No mistaking when you meet Semsa Denizsel. She is the real deal: a female chef in a place where that's unusual enough, self-taught, outspoken in her opinions, fierce in her love for Turkey and its food. She's been called the Alice Waters of Istanbul. Not only do they share a farm-to-table philosophy, but they also have the same uncompromising sensibilities.
Her cooking at Kantin, her simple but sophisticated restaurant in Istanbul, is lusty, exuberant, real. The plating is natural, unforced, a woman's eye. "I don't like fussy. It's not my style," says Denizsel. "I don't try to be something else I'm not, which is very important. This is the food I know. This is the food I feel comfortable cooking. This is the food I like to eat."
And after one bite of any of her dishes, you trust her completely.
Most of the news about Turkey lately has focused on the sporadic anti-government protests that have been going on since late May. But life goes on, Denizsel says, and her restaurant is definitely open.
"Yes, we all are concerned about our future, we don't want to be told how to live our lives, we protest against this, always peacefully," she wrote in an email. She is dismayed that the news may have scared off anyone who was planning to visit Istanbul this summer. "That shouldn't be so, because the inhabitants of this city keep on living their daily life as usual."
And for Denizsel, that means cooking. A spontaneous cook, the fiery redhead starts with an idea or a feeling. Hers is more a performance art. "I never cook with recipes. When we're cooking something new for the first time, I pull off everything at the very last minute."
She may have a certain mise en place in mind, then ask her staff to assemble the ingredients and, most important, to weigh everything. When she steps to the stove, she starts cooking without stopping to measure anything. When she's done, her staff scrambles to do the math, weighing everything that's left and assembling the first draft of a recipe. It's as elusive as trying to notate dance.
Denizsel comes from a family that has been in Istanbul for seven generations, and everyone on both sides of the family cooked. Her father's family was more traditional Turkish. Her mother cooked Russian, Chinese — anything but Turkish, she says. "I was her kitchen slave. She'd leave me a list of mise en place to have ready when she came home from work at 6:30."
When Kantin first opened, Denizsel did everything: the shopping, cooking, taking the orders. She had six dishes on the menu every day. Back then, she says, the only herbs she could find were parsley, dill and mint. She went to farmers markets and started talking to growers, and eventually they started coming to her with special herbs and greens and other ingredients.
After a flood damaged her tiny downstairs kitchen, she redesigned it, allowing her to expand the menu to 14 dishes. "Dishes change according to the season and my whims," she says with a laugh, adjusting a cashmere shawl around her shoulders. Spring, her favorite season, brings deeply flavored artichokes from Izmir and succulent baby lamb intestines braided around sweetbreads. And now she yearns for tomatoes.
Now from 7,000 miles away, I find myself longing for her Turkish comfort food — maybe her meatballs with potatoes, Swiss chard and masses of dill, or her Izmir artichokes with olive oil, onion, garlic and rice. Flavors that are simple, alive, satisfying.