Şemsa Denizsel had the courage to do the one thing that millions of Istanbulites perversely dream of on a regular basis: she quit the city cold turkey. Today, managing time at her own pace, she dedicates it to ensuring that on the global gastronomy map, Northern Aegean cuisine gets the recognition it deserves.
By Marzena Romanowska
It’s in Şemsa Denizsel’s DNA to exceed expectations. After 18 years in Kantin, which as she nonchalantly puts it, started as a place where she “wanted to cook the way she wanted to eat, but it turned out better than expected,” a new path unfolded in front of her. Celebrated Istanbul chef and owner of a restaurant that irreversibly changed the city’s gastro dynamics, settled in the area she’s known for four decades to realize her dream, or three dreams to be exact: to put Northern Aegean geography on the gastronomic map, to raise a new generation of food enthusiasts through an apprentice program, and to live in an olive grove overlooking the sea.
Master planner at the core, in 2014 Denizsel did something completely unexpected. As she recalled having dinner at Ayna restaurant in Cunda, one of her favorite places in the area, she heard of an olive grove for sale. After seeing it the next day against the sun setting over the Aegean Sea, she immediately knew it was going to be the base for her next step. Within two days, she put the Cooks Grove plan into motion. “Overnight, I had the entire idea ready in my head,” she told The Guide Istanbul. When we visited her there in October, she was welcoming participants of the Local Delicacies program at sunset as well. Call it a well-thought-out marketing strategy or a lucky coincidence, but the first impression left everyone in awe, just as it had a few years earlier for Denizsel herself.
Although Denizsel closed Kantin in April 2018 and moved on with her life without looking back, it doesn’t mean she has crossed off the past with a thick line. On the contrary, the entire space at the Cooks Grove is dotted with her personal memories: of her family (she points at the copper pots hanging above the fireplace, which belonged to her mother), the restaurant (after all, pretty much the entire kitchen equipment comes from Kantin), and the city (Ara Güler’s iconic shot of Istanbul hangs by the entrance). Seventh generation Istanbulite, Denizsel has been first and foremost cooking Istanbul food, and the city-living there or not-is an inseparable part of her identity. Zeytinyağlı [a cooking style that combines sautéing vegetables in olive oil and then braising them in their own juices until the liquid is reduced to almost zero] is a traditional Istanbul way of cooking. Olive oil might be coming from the Aegean region, where every dish is cooked with it, but the method originally comes from Istanbul,” she explains. This intricate relationship between elements has become an integral part of her cooking style over the years.
Olives play an important part of Cooks Grove’s programs, just like they do in the everyday lives of the residents of the area. “Ayvalik has a rich culture due to its history,” Denizsel said about what makes this particular location in the Aegean different. “It used to be a busy Greek harbor town with special autonomy from the Ottoman Empire, which developed agriculture centered around olives, which were exported for many centuries. Food developed alongside local culture.” Although Denizsel has gotten to know the region very well over the years, she admits that an olive tree is a miraculous source of learning on a daily basis, and Cooks Grove students have the unique opportunity to explore all aspects of the local olive culture, from cultivation and production, to everyday use.
Side by side in the kitchen
Built on Denizsel’s extensive professional experience, Cooks Grove’s concept is as complex as its founder herself. On certain dates, it serves as an advanced study program, which within its predefined agenda covers the nuances of local food production and gastronomy, embedding hands-on cooking workshops and lots and lots of food sampling. Other days, it is a curated custom gastronomic experience for individuals and groups. Currently, the teaching kitchen can accommodate up to six people, but in her mind, Denizsel has already planned the next step, with facilities for up to 15 students. “We’re open to everyone who’s interested in food and who grasps the notion that food is about geography,” she says. “We would like to help people understand that wherever you live provides you with certain produce and that produce determines the way you eat.”
A true believer in the old apprentice system, Denizsel is an inspiring chef to be observed in the kitchen. In contrast to the restaurant environment, where there was no room for mistakes, at Cooks Grove she applies a more relaxed approach, making sure that the initial passion for food that everyone brings is nurtured and sustained from the first day of the program. This becomes very obvious as we prepare our first dish at the Local Delicacies workshop-vişneli peksimet, a bread pudding type of dessert which Denizsel prepares for the first time. “Come what may,” she jokes, “no matter the result, at least we’ll learn something new out of this experience.”
With her narrating the entire preparation process, as she does in her Youtube videos, it’s easy to follow her way of thinking in the kitchen, but to truly understand it well, you need a lot of time and trust. For those who can’t live without recipes that follow an easy preparation checklist, this may take you outside of your comfort zone. Denizsel presents countless alternatives for products that might not be in season or available in the pantry, only to remember a few minutes later that one more ingredient from the back of the fridge might be the thing that could really elevate the dish. “I’m a very instinctive cook,” Denizsel says. “That instinct helped me in professional life, but it’s not something you can easily teach another person. It can only be achieved by working with someone side by side.”
Rest assured that even if you’re not used to cooking this way, you will use this newly found confidence to deftly move around your own pantry as well. “Everyday I cook lunch here, and sometimes I have a certain idea in my mind, but often I change it a few times along the way,” Denizsel explains. “Inspiration is not something that can be taught, but it can be developed by observing, and tasting. My main job here is to present a general sense behind the ingredients.”
Geography of food
Since opening, Cooks Grove has already welcomed a number of visitors from different countries. It might seem as if some visitors, who have learnt everything there is to know about Italian or Spanish cuisines, are now looking for the next big thing. “We know everything there is to know about those places, but Turkey in that sense is still a virgin land,” Denizsel says. “In certain ways we may look as if we were behind on things, but that at the same time makes us very precious.”
The country’s traditional approach to cuisine is an indisputable advantage for those who can appreciate the idea of bringing a forgotten practice back to life. In Turkey, a reflection of such practice might be hidden in the flavors of tarhana, local cheeses, or in many of the classic Turkish dishes, all thought out at Cooks Grove programs. “Take zeytinyağlı patlıcanlı pilav (eggplant with rice in olive oil),” Denizsel gives a classic example, “When making it, I don’t change it a bit because it’s perfection. You don’t try to fix something that’s not broken.”
According to her, knowledge of the culinary traditions is indispensable in creating the food of tomorrow, and finding equilibrium between the two is the right way to do it. “The traditional recipe for zeytinyağlı patlıcanlı pilav gives me a lot of inspiration, especially for eggplant or orzo-based dishes,” she admits. “Because I got to know the pilav-making technique first, I can later make hundreds of variations of it.” Denizsel’s apprentices have been taught this lesson throughout her entire career. She can’t emphasize enough how obtaining knowledge of various cooking traditions is the only way for the finished dish to set you apart as a cook. “If you only learn the French cooking techniques, that will make you one in a million. What will set you apart is your tradition, your food, and your techniques,” she says.
Before heading to Cooks Grove…
Make Şemsa Denizsel’s Istanbul style zeytinyağlı patlıcanlı pilav at home, and see how that simple dish impacts what you already know about food. Serves 4.
- 2 glasses of rice (soaked in hot water and drained)*
- 8 eggplants
- 3 tablespoons currants (soaked in warm water)
- 2 onions (diced)
- 1 tablespoon allspice
- ½ tablespoon cinnamon
- 1 tablespoon salt
- 1 bunch dill, chopped
- 4 green onions, chopped finely
- 1 tablespoon granulated sugar
- 120 ml olive oil
- Peel eggplants in alternating strips (so only half is peeled) and dice around 3cm x 3cm.
- Preheat oven to 200C. Lay eggplant on a baking paper in the tray in one layer, making sure the eggplants don’t overlap.
- Mix the eggplants with olive oil and salt. Bake it until they turn golden brown for 20-25 mins.
- Remove the eggplants from the oven and mix with sugar.
- Fry onions in a pilaf pot with 120ml olive oil. Add the drained rice and spices and stir for 10 mins. Then, add the currants.
- Pour two glasses of water and the salt. Close the lid and bring it to a low heat.
- After 4 minutes, add eggplants and stir carefully so as not to mush them.
- Cook for 12 minutes on low heat. Remove pot from heat, cover with a towel and close lid. Let stand for half an hour.
- Add dill and green onions.
* Turkish recipes generally use a water glass to measure rice (roughly 240 ml each), a nod to home cooks that is widely accepted.
The first hand experience
The easiest way to experience Cooks Grove first hand is by signing up for one of the established programs taught in English or Turkish. Cooks Grove can design a local food-themed experience and workshop for individual and corporate participants, ranging from half to multiple days. For details, visit cooksgroveturkey.com or email [email protected]