In pursuit of your dreams, working hard and listening to your inner voice.This defines the professional perspective of chef Şemsa Denizsel who is originally and proudly from Istanbul yet passionate about the coastal town of Ayvalık. She impressed Istanbul’s gourmets with Kantin restaurant in Nişantaşı years ago.Photography: Nazlı Erdemirel

We meet with Şemsa very spontaneously at Sanayi313 on a sunny autumn day. Şemsa shines when we start talking, which really boosts my energy. I feel that there is a strong and unusual bond between Şemsa and Istanbul. “I’m proud to be from Istanbul – enough to humiliate the rest of the world,” she says. Şemsa’s family has been in Istanbul for generations. She considers it a privilege to be an Istanbulite, probably because she was raised on traditions and customs unique to the great city.

PAPER: So why did you move from Istanbul to Ayvalık? 

ŞEMSA DENİZSEL: One morning in 2012, I woke up with the question, “What next?”. Kantin and everything I did there was done with passion and by keeping an ear open to my inner voice. But, if my inner voice was asking me such a question, then the passion there was a thing of the past. I was somewhat tired of running a restaurant. I did not know what to do, however, and it took me two years to find an answer to my question. One day, I came across an olive grove in Ayvalık. It was like love at first sight. I just stood there, staring at the trees, at their state. They were waiting for me. They were saying, “Let Şemsa grow and mature a little, then she can come and live with us”. I have had a house in Ayvalık since 1991, so I am familiar with olive trees, but what happened there was very unusual. The trees were literally calling me. It’s hard to explain in words.

P What is your zodiac sign?

ŞD Scorpio.

The countdown began for me from that moment. I told myself that I will grow old here. I’ll get up in the morning, drink my coffee in the frost, and have a nice drink in my hand at sunset.

None of us know what tomorrow has waiting for us. I think we should let go a little, but this does not mean not working, nor is it fatalism. You need to know that there is something greater than you, which requires a little submission. It took everyone by surprise, but there is nothing anyone can do about it. So, think about it: Should I be a captive of Kantin? No. You should not be a slave to anyone or anything.


P How do you spend your days? What is your relationship with the trees and with Ayvalık? 

ŞD Our year revolves around the trees. The year ends and the new year begins once we harvest the olives and get the oil. Yes, I have olive trees, they are very precious to me. I extract my oil and sell it, but I do not consider myself an olive farmer. I am a cook and I have never gotten tired of being a cook. I have knowledge and experience in this and I have a unique perspective. My life in Ayvalık revolves around this.

Gaziantep cuisine is one of the first that comes to mind when we mention Turkey abroad. Thanks to its richness and diversity, Turkey has great regional cuisines. What we call ‘Turkish cuisine’ is actually a set of regional cuisines. I think North Aegean cuisine deserves to be world-renowned. I dreamed of constructing a world in an olive grove and introducing people to the local cuisine through my kitchen. I give cooking classes here, mainly in the spring and autumn. Istanbul is priceless, but Turkey is more than just Istanbul. There is such a place in Ayvalık too. Why doesn’t anyone know about it?


P Do foreigners come?

ŞD Yes, they do. My target audience has been foreigners from the very beginning. That’s why it’s called ‘Cook’s Grove’. The menu written on Kantin’s blackboard was always in Turkish. I advocate the proper use of Turkish. It is the language we are known for and it is crucial to use it properly. Americans come the most. We organize workshops. Depending on the length of the program, we first visit the local farmer’s markets, farms and producers, and then we get cooking. I’m looking for ways to reflect the culture of the place in the details of the cooking and in preparing to cook and I hope I succeed. I’m young. It’s all possible. She laughs.


P You talk about Istanbul very passionately, and I know that your love of cuisine comes from your family. Can you tell us a little about your childhood? Where did you live in Istanbul?

ŞD We were living in Üsküdar/Salacak when I was born. I was in Marmaris from 3 months to 7 years old. When I returned to Istanbul, we moved to Maçka Palas. I always lived around Teşvikiye and Nişantaşı after that. I also set up my business there. Kantin was opened as an artisanal diner, serving lunch. I used quality ingredients and cooked the type of dishes I made at home. I’m from Istanbul, of course, I will cook local dishes from Istanbul. I know how to make great olive oil dishes, lamb stew and bluefish.


ŞD Good food was always cooked in our house when I was a kid. My mother’s side came to Istanbul more recently than my father’s. Being Tatar, my mother was really into pastries. She was a very intellectual woman. In the 1970s she bought Elizabeth David’s books for inspiration and cooked extraordinary meals. My father was also a very good eater. A good meal is cooked for a good eater. Appreciating the cook’s food is crucial.

My father’s side is from Istanbul. That’s where my knowledge of bluefish and stuffed vegetables comes from. Everything was seasonal in our time. You would have the artichokes, followed by Sultani peas, tomatoes, bonito and bluefish. My father used to do the shopping for the house. He used to buy fish from the fish market, vegetables and fruits from the Üsküdar market,ducks from a particular farmer and pork chops from the famous Şütte delicatessen. That was a different Istanbul.

I also have to mention the table setting. Our table was always neat with white linen tablecloths, cutlery and cloth napkins. We always ate at properly set tables even if it was only the three of us.

P Would you eat out in Istanbul?

ŞD Good food was eaten at home. In Istanbul, we used to go to a restaurant called Kıyı about twice a month. Why that place? Because, aside from serving good food, it had good service. The waiters knew what to do. They had special knives for fish. They knew how to debone the fish. Kids need to learn about this.


P What about your passion for copper?

ŞD That comes from my family too. My mother loved copper. My mother and aunt had a junk dealer they went to. I grew up walking around flea markets. My father was into it as well. Our house was full of old things. There were some excellent copper pieces made by Armenian craftsmen. I now have a considerable copper collection inherited from my mother, father and aunt. I’m expanding the collection all the time.

Do you have any guilty pleasures?

No. Nothing should be a guilty pleasure. You must enjoy the moment and what you eat.

Your favorite gastronomic capital in the world?

London. Because you can find the best of everything.

Your favorite vegetable to cook and eat?

Artichokes in spring, tomatoes in summer and leeks right now. I love everything in its proper season.

Which dish do you most like to offer your guests?

Whatever I like eating at the time.

Your favorite breakfast?

Turkish breakfast is the best. Everything with eggs. I’m mad about eggs.

Must-have kitchen utensils?