven,’ it’s wrong. How do you know I don’t go to heaven?”

After some years, Iran released Mahoutchi on probation, but he couldn’t access his factory or his land. Sensing no other option, Mahoutchi sent his wife and three children out of the country illegally. Since he had to report to the government, Mahoutchi’s escape was more difficult although straightforward. “If you pay the right person, you can do anything,” Mahoutchi explains, and through extensive connections, he knew who to pay. 

With the help of his father-in-law, a former member of the Shah’s parliament and head of a tribe in southern Iran, Mahoutchi escaped via Iran’s southeastern border with Pakistan. He and his family spent time in Germany before the U.S. granted them political asylum in 1995. Mahoutchi worked multiple jobs before he was hired as a security guard at Lakeside in 1996, then later as a dishwasher. “I begged to find a job [at Lakeside], and they offered me a job as a dishwasher. I say I take it. Now I’m a cook. A happy one.” In addition to being the longest-serving member of the food services staff, Mahoutchi coached soccer at the Middle School for 20 years. Now, he cracks jokes and eggs at the Upper School cafeteria in the mornings. (He makes 40-50 egg sandwiches every day, along with two dozen waffle plates and enough hashbrowns for 60 servings.) He serves lunch in the Middle School cafeteria after that.

Outwardly, one might perceive Mahoutchi’s story of factory owner to cook as a downfall; indeed, when he traveled back to Iran, “nobody believed me there. I told them I’m a cook, and they started laughing. They say, ‘What? There’s no way.’” However, Mahoutchi reflects on his story in different terms. “In the U. S., every light is green: you see the green light; you go,” he says. “But in Iran, not every light is green for you. You can walk, but you have to be careful; otherwise, someone will come for you. That’s why I enjoy every time that I go from one side to the other side of the street.”