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Talking Turkish Cuisine With Ali Cengiz

by Wolf & Badger

Ali Cengiz is a private chef based in Los Angeles who uses cuisine as his primary creative outlet. We caught up with Ali to hear more about the foundation of Turkish cuisine and what it's really like to be a celebrity chef, plus discover his ultimate Thanksgiving dessert. Dig in...

Can you briefly tell us about yourself, your journey with Turkish food and your background? How was your experience in London and Istanbul?

I was born in the north of Turkey in the Black Sea region in Samsun. Samsun is known for its wide variety of seafood and its abundance of vegetation. I started cooking with my aunt in the kitchen at the age of 6. From that time, I knew I was destined to become a chef. My love for food, all the colors and different flavors immediately attracted me to the profession. When I was young, I decided to pursue my passion by joining a cooking school in Istanbul. From there I went to work at Changa, a world renowned restaurant. After three years, I decided to move to London so I could expand my knowledge of world cuisine. I learned how to cook with French, Italian, Spanish, Indian and other influences, spices and styles. But after a few years, I was drawn back to my roots. I had a strong appreciation of where I come from and wanted to focus on Turkish cuisine. When I decided to move to the United States, I knew I could fill a void with Turkish cuisine. 

Why is cooking special to you?

For me, cooking is my main creative outlet, always has been. Also - maybe it’s cultural - but I find watching clients’ faces light up when they try something new and delicious, to be the ultimate reward; I find pure happiness in their delight. 

How do you explain the Turkish cuisine to anyone who may be unfamiliar with it?

My approach when describing my food comes from a balance of healthy, seasonal, fresh ingredients that have a Turkish flare and foundation. The similarities between California and the Mediterranean are actually quite strong, I often use fresh fish, and vegetables sourced locally in our farmers markets. I then combine and add traditional Turkish flavors that surprise my guests. I like to take them on a journey.

We saw that you prepared examples from Turkish cuisine like “yaprak sarma/dolma” and “zeytinyağlı bakla” in the States on your Instagram page. How do your clients in California like it? What’s the reaction?

I also often cook very traditional Turkish and Ottoman cuisine which people really appreciate and love. Americans, especially in California, love to try foreign dishes. Los Angeles is a melting pot of many different cultures all brought together and often crossing over the international lines of taste and flavours fusing them together.

Which celebs have you cooked for?

Having worked in Los Angeles, the list is pretty extensive and it’s been a ton of fun to meet a few. Perhaps some of the most memorable were an intimate reunion dinner for the Modern Family cast, where Sophia Vergara raved about my baklava. I also catered a surprise birthday party at a gorgeous Malibu beach home for one director whose guest list included the likes of Brad Pitt and Sia (among many other A-list celebs); honestly, I was so humbled by their kindness and gratitude. I’ve also cooked for one iconic pop star (whom I can’t identify by name), which was intense exposure to the chaotic, day-in-the-life of a mega icon. Some of my favorite clients have been Lucy Lawless, Patti LuPone, and Zachary Quinto, who were among the kindest, most appreciative clients or dinner guests I’ve ever cooked for. 

How has working as a personal chef impacted your life? 

I worked as a personal chef for a prominent entertainment industry family for five and a half years. They always appreciated the best foods and gave me complete creative freedom to use their kitchen as my test kitchen. They also hosted many high profile dinner parties with guests from all parts of the entertainment business. This opportunity pushed me to constantly try new, fun ideas for a wide range of folks that dine at LA’s best establishments regularly. I certainly felt the pressure at times to impress, but know that being pushed outside my comfort zone made me a better chef. 

Discover Ali's raspberry, chocolate & coconut ganache tart recipe here.

Why did you decide to become a personal chef instead of working in a restaurant?

I got my start in the restaurant business and appreciate all that it taught me, but I’m a people person and thrive on a direct connection with my clients. Even when I’m catering large scale events where the kitchen is my primary focus, I always find time to get out and serve guests directly. They appreciate it, and it’s fun for me to overhear the guests talk about my food (especially when they don’t know I’m listening).