Crying over an onion

Crying over an onion

Aylin Öney Tan -
Crying over an onion Onions make you cry. Anyone who ever chopped one knows that. No kitchen is devoid of onions, but a professional kitchen has more reasons than an onion for crying: The restaurant business is like show business, you may have razzle-dazzle and stars onstage but it is not all glitter and glamour backstage (in the kitchen). 

Last week at the Gastromasa Conference in Istanbul, star chefs spoke about their stories on the path to stardom, which included tears, onions and – more often than not - mothers.   

Maître Restaurateur and three-Michelin starred French chef Régis Marcon said he never wanted to be in the restaurant business. His mother owned a small restaurant and he saw her crying in the kitchen many times. He wanted to become an artist but as he could not get into the academy he ended up in chef’s school. 

Young Turkish chef Fatih Tutak, now a rising star in Thailand at the Houson Sathorn in Bangkok, also had a story about his mother. He vividly remembered his mother frying onions in the kitchen, but his memory does not include tears - on the contrary it centers around the happy, comforting and caressing aroma of fried onions. He was struck by this haunting smell and wanted to be surrounded by it forever, which is one of the reasons why he chose to be a chef as a profession. 

After Tutak’s talk, I spotted his parents in the audience and managed to speak with them. I found out that his case too was not lacking tears. Fatih as a child was a troublesome eater. His mother Aysel Tutak was a fabulous cook but she admits that she never let her son mess around in the kitchen. His father Feridun added that the last thing he’d ever imagine his son to become was a chef, because he never ate! His mother said she cried to persuade him to eat, and the most repeated world and their table was “Yut!” meaning “Swallow it!” Fatih’s little sister began eating meatballs when she was only 40 days old, while Fatih continued to be a problematic eater until he turned 12. 

His fascination with onions was apparently related to the homely feel of their smell. The taste of your mother’s food is not only nostalgic, but also in many cases it is critical, as in the case of Serkan Güzelçoban, a second-generation son of a Gastarbeiter family in Germany. Güzelçoban sensed that he had to make a change in the food he was serving after harsh criticism from his father, and found his own voice in cooking through his mother’s recipe for the good old tarhana soup of his childhood. 

The story of Somer Sivrioğlu, one of the emerging stars in Australian gastronomic circles as the owner of the “Efendy and Anason” restaurant, is also similar. Sivrioğlu’s mother was also a chef and restaurateur, but he did not initially serve Turkish-inspired food in his restaurant. His change came after a tough day in the kitchen. Annoyed by his Australian chef, he fired him, and due to the crisis in the kitchen and financial hardship, he took over the cooking himself and started to cook what he knows best: His mother’s food. As the panel moderator, chef Vedat Başaran, put it: Everything comes back to mothers.  

The story of Brazilian fire-master André Lima de Luca starts with tragedy. His wife, diagnosed with cancer, went through a severe operation and while waiting at her bedside he decided to make a change in his life, leaving his career in finance and switching to cooking, his true passion. De Luca is a man of great heart, and following his heart he became the king of fire in a land of grill masters. 

The finger of an interfering mother also affected the career choice of Spanish chef Andoni Luis Aduriz, the founder of the legendary “Mugaritz” restaurant. As he reveals in a 2012 Guardian article, he was a hopeless case at school, having spectacularly failed all classes. His desperate mother sent him to culinary school, thinking that at least he’ll end up having some food to eat. 

Albert Adrià similarly was not great in school, ending up in a kitchen in a “better than nothing” choice, following in the footsteps of his brother Ferran. Elena Arzak similarly followed the footsteps of her family, and as a great admirer of her father Juan Mari Arzak she took over the family business as the fourth generation. But although she followed the family tradition, she challenged it in order to create totally new dishes. 

While some chefs go back to the roots, some need an urge to change, to go on to invent new dishes, to search for new techniques, to create the cuisine of the future. Maybe the biggest challenge was of chef Josean Alija of “Nerua” at the Guggenheim Bilbao. Alija challenged himself, and after a devastating motorcycle accident left him deprived of the sense of smell and taste, he had to re-teach himself how to taste. Now he is a master of taste.

One last statement marked the end of the conference. Aduriz, pointing to his fellow Spaniards, stressed the fact that they are all fierce rivals to each other. But they also need each other tremendously, as though this tough rivalry allows them to elevate themselves and challenge even themselves to get better and better. Tears are omnipresent in the kitchen, so was in the eyes of Gökmen Sözen of Food in Life Magazine, who challenged many others and first of himself to have the guts to invite all these stars with stories at a though time of Turkey, but his tears were more of happiness and unleashed stress to gather such a group uniting around a table. 

In the end, all chefs at the conference have many things in common - and they all started their careers crying over an onion.