Many fans of home-baking will be familiar with Cafe Fernando, the beautifully produced blog by Istanbul resident Cenk Sönmezsoy, which features an array of mouth-watering recipes. Since it was first started five years ago, Cafe Fernando has won a number of awards. Most notably, the blog was picked among ‘50 of the world’s best food blogs’ by the London-based Times, and the ‘Best Culinary Travel Blog’ by Saveur magazine. The blog also won the ‘Altın Örumcek’ (The Golden Spider Award) for Turkey’s Best Blog in 2008, as well as mentions in the New York Times and Washington Post, and was a cover story for the San Francisco Chronicle. Today Cafe Fernando receives around 40,000 hits a day, and even has its own iphone and ipad applications.
For those of you who are not familiar with this blog or the author’s story, here’s a quick recap: Born and raised in Istanbul, Sönmezsoy studied business in Ankara before moving to San Francisco to pursue an MBA. During his time there, he fell in love with the city and the wide variety of food on offer. While in the US and away from his mother’s home cooking, he started to experiment in the kitchen, at first out of necessity and then because he discovered that he enjoyed it and was also rather good at it.
After a number of years working in the high-tech PR industry, Sönmezsoy made the decision to return to Turkey and started working at his family’s boutique advertising agency. When reading the posts from this time, it is very clear that, for him, corporate life was a grind. It was during this period that Sönmezsoy started his blog, most likely looking for a creative outlet for his culinary skills. While you might think that the name Cafe Fernando refers to someplace in San Francisco, this is in fact not the case. Sonmezsoy is a big fan of the 1980s classic sitcom The Golden Girls, and the name Cafe Fernando is actually an obscure reference to character Rose’s teddy bear named Fernando. Around a year ago, Sönmezsoy decided to call it quits on the corporate life and pursue his passion for food and photography full-time. Meanwhile, he has also been working on his first cookbook.
While there are thousands of food blogs out there, what sets Cafe Fernando apart is not only the gorgeous photography, but also the quality of the recipes and many helpful tips offered. Also, these are recipes that have been altered for a Turkish context. The great thing about the recipes on Cafe Fernando is that differences in local ingredients are taken into account, substitutes are suggested, and for most recipes, the required ingredients can be found at your local supermarket.
Having been a fan of the blog for several years, I was eager to meet the man behind the recipes. When I finally did meet him, he was recovering from a serious bout of jet lag, after returning from his old and still beloved city San Francisco. I’m lucky enough to be invited into his lovely home while he experiments with some new recipes that he is working on.
I get right down to business and ask what made him start a food blog in the first place. As anyone who has moved abroad and then returned home can tell you, your time away gives you a new perspective on yourhome town. Upon returning to Istanbul, one thing Sönmezsoy noticed was that he could not generally find the same variety and quality of baked goods that he had enjoyed in San Francisco, and decided to take matters into his own hands. However, the real inspiration struck when he came across his original muse www.nordljus.co.uk. Despite the Scandinavian name, this beautifully produced baking blog is actually written by a Japanese woman living in the UK, and inspired Sönmezsoy to embark on his own culinary adventures and to blog about them.
As we settled down to some delicious chocolate brownies, I ask if he has ever taken any lessons in either cooking or photography. Unfortunately, he says, he has simply never had the time. At university, he studied business, and after graduating, he always worked long hours, with any free time he had spent on his blog, and now his soon-to-be published cookbook. Reading the blog, it is evident that Sönmezsoy is a perfectionist and a stickler for details. In fact, before any recipe makes it online, he tests it out between three and 10 times, until he gets it just right. Apart from testing the recipes himself, he also has a number of independent testers who try them out in their own kitchen, to make sure that the results are identical.
As a well-established foodie, and clearly one with strong opinions, I’m eager to learn more about Sönmezsoy’s personal food preferences. What for example, is his favorite Turkish dish? It turns out that this honor goes to his mother’s karnıyarık, a classic Turkish dish of cooked eggplant stuffed with minced meat. When I ask if there are any Turkish dishes that he does not like, he admits that he finds that the desserts can be a bit too sweet and repetitive. In terms of favorite cuisine, Sönmezsoy sites Vietnamese and Thai, because of the flavor combinations and the balance of tastes that are sweet, salty, and spicy all at once. Naturally, I wonder if a connoisseur such as himself has any guilty pleasures along the lines of junk food, but he insists that he does not feel guilty about any of his food pleasures. However, when pressed, he will concede that Nutella could be counted as a guilty pleasure.
As a long-time resident of the city, I ask him what he thinks of Istanbul’s restaurant scene and how it has evolved over the years. In terms of favorites, Beyti, Balıkçı Sabahattin, Çiya, Iskele Rumelihisar, and Zuma all make the list. But when it comes to the scene and how it has changed, Sönmezsoy says that he is not the person to ask, as he does not go out to restaurants that often and instead prefers to socialize with friends in their homes. When I ask what his favorite Istanbul pastime is, he says that when he has some free time, he enjoys going to Çiya, (a restaurant that is well-known for its inventive and original dishes), visiting the famous Baylan patisserie for dessert, and then looking through the Kadıköy market. Similarly, he enjoys going to Çukurcuma, hunting through the antique stores, and looking for props for the blog.
One thing that I personally find very interesting in the food world today is the meteoric rise of cooking programs on TV and food blogs. Michael Polan, very well known for his writings on food in modern day culture, has pointed out that the rise in popularity in watching cooking on television has coincided with the decline in actual cooking done at home. What is interesting with blogs like Cafe Fernando is that although many people undoubtedly just gawk at the beautiful images, many people actually do use it for real cooking purposes. The photographs are gorgeous, to the point that the creations can appear daunting to the casual home baker. But having tried several of the recipes myself, I can attest to the fact that thanks to the very detailed instructions, you too can get the same results.
I ask Sönmezsoy what he thinks of the proliferation of TV shows dedicated to cooking, and if he had an interest in cooking or watching TV shows as a child. Apparently, his interest in cooking did not develop until adulthood, and he reminds me that there were no cooking programs on television in Turkey in the 1980s. However, he is now a big fan of food television, including Julia Child, having bought the DVDs all of her cooking programs. When asked about current cooking shows, he says that he is also a fan, and cites the Master Chef Australia as one of his favorites. Mainly, he enjoys this show because it is not edited to make it appear dramatic, and it features regular people instead of professional chefs, and they are actually taught to cook. He is also a big fan of Heston Blummenthal and his TV shows, such as Heston’s Mission Impossible.
With his love of The Golden Girls well documented, I ask if there are any current TV programs he enjoys. It turns out that Sönmezsoy is still a bit of a TV junky. Working from home means that he often ends up working 24 hours a day, and TV is his main escape mechanism, allowing him to mentally switch off and relax. Current favorites include Mad Men, Damages, The Good Wife, Glee, the American version of The Office, Parks and Recreation, and many more.
Clearly, cooking, writing and photography are very much all-consuming for Sönmezsoy. Recently, most of his time and energy have been focused on his forthcoming cookbook, which should be ready sometime towards the end of the year. The book is based on baking recipes because he knows these recipes better than all others. When he was conceiving the book, he asked himself, “If Cafe Fernando was an actual café, what would it sell?” The recipes featured are both sweet and savory, and the book has been his chance to go more in-depth in this field. Although the book will not resemble a training manual, he wants those who read the book to fully understand the different baking concepts.
He has currently completed the recipes and is working on the photos. I ask how writing a book differs from writing a blog, and Sönmezsoy says that one of the biggest differences is that for the first time, he will be charging his readers for his recipes and advice, which of course changes the dynamics. Also, unlike in the blog, where there is more diversity in the way the recipes are given, in his book he is looking to achieve more uniformity with the instructions, in order to make them very clear.
Sönmezsoy is obviously very passionate about what he does, and this dedication to his craft has won him considerable success and accolades. While he clearly respects his readers, in terms of their time and money, he obviously does not spend too much time wondering what others are doing or thinking and just gets on with it, which certainly must be a factor in his success. Given how popular the blog is, readers can no doubt look forward to an equally mouth-watering cookbook.