Awarded the Best Chef: Northeast honor by the James Beard Foundation in 2005, Chef Ana Sortun’s cookbook SPICE: Flavors of the Eastern Mediterranean was published in 2006 and has become a best-seller.
Her husband’s farm, Siena Farms, provides Sortun’s restaurant with all of its fresh produce and is named after their daughter. Chef Sortun is chef-owner of Oleana and Sofra Bakery & Café in Cambridge, which offers a unique style of foods and baked goods influenced mostly by Turkey, Lebanon, and Greece.
JoyFoodly: Tell us about your first food memory. What do you remember about it?
Ana: My first food memory was a cookie that someone gave me when I was three years old. I was lying under a dining room table at a relatives house in Norway listening to the grown ups talking.
I was SOOO BORED so someone gave me a cookie. I remember tasting it and not liking it. I buried it in my hand for the next hour and once we got in the car, I slipped it out the car window when no one was looking. I guess I was very particular about food at a young age! Hard to imagine that a kid wouldn’t like a cookie!
My first FAVORITE food memory was of my grandmother’s homemade rolls, warm out of the oven with fresh churned butter. I just remember wanting to eat lots of them. We never had these at home, only at grandma’s house and they were special and a kid’s idea of heaven.
JoyFoodly: What about food inspired you to make it your career?
Ana: I’ve always loved to eat but to eat GOOD food—homemade food, fresh food, high quality food. I figured that if I wanted to surround myself with good quality food and ingredients that I had better learn how to cook.
My first job was in a small neighborhood restaurant in Seattle. I was hired as a dishwasher but the owners moved me right along into the kitchen after just a few months. As I started to learn, I knew that this was something that I would do forever.
The owners of this small neighborhood restaurant put a great deal of faith in my abilities at a very young age. They fed me information and inspiration to follow my dreams.
JoyFoodly: Imagine your best friend is coming to dinner tomorrow night. They are bringing their 9-year-old child with them. What would you want to cook for them?
Ana: My best friend would cook with me and we would probably make a lot of vegetable dishes from the vegetables that my husband grows.
I’d make some butternut squash enchiladas, a great big salad of radishes & cabbage with buttermilk dressing, tarragon & aged Gouda and something simple like a roasted chicken
More about Chef Ana Sortun:
With a degree from La Varenne Ecole de Cuisine in Paris, the Seattle-born Ana Sortun opened Moncef Medeb’s Aigo Bistro in Concord, Massachusetts, in the early 1990s. Stints at 8 Holyoke and Casablanca in Harvard Square, Cambridge soon followed. This was all in the beginning of her career, when Sortun was still cooking what most people think of as typical Mediterranean food from Spain, southern France and Italy. People loved it. While at Casablanca, a friend of the owner invited Sortun to study in Turkey.
Not knowing anything about Turkish food or culture but eager to learn, she accepted. “I imagined flying carpets and genies,” she says wryly. But when she arrived in southeastern Turkey, Sortun’s host and her friends presented a potluck of sorts. “I tasted 30 amazing dishes from these women’s family repertoires,” Sortun remembers. “I was stunned at how rich and interesting yet light everything was.” That trip was when she learned that in the Mediterranean, spice is used to create richness, depth and flavor without heaviness. She also experienced the mezze style of eating, which is to have many tastes of mostly vegetable-based dishes before reaching a protein course. “Chefs always focus on flavor and appearance,” says Sortun, “but few think about how one feels after eating a long meal.”
Upon her return to Boston, she wanted to fuse her newfound love of Eastern Mediterranean spices with her passion for using only the best ingredients. The result of this union was Oleana, which opened in Cambridge in 2001. A mere four years later, Sortun won a coveted and prestigious James Beard Award.