Turkish entrepreneur climbs to the next rung on the ladder to success

As a small boy in Turkey, Mehmet Yildiz, co-owner and executive chef of Aya Sofia, dreamed of owning a Turkish restaurant in the United States. He immigrated to America eight years ago, originally landing in Chicago. “But it was just too much,” said Yildiz. “Too many people, too much traffic. There were traffic jams at 3 a.m. It was just too much. I stayed only three weeks. I had cousins in Troy, Ill., so I came.”

Yildiz and his fiancée, Alicia Aboussie, pushed back their weddings (both the one in Turkey and the one here in the United States) because giving the dreamed-of restaurant – formerly Rizzo’s – on Chippewa Avenue a Turkish facelift took a little longer than expected. “It took 10 months,” said Aboussie, who designed the luxurious Turkish interior. “But it has been worth it.”

St. Louis hasn’t had a Turkish restaurant in quite a while. Do you think it will be well-received?
I hope so. St. Louis is blossoming with ethnic restaurants. They seem to be doing well. I hope you will give us a try and like us and come back and back. It’s healthy food. We don’t fry much, so our food isn’t greasy. We use whole olive oils and real butter.

What does Aya Sofia mean?
Holy wisdom. It is [the] name of one of Turkey’s major [houses of worship] that was built in 537 A.D. It’s a very old and sacred place.

Describe Turkish food for those who aren’t familiar with it.
In shortcut, it’s more similar to Greek food but [it’s] cooked different and tastes different. We use paprika, cumin, allspice and oregano. No curry. When we say our food is spicy, we mean no kick, but full of flavor, more hearty. Our menu represents only about 1 percent of the Turkish kitchen.

What does that mean?
Turkey has many regions, each with its own culture and foods, like America in a way. Or Italy. I cannot present all of them; there are just too many. The menu comes from my mom’s recipes, and the daily specials are dishes from other parts of Turkey.

Where do you get your spices?
I import them directly from Turkey. That makes them taste a little different than what Americans think of when they picture the spices I mentioned.

What kinds of foods are on the menu?
We use lots of Chinese eggplant, chicken, ground beef, lamb, onions, rice, zucchini, potatoes, grape leaves, feta cheese and some seafood. Simple foods, really, that we flavor to make them taste better. The Chinese eggplant is very hard to find in St. Louis. It’s long and skinny and tastes different than the pear-shaped variety you are used to seeing. We make a lot of kinds of kabobs.

How did you get started in the culinary industry?
In Turkey I have very large family. I have a cousin who taught me the basics, as did my mother. Turkey’s culture is not an “eating out” one like America. We are required, as a family member, to be present for breakfast and dinner. That’s when the family comes together to discuss their day and problems and joys. You can be forgiven for not appearing at lunch if you are working or [are a] student, but only then. If you are not working or not at school, you are required to be at the table for lunch.

What part of Turkey is home?
I am from the west side, near Greece. The bigger city is Izmir, and my village is Pergamum. Pergamum is like Arnold to St. Louis.

What ingredient won’t we find in your kitchen?
Pork. Most, but not all, Turks are Muslims, and Muslims don’t eat pork. No pork keeps our recipes true to the Turkish culture. Turkey is a land of Jews, Kurds, everybody. We are trying to remain authentic.

Is there a large Turkish community in St. Louis?
There are about 1,000 Turks in the area, with about 3,000 in the state, mostly professionals like doctors and lawyers and a lot of students studying at SLU and Wash U.

What is your favorite American food?
I am a meat eater. I don’t like dishes without meat. My favorite American food is fried chicken, Hardee’s burgers, Steak ‘n Shake chili and steak anywhere I can get it.

What did you do when you first came from Chicago?
My cousins and aunts had a restaurant in Troy, Sunrise Family Restaurant. I started as a dishwasher. I learned to cook all the American foods. After about three years, I opened [a Sunrise Family Restaurant] in Arnold … I sold [it] and opened here.

You were supposed to get married this past summer, but you had to push back the date because of the remodeling. When do you think you’ll get to tie the knot?
We’re looking at next summer. Once the restaurant is running on its own and we can leave for one, maybe two, weeks, we’ll go to see my family and have our Turkish wedding.