Ana Sortum Voted Best Chef in Cambridge

OleanaPhoto by Kristin Teig

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The moment that set Chef Ana Sortun on the path that would lead to Oleana happened, appropriately enough, at the table.

“Back in the ‘90s I was invited to go to Turkey and study with a woman who was randomly having dinner with my boss at the restaurant I was working at,” recalls Sortun. “She said she would teach me everything she knew about Turkish cuisine.”

That woman was the food journalist Ayfer Tuzcu Unsal, and she took Sortun under her wing—first for a few weeks in her own home kitchen, and then introducing Sortun to the Ferda Erdinc, the chef and owner of Zencefil (“ginger” in Turkish) in Istanbul.

“It was a crossroads for me,” says Sortun. “It completely changed everything I wanted to cook and do.”

She’s still exploring and cooking with those avors she fell in love with, and travels to Turkey every year to continue discovering new dishes, spices, and techniques … all of which pay handsome dividends to her guests at Oleana.

She also finds inspiration from the people around her. The spice grinder Oleana uses, for example, introduced her to a black cumin that she describes as “really funky.” She put it to work in a dish called fatteh—a crispbread sandwiched with caramelized onions and seared cauliflower.

“It’s not traditional, even though fatteh has caramelized onions and crispbread,” she says.

Another inspiration came from an Armenian friend who made her his version of topik, a stuffed hummus.

“I’d been familiar with it for years, but he made it one night and it really moved me,” says Sortun. “I changed my version to be more like his version, and it stuck.”

Made with tahini, cumin, and onions (or leeks when they’re in season), it will remind guests of hummus. But it also has pine nuts, currants, allspice, and cinnamon.

“It’s still soft and creamy, but not as thin as hummus,” she says. “And we have really crispy shoestring potatoes underneath it, so when you take your fork to it you get a really crunchy element to it, too.”

“There’s so many ways I’m inspired,” she adds. “Sometimes an ingredient, sometimes a spice blend, sometimes a person. It’s never consistent, and that’s how true inspiration comes.”

Even after 18 years of running Oleana, Sortun says she is still floored by the five Scout’s Honored categories in which Oleana garnered the top spot.

“Oh my God, it feels awesome!” she said of the appreciation she
sees from the neighborhood her restaurant calls home. “It’s what we live and breathe to do, right? We aspire to be part of the community and a place people love and adore and feel like is their own.”

This story appears in the Scout’s Honored 2019 print issue of Scout Cambridge, which is available for free at more than 220 drop spots throughout Cambridge (and just beyond its borders) or by subscription.

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