By Sucheta Rawal
Okan Kizilbayir is executive chef of Salt restaurant at The Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island, one of the only 2 AAA Five Diamond rated restaurants in Florida.
Growing up, my family had a summer home in the woods an hour outside Istanbul. My dad grew vegetables, my grandfather made old Turkish style one-pot stews, and I experimented with the fresh produce. At 16 years old, my brother and I would slaughter lambs and cook braised duck and whole baby goats. This is where I learned to respect nature, grow food, and cook for family and friends.
In my early 20s, I was hooked on cooking television. I picked up cooking techniques by watching Turkish celebrity chefs and American top chefs. Combining what I saw with my own Turkish methods, I cooked through experimentation. Sometimes the house got filled with smoke, often the wood oven would get too hot to touch—but I had a lot of fun.
I graduated from business school, then did mandatory service in the Turkish military, but I always wanted to work in the food business. I thought, perhaps something to do with olive oil, wine, or farming. But cooking was in my blood. All the men in my dad’s family had been cooking at schools, hospitals, and in catering. So I got a quick three-month culinary diploma, followed by an internship at a restaurant in Istanbul. I also went to new restaurant openings and met celebrity chefs so I could open my mind to new flavors.
In 2007, one of my friends told me about a job fair at a hotel in Istanbul, where US-based hotels were looking to hire cooks and servers. One of the opportunities was to work with Eric Ripert at his now-closed Westend Bistro at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Washington DC. Now that was something I was very interested in. I had read about Ripert in magazines, and seen him on the show Kitchen Confidential. I told myself that I would only go to the US if I got to work with him.
And they hired me! We were 10 servers and 4 cooks brought from Turkey to DC. Initially there was some misunderstanding, and I wasn’t picked to work at Westend Bistro. I went to HR and almost cried, and told them that I had to work at that very 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 first learned how to hold a knife. Here I was, an amateur cook with not much training or experience. I thought I knew English, but I couldn’t understand the American accent. I would say “yes, chef!” to everything, without understanding what they asked me to do. Then I couldn’t deliver. There were a lot of curse words. That kind of abuse was normal back then. I was kicked out of the kitchen many times, but I came back the next day, with less hair, and wanting to do better. They pushed me a lot, but I’m grateful for that now.
One day, the sous chef didn’t show, so I had to fill in for him. I went from helping at the prep station to cooking during Friday night rush hours. In the kitchen, you start from the bottom and make your way up. This process can take up to two years. I got a lucky break within my first three months.
But it was a tough environment to work in. The expectations were high. I was about to break down, then I took a couple of days off to visit a friend in New York City, which was when my life changed.
As a tourist, I went to Le Bernardin. I sat outside the restaurant and took a photo of it with my digital camera. I still have this photo today, 14 years later. I imagined what it would be like to work there. It sounded like an impossible dream at that time, especially as an immigrant. I wasn’t even that—I was just a temporary worker.
My friend advised me to work harder and deliver what the chefs wanted. I am not sure what exactly clicked, but that trip instilled more confidence in me. My cooking got better. My coworkers saw the difference in my work. I became more attentive, and I focused only on cooking and nothing else that was happening around me. They started calling me an “animal” because I was so strong.
Ripert suggested I transfer to the Cayman Islands. So I got a job at Blue by Eric Ripert at Grand Cayman because of my strong references. 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 offers to work from the Middle East and China.
And then Ripert offered me a job at Le 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 position. I started as a sous chef and became 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 strived for perfection all the time. Being in a three-Michelin-star restaurant is like recording an album live in front of an audience every day. There’s always a lot of pressure.
During my culinary career, I 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 the right way. They don’t explain the why. I explain to my guys at Salt why we need to cook and serve a certain way. Most chefs are not as approachable. But I remind my staff to ask me questions, and to listen. The younger generation can look up 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 among 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 careful now 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 that I was just like them 14 years ago. I came from a Muslim country without much experience, but I cooked at a three-Michelin-star restaurant for four years, and look at me now. I tell them to not be disheartened or offended. At the end of the day, if they start thinking like me, it will make my life easier. That kind of teacher-like leadership style takes more time but builds a stronger foundation for working in the kitchen.