Luxury dining isn't about dressing up – it's about feeding your family with love
In Istanbul, chef Aylin Yazicioglu wants her French-inspired Turkish food to nourish the soul and mind, and she’s using her restaurant Nicole to groom the next generation of chefs.
Not a bad accolade for a trained sociologist who quit her third year doctorate studies in social history at Cambridge University at the age of 36 to pursue her passion for food.
To bring her dreams to life, Yazicioglu enrolled at the famed Le Cordon Bleu Paris, and later worked in Michelin-starred restaurants in Paris, Belgium and Barcelona for 10 years before opening Nicole.
The restaurant is housed within Tom Tom Suites, a chic, 20-suite luxury boutique hotel converted from a 19th century Franciscan convent. It overlooks the old town and the Bosphorus, and its location in the Beyoglu district, places it within Istanbul’s most active art, entertainment and nightlife centre. Its moniker is derived from a nun called Agnes Marthe Nicole, who healed numerous patients in this very building.
“People think this is a luxurious, high-end place where you need to dress up. No, it’s not. It’s for people to feel good. It’s because of those sentimental times I spent around family dinner. Yearning for the same feeling was why I started cooking."
A new five- or eight-course menu is created every six weeks based on seasonal produce, which Yazicioglu personally sources from local markets.
“I use French techniques in my cuisine but always combine it with Turkish flavours and always using local food. For me, all the seafood is actually what describes Istanbul cuisine. When you look outside, you see the sea going through the islands. The autumn season is usually going to be full of fish,” she said.
Past dishes have included the likes of Octopus with eggplant, tomato and peppers; Monkfish with bearnaise sauce and aromatic herbs; Lamb with Kunefe (a sweet cheese pastry); Apricot with labne (a salted strained yogurt dip) and granola. The restaurant's wine list features an extensive selection from the Aegean, Thrace and Anatolia regions, as well as imported varieties.
“Sometimes people ask ‘How do you combine those flavours?’ And I reply: ‘It’s not me, but Mother Nature. It serves you what you need to have. That comes together with this, so obviously they go together,” said Yazicioglu.
“People think this is a luxurious, high-end place where you need to dress up. No, it’s not. It’s for people to feel good. It’s because of those sentimental times I spent around family dinner. Yearning for the same feeling was why I started cooking,” said Yazicioglu.
She added: “My grandmothers were amazing cooks. It wasn’t just about the cooking, it was about feeding your family and feeding them with love. It’s not necessarily the food you serve, but you should nourish them.”
Yazicioglu also sees the restaurant as a means for raising people’s consciousness.
“My training as a sociologist definitely helped me with my perspective in the kitchen,” she shared. “It’s not just about cooking. I want to raise awareness [of food issues]. When I think about planning my menu with the best produce, I found myself facing problems. Industrialisation in agriculture has changed so many things. I can no longer use chicken on my menu because of the way they’ve been raised.”
"I try to make sure that the young generation is ready to take the next step. And I want them to be better than myself."
In her early years, restaurant kitchens were typically male-dominated. Seeking to correct this imbalance, Yazicioglu championed gender equality and equal opportunity at Nicole.
“I guess the biggest achievement [for me is having] young people writing their application letters asking to learn. They know this is the place to improve themselves. I try to make sure that the young generation is ready to take the next step. And I want them to be better than myself.”