From training in Turkey to cooking with America’s top chefs
Okan Kizilbayir is the Executive Chef of Salt Restaurant at The Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island, one of only 2 AAA Five Diamond rated restaurants in Florida.
Growing up, my family had a summer house in the woods an hour from Istanbul. My father grew vegetables, my grandfather made old-fashioned Turkish stews, and I experimented with fresh produce. At 16, my brother and I were slaughtering lambs and cooking braised duck and whole kids. This is where I learned to respect nature, grow food and cook for my family and friends.
In my early twenties, I was addicted to cooking TV. I learned cooking techniques by watching famous Turkish chefs and great American chefs. Combining what I saw with my own Turkish methods, I cooked through experimentation. Sometimes the house would fill with smoke, often the wood oven would get too hot to touch, but I had a lot of fun.
I graduated from business school and then did my compulsory service in the Turkish army, but I always wanted to work in the food sector. I thought, maybe something to do with olive oil, wine or agriculture. But cooking was in my blood. All the men in my father’s family cooked in schools, hospitals and restaurants. So I got a quick three-month cooking diploma, followed by an internship in a restaurant in Istanbul. I’ve also seen new restaurants open and met celebrity chefs to open my mind to new flavors.
In 2007, a friend of mine told me about a job fair at an Istanbul hotel, where US-based hotels were looking to hire cooks and waiters. One of the opportunities was to work with Eric Ripert at his now closed Westend Bistro at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Washington DC. It was something that interested me a lot. I had read about Ripert in magazines and seen him on the show. Confidential kitchen. I told myself that I would only go to the United States if I worked with him.
And they hired me! We were 10 servers and 4 cooks brought from Turkey to DC. Initially there was a misunderstanding and I was not chosen to work at the Westend Bistro. I went to HR and almost cried, and told them I had to work at that same restaurant. It was the only thing I wanted to do.
The next three months were the hardest times of my life. I was already 25 when I learned to hold a knife. There I was, an amateur cook with little training or experience. I thought I knew English, but I didn’t understand the American accent. I would say “yes, boss!” everything, without understanding what they were asking me to do. Then I could not deliver. There were a lot of swear words. This kind of abuse was normal at the time. I was kicked out of the kitchen several times, but came back the next day with less hair and wanting to do better. They pushed me a lot, but I’m grateful to them now.
One day the sous chef didn’t show up, so I had to replace him. I went from helping at the prep station to cooking during Friday night rush hour. In the kitchen you start from the bottom and go up. This process can take up to two years. I was lucky in my first three months.
But it was a difficult working environment. Expectations were high. I was about to snap, then I took a few days off to visit a friend in New York, and that’s when my life changed.
As a tourist, I went to Le Bernardin. I sat outside the restaurant and took a photo with my digital camera. I still have this photo today, 14 years later. I imagined what it would be like to work there. It seemed like an impossible dream at the time, especially as an immigrant. I wasn’t even that, I was just a temp worker.
My friend advised me to work harder and deliver what the chefs wanted. I’m not sure exactly what clicked, but this trip gave me more confidence. My cooking has improved. My colleagues have seen the difference in my work. I became more attentive and focused only on the kitchen and nothing else that was happening around me. They started calling me an “animal” because I was so strong.
Ripert suggested I be transferred to the Cayman Islands. So I got a job with Blue by Eric Ripert in Grand Cayman because of my strong credentials. The next nine years were peaceful. I got to work with celebrity chefs at the annual Cayman Cookout at the Ritz-Carlton. It gave me confidence to run my own restaurant. I started getting job offers from the Middle East and China.
And then Ripert offered me a job at the Bernardin in New York. I had to say yes. I told my wife, even if I get less money, I still have to take this job. I started as a sous chef and became an executive sous chef. We had 55 people working there from all over the world. We had a chain of command, and I was high up. This time my experience was different. It was still demanding because we were always looking for perfection. Being in a three-star Michelin restaurant is like recording an album live in front of an audience every day. There is always a lot of pressure.
During my culinary career, I have learned a lot about good leadership skills in the kitchen, especially what not to do. Some chefs just tell you to do it “my way”, others show you how to do it right. They don’t explain why. I tell my guys at Salt why we have to cook and serve a certain way. Most chefs aren’t that approachable. But I remind my staff to ask me questions and to listen. The younger generation can research things online, but they don’t have the experience. My job is to give them hands-on experiences, not just the recipes.
I don’t like tension between people. My heart beats fast, I turn red. The kitchen is a very intense environment, both physically and mentally. I have zero tolerance for toxic behavior or discrimination. We are also more cautious than before. Everyone has cameras and can record you and put it on the web.
The best way to lead is by example. I tell new cooks I was like them 14 years ago. I come from a Muslim country without much experience, but I cooked in a three Michelin star restaurant for four years, and look at me now. I tell them not to be discouraged or offended. In the end, if they start thinking like me, it will make my life easier. This kind of teacher-like leadership style takes more time, but creates a stronger foundation for working in the kitchen.