While the restaurant environment of Istanbul has developed in waves of new openings and exciting flavors, it still chiefly remains the domain of men. But this is changing. Here’s a taste of five fascinating women chefs and their journeys through the kitchen and business world.
By Monica Liau and Marzena Romanowska
Founder and Chef of 9 Ece Aksoy
Septuagenarian Ece Aksoy moves through her restaurant with the regality of a queen. With 35 years of restaurateur experience under her belt, she has watched the culinary scene evolve from mostly Greek meyhanes to today’s melange of dining options. Aksoy began her career opening a bar in 1984 on top of a discotheque called Studio 54, filled with live music and open all night. She began cooking homemade meals to help the revelers soak up the alcohol in their stomach. “I wanted my customers to live longer,” Aksoy chuckles. “I didn’t want to lose any from bad livers, so I made them eat.” This concept of homemade became very important to her, and is a practice that followed her to her restaurant in Kuruçeşme and finally, her smaller spot in Beyoglu, 9 Ece Aksoy. She is tireless in her quest for some of the best ingredients that Turkey offers, regularly traveling to towns outside of the city to seek organic products, artisan cheeses and other hard-to-find delicacies. She is also constantly in the kitchen, whipping up different menus week to week. “I got very tired, especially dealing with musicians for 20 years. They can be a pain,” she says, as to why she opened 9 Ece Aksoy. “I wanted to become smaller and cater to a specific clientele of regulars.” This includes a stable of writers, journalists and a range of other people. “I want to cook for people who really understand good food,” says Aksoy. “The ones who want to live long and take pleasure from life.”
Founder & Executive Chef of Nicole Restaurant
When Aylin Yazıcıoğlu was in her 30s, she was a researcher at Cambridge University in Social History, having recently finished an MA in Gender Studies. But there was something missing, and Yazıcıoğlu began looking for a more rewarding career. “I always enjoyed spending time in the kitchen. It’s always been part of the big picture. But when I decided to look for something besides academia, cooking was not a profession in my mind. Turkish women cook. Its part of daily routine,” she laughs. “Having studied gender studies, how was I still in such gender specific definitions? But I didn’t know where to start. So I went to the Mecca of old cuisine to study.”
To her, this meant Paris, where she attended Le Cordon Bleu and then began working at renowned Michelin starred restaurants around Europe. Today, she heads up her own restaurant, Nicole. In a single, rotating set menu, she showcases Turkish ingredients treated to elegant French techniques, flavors elevated and melded in a delicate fusion. But Yazıcıoğlu doesn’t feel like her former career and current one are too far apart. “There’s always research, there’s always hard work in what you do,” says Yazıcıoğlu. “Writing a paper you choose your words. Writing a menu, you choose your ingredients. You try to present your ideas into the plate, to communicate what you’re saying. People look at food as just food, but I have a message to give.”
Founder and Executive Chef of Gram
2016 was a year of change for Didem Şenol. In August, she closed her first iconic restaurant, Lokanta Maya, which started in 2010 as a small spot focused on seasonal, local ingredients, inspired by California’s revolutionary restaurateur Alice Waters. In September of this year, Şenol also closed her original branch of Gram in Beyoğlu. She cites the last six months as being the most challenging of her career, which is saying something. The restaurant business— in the best of times— is full of ups and downs. “Cooking and creating that’s the best part. Being a team is the best part. Those things are great. But cooking and eating is for socializing and you don’t feel that way when there are so many bad things going on,” says Şenol. “I believe that everything has its own period of time—relationships, places and people. I was sad of course… but it was the right decision.”
Şenol’s culinary journey thus far has been diverse. Before she opened (and closed) anything in the city, Şenol found her cooking style working outside of Marmaris at her father’s hotel. She had gotten her chef’s degree in New York City, and worked with Mehmet Gurs when he opened the now-famous Mikla. She says she had learned about international cuisine, and worked with “fancy” ingredients like balsamic vinegar and parmesan cheese. Her father’s hotel was a chance to get closer to her roots. “I went from Istanbul to a small hotel on top of a canyon in the middle of the countryside,” recalls Şenol. “In the city, if you needed an ingredient, you called a big company and they delivered it to your door. At my father’s hotel, this wasn’t possible. I needed to work with the villagers to get the right vegetables. I had my own fisherman and started going to the local markets. When you start chatting with the farmers and fishermen, they start telling you about what they eat. Not what they bring to the markets, but what they eat at home. Then they start bringing those things to you, and you really start knowing more about local ingredients and how to use them.”
Saying that the life of Pelin Çakar changed when she met Cem Mirap might sound like the beginning of a fairy tale, but it is in fact a story of hard work and dedication. This petite and enormously talented chef is in charge of menu and kitchen operations at Mirap’s Lucca and Cantinery restaurants. She is also very modest while talking about her work at one of Istanbul’s top eateries. “I don’t believe in hero stories in the kitchen,” she says. “If one of your team isn’t where they’re supposed to be, the whole operation is in jeopardy.”
Çakar underlines the importance of team support on numerous occasions during our talk, and emphasizes the motivation the entire team gets from Mirap. “Cem pushed me a lot to try new things and bring them to Lucca, and this is where I grew up,” she says. Years later, opening Cantinery took their collaboration to a whole new level. “Cantinery is my baby, it was born in my hands,” says Çakar giving it as an example of a dream come true. What is her favorite moment in the daily kitchen routine? “When we swim,” she laughs at the jargon, describing the busiest part of the service when everyone is so busy and focused, they don’t feel the time passing. “It’s pure adrenaline.”
Founder of Cooks Grove
“What is Istanbul cuisine?” asks Şemsa Denizsel, founder of the iconic Kantin restaurant (now closed) and Cooks Grove teaching kitchen. “I’ve been calling my food new Istanbul cuisine for at least 14 years, before all of these new cuisines existed. Why new? Because Istanbul cuisine has some of the most refined dishes of all of Turkey, but it has been lost and overlooked.” This is the philosophy that Denizsel has stuck by for her entire career, building the food she serves on the idea that geography has as much of an important role in cuisine as the people who live there, and that the food of Istanbul needs to be championed. “It’s the food I grew up eating, it’s the food I know how to cook and it’s the food I like to eat,” says Denizsel.
It appears to be the food Istanbul likes to eat as well, as locals and foreigners alike flock to her space to dine on dishes in which rigorous standards and technique belie their simple presentation. “A restaurant is always a challenge. It was always very hard work. I didn’t mind that. I was very conscious about what I wanted to do. What I wanted to cook, what I wanted to serve and how I wanted to serve it. How the place should feel. I know what I wanted to do by instinct. So I did what my instinct told me and time has proved me right.” In order to make sure everything is up to standard, Denizsel runs a tight ship in her kitchen. “The kitchen is not a democratic place,” she emphasizes. “You’re entitled to your opinions only when you’re at the head of the kitchen.”