Madison restaurateur opens new restaurant while running for Madison School Board

Borokhim recently opened Joon on Monroe Street
Madison restaurateur opens new restaurant while running for Madison School Board
Erica Krug
Laila Borokhim

Laila Borokhim, chef and owner of new Persian restaurant Joon on Monroe Street, has wanted to open restaurants since she was 18.

“I would play restaurant when I was little,” Borokhim says. “And in college–where I was working on a degree in biochemistry– when I was supposed to be studying I was making food for my friends.” Borokhim, who also owns Noosh on Regent Street, opened her first restaurant, Layla’s, in 2012, but closed it last winter.

At both restaurants Borokhim focuses on creating cozy atmospheres and menus with delicious comfort food dedicated to her Iranian and Jewish heritage. Despite being busy with a new business, Borokhim has also decided to run for a vacant seat on the Madison School Board–the primary election is on February 19.

I sat down with Borokhim at Joon recently where we talked about opening restaurants, food and how it all comes back to politics. The following is an edited version of our conversation.

Congratulations on opening Joon. What made you want to open another restaurant?
I’ve wanted to open on Monroe Street for a long time. When The Dardanelles was going out of business, I looked at it. That was before I had ever opened a restaurant at all. But all the stars didn’t align for that. That’s how I would describe opening a restaurant to someone–you have to have a thousand things all match up all at the right time. If you don’t have one component, then don’t do it because it won’t work out. For that one my father wanted to be part of the business, and I was like “No.” My business is separate from my father’s businesses. He has not funded me. He has actually been the one to tell me, “Do not open a restaurant.” He supports me in different parts of my life, but not in my career. My mom is my restaurant champion.

What have you learned from opening restaurants?
You have to think with your mind and not your heart when you are opening a restaurant. It’s a career you have to be very passionate about to be in because it’s not easy. It’s really [expletive] hard. There are so many factors that things are dependent on. Weather is the number one in this lovely state we live in. If it’s too hot, it’s almost as bad as if it’s too cold. As soon as we see snow or rain, forget it. It’s a hard business. You have to be a planner. It’s not for the faint at heart.

So why do you keep doing it?
I love it. I love when the stars align and you have a really good night. When people are happy and love our food and the atmosphere that our restaurants bring to this community.

Tell me about the refugee brunch series at Joon.
One of the things that is close to my heart is immigrants and their rights. When Donald Trump got sworn in he did his travel ban almost immediately. And the country that my father is from was on that list. My father is from Iran and he came here in the late 60s. Without having open borders, I wouldn’t be here. I wouldn’t exist. There are people who are in this country because they are coming from places that are war-torn. I got this idea to do these brunches and we had an overwhelming response to our first brunch at Layla’s, I think we had 200 people come that first time. All profits go to [the guest chefs who are] making the food and the organization that helps resettle them.

What do you think about Madison’s food scene? And food trends in general?
I think that’s why I still have Noosh. I always want to make sure Madison has somewhere weird to go. That’s my mission I guess. I think that is one of the issues we are facing in this country, is that everything is starting to look so much the same and it’s boring. I think one of the best things that could happen to this country would be if every fast food restaurant shut down. That’s where we’re at in this world. If we want to pull back away from this insanity that’s happening, this division, we should start coming back to old ways, old world food, old world eating habits. Persian food–like we serve at Joon–this is all food that once was cooked over a fire in a pot by people who didn’t even have running water. It’s food from the earth. It’s all just natural. Nothing here is fake.

Why did you decide to run for school board?
What we are seeing in the larger scale of politics is division–there are all of these people on two sides. And it’s everyone screaming at each other and we have this wonderful social media weapon that makes the screaming louder and everything gets intensified. We’re all talking at each other and nothing is getting done that way. The one place that division needs to not be seen is education and our schools. Every single child deserves a quality public education. If you are getting a good public education it can help to level the playing field.

What are the main issues in this school board race?
There is currently an assault on public education and on teachers. Teachers need to be supported–not blamed for everything. As we moved away from the church being central in the community, school has started to fill that roll. And schools are now being expected to do things that they were not set up to do. We need to make sure kids are coming to school and having their needs met. I want to support teachers. It’s a career that is dominated by women, and it’s a sign of the times that we are putting a lot of blame on a career that women have always been in … We can’t continue in our society to treat women this way. Same things with nurses. These are the fields that women have been accepted into going into, and now as we become a more enlightened society, we can’t continue doing what we are doing. Teachers are underpaid and overworked.

Literacy is another big issue for me. I am amazed how in two years my child can read. It’s awesome, but not every kid gets to that point so fast so we have a lot of work to do in making sure that we aren’t letting kids slip through the cracks on literacy because that right there is how you lose people. Making sure our kids see themselves in our schools and feel a sense of belonging is another big one for me. Kids need to see themselves in the schools so they can get the education they need.

Why do you think you would be a good school board member?
My son goes to Madison public schools. My older sister is a teacher, my brother-in-law is an administrator in the DLI (dual language immersion) program. My younger sister is a social worker. It’s in our blood to care about people, society and education. I like to listen. I like to make sure that I am hearing what people want. I don’t know everything. I’m not fully done learning everything I need to learn in this life. I like to talk to parents and teachers and listen to what they want. Those are the best resources that we have to change the future and the present. We are losing some of the kids that we shouldn’t, kids who deserve to have as good an education as anyone.

Do you have a campaign slogan?
My slogan for the campaign is learn together, live together. There is nothing more that I believe in than that statement … I got here because I have people in my life who are my champions behind me, supporting me. Nothing gets built by one person. Right now we are allowing this one person in the White House to torture us, but we have to keep being reminded that not everybody thinks that way. We can fix things that are broken. We do live in a pretty great country, but there a lot of things that need to be addressed so that we can continue on in a healthier manner.