With a degree from École de Cuisine La Varenne 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 adding 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.
Sortun’s commitment to locally grown food took a turn for the personal when a farmer selling spinach turned up at the back door of Oleana one day. “I knew then that I would marry him,” Sortun says. Since 2006, Siena Farms has been providing the restaurant with most of its fresh, organic produce. It is owned and farmed by the chef’s husband, Chris Kurth, and named after the couple’s daughter.
Not content to rest on their laurels, Sortun, business partner Gary Griffin, and pastry chef Maura Kilpatrick decided they wanted to launch a more casual venue. Three years of brainstorming later, in August of 2008, Sofra was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts. This Middle Eastern bakery, café, and retail shop offers flatbread sandwiches, mezzes, prepared foods, and baked goods. It has received both local and national press; Food & Wine, Metropolitan Home, and Gourmet have all featured it as a place not to miss.