Spice Girl

  With a new cookbook, a baby, and an ever-popular restaurant, Ana Sortun has a taste for the diverse life
By LOUISA KASDON  |  June 26, 2006

Ana Sortun

We’re sitting in Oleana’s garden in the late-afternoon breeze. For half an hour, I have Ana Sortun to myself. She’s gracious, as always, and undistracted by the gaggle of Japanese models and photographers who are shooting a feature nearby. Sortun projects a different aura than most chefs I meet. She doesn’t radiate nervous energy or do the eye dance, flicking her attention in every direction to monitor for mishaps. Sortun is all about focus. When she decides where to train her intellect and abilities, little can dissuade her: not the early equivocators who wondered if a food-and-flavor profile that was more Arabic and Mediterranean than French was a good bet for a fledgling restaurant; not the many book publishers who advised against organizing the recipes in her recently released cookbook, Spice: Flavors of the Eastern Mediterranean, around spices rather than by the more-traditional groupings of appetizer-entrée-dessert or chicken-fish-meat. Ana Sortun is authentic. She’s thoughtful, quietly stubborn, and in the end, she does it her way or she doesn’t do it at all.

This has been a big year for Sortun and her Cambridge restaurant. Oleana received several national awards, Spice is collecting accolades from icons like the New York Times, and — oh, yes — there’s a baby, too: Siena Sortun Kurth is sixth months old. It’s a lot to roll into a life that still has to fit within the confines of a 24-hour day. How does she manage the restaurant, the book, the baby, public events, and a relatively new marriage? "I started gearing up when I first got pregnant," Sortun explains. "We’d been open for five years, and things were going well. Business was good, the staff was trained and stable, but I knew that if I was going to do the cookbook and be the kind of mother I wanted to be for my baby, things would have to change. I knew I’d need a stronger support system, where I didn’t get involved in being part of the solution to every problem."

When Nookie, Oleana’s long-time sous-chef, felt itchy and wanted to go to Spain, it was a perfect opportunity to mix things up a little. Sortun let the team realign, promoted mostly from within, and disciplined herself to stay home in the mornings, working six hours a day on the cookbook before coming in to the restaurant to supervise dinner prep and service. This may not seem extraordinary, but for a chef-owner, typically a crisis manager by necessity and disposition, finding six hours a day to write without calamity is a rare feat. The baby came on time. The book came on time. And Sortun’s formidable focus continues. Today, she says, her cooking is clearer and cleaner, and her vision is more directed. "I stopped messing around so much and just get to the task at hand. For example, it used to take me three days to put together a new menu; now it takes me three or four hours." She spends a lot less time second-guessing herself in the kitchen, which frees her up to be herself.

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