Spice Girl

By LOUISA KASDON  |  June 26, 2006

"I knew that if I was going to do all this, I had to simplify my life and reserve my energy for things that truly matter," Sortun adds. "So I took my time and made some long and thoughtful hiring decisions, realizing that I’d have to put more responsibility in the hands of the team. You’d hardly call me a hands-off manager today, but I’m much better than I was, and so is the restaurant."

Reading through Sortun’s new cookbook — it’s a local bestseller; the Harvard Book Store has had to re-order it twice — it struck me that, at least locally, Sortun has this particular niche of Arabic/ Middle Eastern fine-dining food to herself. Why has no one else seen her success and jumped in? "It’s not easy at-home cooking," Sortun explains. "Some of the recipes, even some of the ones in the book, are time-consuming. I’m a chef, so I don’t think of them as technically difficult, but I do realize that our menu requires lots of prep. Plus, it’s a new flavor palette for many diners and for many chefs. When I first got introduced to these spices and tastes [Sortun worked with Moncef Meddeb and at Casablanca before striking out on her own], I was blown away by how little I knew about them. I started to read a lot about the history of the Ottoman Empire and the reach of their culinary power. After all, it was the longest-standing empire in the history of the world, so far, and the palaces had hundreds of chefs, lots of time, and many hands to prepare rich, complex, delicious dishes." Sortun laughs. She’s read that some say the three great cuisines of the world are French, Chinese, and Turkish, and she urges me to Google it, "so we can figure whether it’s a Turk who says so. What do I know? My family is Scandinavian and my mother lives in New Orleans."

Talking about the book is a good proxy for understanding what makes Oleana’s food so memorable, and why Sortun is the rare chef with the intellect and ability to master it. By focusing on flavors more than on foodstuffs or techniques, Sortun takes our palates deep into the culinary history of Arabia, the Middle East, Greece, and Turkey — a world of long, slow, careful preparation, where idiosyncratic spice blends were a valued part of every family’s private wealth, and where flavoring and preparing food was an art form, entrusted to focused, committed professionals. If Sortun had lived in the sultan’s palace, no doubt she would’ve been head chef.

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