At home in the U.S., chef Scott Conant is regarded as a cooking master. But when he and his wife visit her family in Turkey, he’s lucky if they let him grill the fish. Here, his education in Turkish tradition.
When it comes to italian food, Scott Conant is a champion. The energetic chef and judge of TV’s Chopped is known for a rich, buttery spaghetti al pomodoro that is one of America’s more obsessed-over pastas. He is quick to credit his southern Italian heritage, and the languid, generous meals he had visiting his mother’s family in Campania.
But when Conant visits his wife’s family in Bodrum, on Turkey’s southwestern coast, he barely gets into the kitchen. Meltem Conant, a Turkish-American entrepreneur, comes from a passionately hospitable clan that loves to cook. Every summer, the couple and their two small daughters, Ayla and Karya, travel to the Aegean resort region of white villas and craggy coves, where 20 or so of Meltem’s relatives gather from all around Turkey to vacation. “We don’t let Scott cook much, other than maybe throw a fish on the grill and toss an occasional salad. We want to show off our food,” says Meltem. Says Scott with a laugh, “What? Me? Compete with amazing cooks like Mel’s mom and aunts?”
On the most recent trip, Meltem’s mother, Nigar Babac, agreed to give Scott a lesson on a few Turkish classics. She taught him how to roll out the dough for manti, wee meat-filled dumplings that look a lot like tortellini. These date back to the 13th century, when tribes traveling from Asia would heat them over a fire. Nigar serves her ground-beef-stuffed version with an intriguing double sauce of yogurt and spice-sizzled tomato butter. “Manti are easy,” says Meltem. “But you need an entire family for all the shaping and folding. Even our five-year-old, Ayla, helps out.” She continues: “I found out how much work it is to make them by yourself when I was 12. I couldn’t find a rolling pin, so I used a pencil to roll out each one.” Close by, Nigar prepped the sarmas, the beloved stuffed grape leaves that get their name from the Turkish word sarmak, “to wrap.” She made them from grape leaves she’d picked herself and rice she’d sweetened with sautéed onions, tomato paste and a little mint. “They’re best eaten warm, with your hands,” says Meltem.
Meltem braised eggplant with tons of olive oil and tomatoes for an Ottoman-era palace dish called imam bayildi, or “imam fainted.” Turks love to debate why the cleric swooned: Was it the indecent amount of expensive olive oil or the eggplant’s sheer deliciousness? The eggplant belongs to a genre of dishes called zeytinyagli (zey-tihn-yah-lih), a term for olive oil–braised vegetables that come out shiny and luscious, like a savory jam.
Later, on a family outing on a chartered sailboat, Scott got his chance to grill, heating up coals to cook freshly caught çipura (sea bream). First he soaked the fish in salted water for an hour to keep it moist, “a boat owner’s trick,” he explains.
“Scott still doesn’t speak Turkish,” says Meltem. But when it comes to the food, “he totally understands all the love.”
Watermelon, Feta and Almond Salad
Manti with Tomato Butter and Yogurt
Multilayered Walnut Bread
Braised Eggplant with Garlic
Rice-and-Meat-Stuffed Zucchini and Green Peppers
Stuffed Grape Leaves
Grilled Sea Bream