Have you ever fallen instantly for a place? A place where you could imagine your creative ideas taking root and flourishing? Maybe it’s a place where sunlight slants into a courtyard garden with intertwining pomegranate and lemon trees, their gold and red fruit hanging like lanterns.
Olga Irez followed her passion for cooking all the way from Russia to Alaçatı on Turkey’s Aegean coast, where she fell in love with a house with a garden courtyard that became Babushka, her beloved restaurant and cooking school.
Everything Olga cooks is göz doyurucu (a feast for the eyes), using fresh, bright local vegetables, wild greens and herbs; and seafood straight from the sparkling waters of the Aegean. She might tempt you with a meze platter of kabak ciçeği (stuffed zucchini flowers) or asma yaprağinda keçi peyniri (goat cheese grilled in vine leaves), with a plate of karışık ot kavurması (local greens in olive oil), or a bright green broad bean spread (arap favası) with homemade sourdough. Then you might follow with sardalya (pan fried local sardines) and a hearty and nourishing osmanlı süt kuzu yahnisi (Ottoman lamb stew). Can you fit in a slice of warm semolina and lemon cake perhaps?
Olga’s warmth and welcoming nature spills over in her exceptional food - Aegean home cooking with influences from her native Russia. But Olga wasn’t always a chef. She once worked as a strategy consultant for a global firm, work she described as interesting, challenging and well-paid. But her instincts told her she needed to seek a different path. She left her job to take time and discover what she really wanted from life. “Life is too short to spend it on something that is not dear to your heart,” she says.
A trip to Istanbul proved to be life-changing as Olga discovered her love of food and cooking. With the help of Zeliha Irez, a woman she describes as “the goddess of Turkish home cooking”, Olga learned everything there was to know about Turkish food. What Olga didn’t know was that she would one day meet and fall in love with Zeliha’s son, Özgür, the man who is now her husband, business partner, and generous front-of-house host in their restaurant. And her mentor? Well she became Olga’s much-loved Turkish mother-in-law.
Together, Olga and Özgür’s latest creative project is one borne of love, creation and hard work. Their restaurant, Babushka, in the courtyard with the lemon and pomegranate trees, is named for their respective grandmothers. “The restaurant is a thank you to the women who brought us up, to what we have become and what we are longing for – life without fuss, watching dogs as they chase the garden frog, drinking tea under the pomegranate tree, cooking lots and sharing our stories with dear guests.”
Creating Babushka was about spreading the ideas that their grandmothers’ cooking taught them – to be generous, to nourish, to respect tradition, and to have honesty in food. That is, to celebrate ingredients in their seasonal prime as well as the farmers who grow them. “I prefer buying my fragrant herbs and greens from a farmer with a kind smile, and hands of someone who only works on the land. I’d buy anything he grows because I know that his produce has soaked up plenty of care and kindness,” Olga says.
Her food reflects this warmth and generosity, as well as Alaçatı’s sunshine and sea air. She finds inspiration in the humble, fresh seasonal ingredients that grow in abundance nearby, or come from the sea. “I want people to have respect for traditions and ingredients, for the importance of devoting enough time to cooking a meal, and not taking good food for granted.”
In Olga’s popular cooking classes you might learn to make yufka, the paper-thin pastry for börek filled with cheese and herbs, or a smoked eggplant dip with lemon and mint, and stuffed red and green peppers. Learning to cook in the filtered sunshine of Babushka’s courtyard is as joyful a way to spend a day as you can imagine. Olga is in her element, stretching the pastry thinner and thinner as she lavishes it with butter so it crisps perfectly in the oven. I tell her that her story of finding and following her passion is inspiring. “Using your talents is not about yourself,” she tells me. “It’s your debt to the Universe that generously endowed you with unique skills and abilities that you must put at service to others. Give back by using your talents. Be around like-minded people, be open to the endless opportunities that you cannot even imagine possible at the moment and don't overthink it - the truth is not in the smarts, it is in your heart.”