Preserving the craft of authentic Ottoman & Turkish cooking

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Chef Sezai Zorlu (photo: IO/Raihan Ismail)

IO – Chef Sezai Zorlu is not your average cook. Although he may not have passed through the orthodox training of a culinary school, his craft is as polished and authentic as it can possibly be in this modern age. Instead of culinary schools, he learned cooking methods from the best of teachers: hid mother and grandmothers.

Growing up in Iskenderun, in the Southeast part of Mediterranean Turkey, he spent his time helping at his grandparent’s farm gaining deep knowledge about seasonal fresh vegetables, fruits, and herbs. From picking, to preparing all the necessary ingredients for winters, such as pomegranate sauce, tomato, and chili paste; drying herbs, and wheat, his love of cooking and passion to the craft, flourished. This experience also allowed him to inherit the family recipes to keep alive his mother and grandmother’s memories through cooking.

Fast forward 30 years later, Chef Sezai finally accomplished his lifelong dream to have his own restaurant: Turkuaz and Warung Turki, which both have received much acclaim as one the best restaurants in Jakarta, where he and his family now reside.

Now here else in Jakarta, or even Asia, where can you find a professionally-run Turkish restaurant that relies on a wood-fire oven for nearly all of its cooking processes? Chef Sezai is determined to preserve his cooking method as authentically as possible, just it has been done in his home country for centuries. As he is currently the only Ottoman Turkish Chef in Asia, it is definitely not an exaggeration to say that he’s the best at it too.

‘Ottoman’ cuisine refers to Turkish food of the Ottoman Empire and its continuation of the cuisines of Turkey, Greece, the Balkans, and parts of the Caucasus, and the Middle East. His experience working for different chefs, including his time in the army, as well as working side by side with his father, who was the personal chef of a royal family for 15 years, imparted to him deep knowledge of regional cuisine.

One of his many philosophies is that the food doesn’t wait for his guests. It’s the other way around, as everything is made to order the minute the waiters place your orders. “Good food takes time. I want to respect the bread money that my guests earn, by providing you will not only find it tasty but also nutritious” Sezai explains.

“For us, we do it simply, but with maximum attention to detail. The food in Warung Turki is my mother’s and my grandmother’s cooking, and in Turkuaz, I present my specialties as an Ottoman cuisine specialist”.

Sezai’s attention to detail and determination for the can be appreciated in how his two restaurants are built. Nearly 90% of everything you see in the restaurant is either custom-made, handmade, or both, with many hand-picked by the chef himself, and brought in directly from Turkey. And Sezai can explain and will tell you a story of each and every one of the items too.

That is why he describes both of his restaurants as ‘museums’, with real historic and artistic pieces that tell a story of Turkey, although Sezai admits that Warung Turki is ‘deeper’ for him as it is an homage he pays to his roots, which he humbly honors as what makes him who he is today. His respect for his background also extends to the founding father of his homeland, which is why you will see a large picture of Kemal Pasha Ataturk in both of his restaurants.

You can find Chef Sezai in one of his restaurants Warung Turki and Turkuaz, where he still cooks every day, warmly greets and engages his guests in conversation, and has Turkish tea with his Sisha. (raihan)