About Chef 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. 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.
Not content to rest on their laurels, Sortun , business partner Gary Griffin and pastry chef Kilpatrick decided they wanted to launch a more casual venue. Three years of brainstorming later, in August of 2008, Sofra was born in Cambridge, Mass. It has received both local and national press; Food & Wine, Metropolitan Home and Gourmet have all featured it as a place not to miss.
Our Q&A with Ana Sortun
H2FAL: What first inspired you to start cooking?
AS: I always loved to eat GOOD food and realized that if I wanted good food always in my life then I would have to learn how to cook. I was 14 when I started working in a restaurant in Seattle, WA and never turned back
H2FAL: Did you learn to cook at home, in addition to cooking school?
AS: Not really, I just practiced at home! My mom was a great scratch cook but nothing fancy. She was always a stickler for good ingredients when she cooked so that set a tone at an early age for me. She preferred to bake. My dad made weird things like mac and cheese with wheat germ sprinkled on top instead of breadcrumbs and it didn’t go over too well
H2FAL: Your culinary studies overseas greatly influenced your cooking style of today, can you elaborate on that?
AS: I was 19 when I went to school in Paris and didn’t have a clue about seasonality (my mom didn’t cook a lot of vegetables. We had salads). What I learned in France that I probably wouldn’t have learned here is that if something doesn’t look good, you change the recipe. It’s all about the ingredients that you chose. Most schools focus on teaching the recipes for technique. My school focused on both ingredient choices and technique.
H2FAL: If you were on Iron Chef, what ingredient would you hope would be the themed ingredient for the cooking battle?
AS: Great yogurt
H2FAL: What’s your indulgence food?
AS: French fries and a cheeseburger
H2FAL: Is there anything you won’t eat?
H2FAL: Can you give us a little history on the name ‘Oleana’ for your restaurant? What significance does this name have to you?
AS: Oleana is a Norwegian song and story about a promised land. Everyone was in search of oleana because you didn’t have to water the plants. They just grew. And there was an abundance of food. It’s also my full name.
H2FAL: What’s an upcoming trend in cooking?
AS: Not sure what is upcoming but I sure cant wait to get over the donut trend!
H2FAL: How often do you change the line-up for your menus at your restaurants?
AS: We change the menu every couple of months. Not the whole menu but a percentage of it to follow the seasons and to work closely with my husband’s farm, Siena farms
H2FAL: Do you cook at home often?
AS: I usually cook a lot on Sundays and stock up the fridge with some stuff for the week. I’m not home that much in the evenings so it helps ensure that my daughter will have a healthier meal while I’m gone.
Now, read about Our Amazing Experience at Oleanna in Cambridge, MA (near Boston.
Thank you to Chef Sortun. She really is amazing and we can’t thank her enough for taking the time to talk with us!