From Dishwasher to Head Chef

Ana Sortun, who owns three restaurants in greater Boston, discusses her rise in the kitchen.

Colleen DeBaise By Colleen DeBaise

Editor’s Note: This is part 2 of a two-part series on entrepreneurial women chefs. Last week, we spoke with Jody Adams.

Julia Child, the iconic chef, made her home for decades in Cambridge, Mass. Her high-profile role as a woman in the kitchen may be why the area has produced a number of prominent female chefs, including Ms. Adams, Barbara Lynch (this year’s James Beard recipient for Outstanding Restaurateur), “Top Chef” winner Kristen Kish, and Ana Sortun, who has run the Mediterranean restaurant Oleana near Harvard Square for the past 13 years.

In 2008, Sortun and her business partner, Gary Griffin, opened Sofra, a nearby cafe serving Middle Eastern cuisine. That was followed last October by Sarma in Somerville, which is modeled after a Turkish mayhane or tavern. Together, the three restaurants employ 150 and gross about $8 million in annual revenue.

Sortun, 46, is a  Seattle native who started as a dishwasher at age 14. She counts Adams and Lynch as friends and mentors – and indeed, she says their paving the way has helped her build the company she is running today.

That said, she is reluctant to talk about gender bias in the industry. “There is always so much talk about it,” she said. “It’s always been there.” The reality, she said, is that long hours make it “hard to be a man or a woman in this business” – especially if one is a parent.

Today, Sortun, who is married with a young daughter, says her biggest challenges are the rigors of running a restaurant group, including the low profit margins. She manages food costs in part by buying produce from a farm operated by her husband, Chris Kurth. “I don’t know of many people that are actually rich from being in the restaurant business,” she said in a conversation that has been edited and condensed.

The Story Exchange: How tough was it to get your first restaurant to be profitable?

Part of our business plan was to find a space that had relatively low overhead so that we could afford to pay back the debt, almost $1 million from investors. Both my partner and I went into the project having nothing — I survived on a credit card and no income for about five months. It was extremely hard not to spend a million dollars building out a restaurant, and it took a village of everyone I knew to help me get it open and to pay it back. We did show a profit from the get-go, but it was relative to the sales. It could barely support myself and my business partner for the first few years.

The Story Exchange: Was it easier with the next two?

Sofra, a bakery and café, was the hardest model and took the longest to show a profit. It is small — only about 19 seats — and the ticket price is low, the labor cost is incredibly high and there is no alcohol to sell. It meant that we had to do some crazy, high volume to make it work. It took about three years before we showed a profit. Sarma hit the ground running but still is vulnerable to the debt that is owed for build-out. There is a very real feeling of vulnerability — or faith.

The Story Exchange: How much time do you spend in the kitchen these days?

I spend two nights a week at Oleana expediting, and once a month I’m in the kitchen for a few days changing menus and training staff on new plates. At Sofra, I’m in the kitchen once a week working with the sous-chef and chef. I’m not in the kitchen at all at Sarma. After the initial workload and problem-solving of opening was over, I stepped out and am relatively hands off.

The Story Exchange: Which do you find more rewarding – running a kitchen or running a business?

A. The hard part is running the business. The cooking part is just plain fun!

The Story Exchange: Which do you think you are better at?

A. I would like to say cooking, because it feels like it’s all I know — but I’m not so bad at running the business either.

The Story Exchange: Do you have female chefs working for you?

A. Yes. The chefs at Oleana and Sarma are women. Four sous-chefs out of six are women. I don’t do 70-hour work weeks with them — or any employees. The last cook that I just hired was a young man. He said, “I was working 75 hours in my last job.” Already, he is functioning better because he is not working 75 hours a week.

The Story Exchange: What’s your advice for women who aspire to be restaurateurs?

A. I don’t think there are any restrictions. You can always have children later than earlier. Find people who are doing it, and figure out how they do it. And you have to have talent. Can you cook or can you not? That’s what it comes down to.

The Story Exchange: What’s your next big project going to be?

Something built around my husband’s farm. I can’t do what I do without my husband’s farm. It’s an impossible business to sustain and I want to crack the code on it so that we can keep doing it year after year.

 

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Ana Sortun, Chef and Owner of Boston-area restaurants Oleana, Sofra and Sarma

AS: The restaurant business is not for everybody. It’s a, it’s a lot of responsibility. It’s a lot of unknown. It’s a lot of money. You have to be a risk taker. And you have to have guts.

CARD Ana Sortun / Chef/Co-Owner – Oleana / Cambridge, Mass. / USA

AS: I decided I wanted to have my own restaurant pretty early on. If I had known how hard it was gonna be I don’t think I would have done it but it takes a village. I pretty much relied on all of the people that I had gotten to know to help me make it happen.

AS: Neither of my parents were great cooks. My mother cooked very simply but with really good ingredients. I sort of developed a love for not just food but good food, and if I wanted that in my life I’d need to learn how to cook.

CARD Ana got her first restaurant job at 14, as a dishwasher in a Seattle café. She took cooking classes with a teacher who had studied at La Varenne, a culinary school in Paris.

AS: It became a no-brainer for me. I said, “I’ve gotta go to this school, I’m gonna follow her footsteps. I’m gonna do this.” And the more people sort of doubted it the more it made me wanna do it.

CARD Ana graduated from high school, and spent two years learning French. She arrived in Paris in 1988. She was 19.

AS: Thank God I was completely ignorant because if I had known [CHUCKLES] how awful it was gonna be when, when I arrived, and how not fluent I was when I arrived. I couldn’t even speak for months it was so overwhelming. You know, I remember calling my mom and saying, “I, I can’t do this. This is crazy.” But I grew up very quickly.

CARD Ana worked at La Varenne in exchange for classes. She returned to the US in 1990 and settled in Boston. At 25, Ana got her first chef position at a restaurant just outside the city.

AS: That was my first responsibility running a kitchen. And I was in way over my head. Challenged me a lot on management skills so I sort of learned by experience.

CARD A year later, Ana moved to a restaurant in Harvard Square called Casablanca. She spent the next five years building a reputation as a fearless and innovative chef.

CARD During that time an acquaintance invited Ana to Turkey.

AS: Her friends threw me sort of a welcome lunch in, in a park and it was a potluck. There were 30 women that cooked a dish that was very special to them. And I remember that day so specifically because as I was tasting everything I was thinking, “what is this food? It’s so deep, it’s so rich, it’s not heavy, all these flavors, I don’t know what any of this is.” It was sort of a turning point for me. It started to become really clear that when I did my own place that I would represent Middle Eastern or Eastern Mediterranean food that has somewhat of a modern twist to it.

CARD Ana teamed up with Gary Griffin, the bartender at Casablanca.

CARD They spent three years planning and raising money from investors. They opened Oleana in January 2001–in a residential neighborhood with few restaurants.

AS: The restaurant business has a very small bottom line. If you’re doing everything right, your bottom line is 10%. You know, we always have a, a very high food cost. So when we go out and look for locations we look for off the beaten path, not just because it suits our personality but because it’s usually a lower rent. It gives us a little bit of leverage in being able to use higher quality ingredients.

CARD Ana has won rave reviews, devoted diners and a James Beard Award for Best Chef.

In 2008, she and her team opened Sofra, a Middle Eastern café and bakery. In 2013, they launched Sarma.

AS: My role is different. I’m more of a trainer now working with the chefs that I have put in place, recipe development, ingredient sourcing is a big part of what I do.

CARD Ana’s restaurants employ over 150 people and post $8 million in annual revenue.

AS: I tend to look forward and feel the responsibility of keeping the businesses all thriving and doing well. So that’s what I focus on. “What can we do to continue to grow all of our staff to build stronger teams so that we just keep getting better?”

CREDITS

Producers – Victoria Wang and Sue Williams
Director – Sue Williams
Editor – Merril Stern
Director of Photography – Sam Shinn
Production Assistant – Erin Kron
Assistant Editor – Matt Strickland
Music – Killer Tracks

Photos Courtesy of:
Susie Cushner, Bob Carpenter, Greg Gibbons, Lisa Goldfinger, Betsy Cullen, Wikipedia Commons

Posted: June 1, 2014

Colleen DeBaiseFrom Dishwasher to Head Chef