Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Chef Ana Sortun: A True FoodieMommy

(Photo from Oleana)
It was mid-way through my interview with Chef Ana Sortun when I asked, “Where do you take your daughter out to eat?” Chef Sortun is the owner and head chef at both Oleana in Cambridge and Sofra in Belmont. She won the James Beard Award in the Northeast for her cooking in 2005. Like me, she is the mother of a three year old. In that moment I truly believed we would bond. We would laugh as we proudly noted that we are not the type of moms who take our kids to McDonalds. No! We are FoodieMoms who take our kids to cafes and high-end bakeries like Flour. But, no, Ana Sortun replied, “We just took her to Craigie on Main.”

Craigie on Main? Did she just say Craigie on Main??? Don’t get me wrong-I love the place…for nights when we have a babysitter. This is the type of restaurant that offers “Red Wine-Braised Pigs’ Tails.” In fact, the only seemingly-toddler friendly dish is a burger…that costs $18.00 and is listed as being made with “local grass-fed beef, three-year Grafton cheddar and mace ketchup.” Chef Sortun went on to explain that she, her husband and daughter go early, order a few dishes and leave before melt-down happens. Taking my two sons to Craigie-that had never occurred to me.

Chef Sortun and her husband Chris Kurth (owner and farmer at the 50 acre Siena Farms in Sudbury) do not allow a toddler to prevent them from going out to eat. Instead Sortun identified 3 main strategies that they use to have wonderful meals out as a family. First they go on the early side. Second, they try to be up front with the wait staff about the fact that they may not have quite as much time as some people to enjoy dinner. Finally, they share food family style. The meal includes a few appetizers or a few main dishes that are brought out at the same time. This enables Siena, Sortun and her husband to be able to enjoy the food without waiting for the next course.

In general, encouraging children to eat well can be a challenge. At our house, our older son will happily eat fresh fruit, edamame and whole wheat bread. Yet his standard repertoire still consists of yogurt, packaged orange mac and cheese, hot dogs and processed chicken nuggets. Chef Sortun noted that her daughter’s favorite foods included seaweed salad, lobster and “fistfuls of salad.” She went on to point out that Siena is often out in the fields at Siena Farms with her father, picking vegetables and eating “bitter kale.”

The reality is that for many of us, desperate dinner nights mean grabbing the box of mac and cheese. Meanwhile, in the Sortun/Kurth household, not only is food central but it is also homemade and incredibly seasonal. Sortun remarked that in the winter, cooking is “more about technique and using longer cooking methods.” She tries to use winter weekends to prepare a couple of dishes for the week, such as chicken soup, wheat bulgar pilaf or big batches of rice. But in the summer, she adopts a much simpler form of cooking because the vegetables are so fresh and the ingredients are so pure that even she will sometimes simply serve them with salt, rather than the spices that are central to her reputation as a chef.

In fact, one of her key objectives in opening Sofra, was to help parents recognize that children are willing to eat food that is more complex than nuggets and to provide an easy alternative to fast food. Thus, at Sofra, rather than sandwiches, there are flatbreads (called yurufs) stuffed with items such as chickpeas, potatoes, labne and zaatar. Instead of a salad bar, there is a mezze bar with whipped celery root with walnuts and garlic. Sortun shared a comment made by Alice Waters of Chez Panisse, who had visited Sofra. Waters noted that because the dishes served at Sofra are less typical than what you see elsewhere, it pushes customers to “stop and pay attention” to the food they are eating. And unlike Oleana, which is a sit-down restaurant, the informality of Sofra itself encourages families to visit.(Photo of Sultan's Delight From Oleana at BostonChefs.Com)

When I admitted to Sortun that it had never occurred to me that I could actually take my kids to Oleana, she pointed out that many more restaurants are open to having children than families may think. For example, she noted that especially in the summer, when the garden terrace at Oleana is open, it is a wonderful spot for kids. She also emphasized that she and her staff love seeing kids at Oleana. Sortun named other restaurants that are particularly kid-oriented: Oishii 2 in Sudbury, Summer Shack in Cambridge, Sportello in Fort Point Channel, and several South End restaurants that are often frequented by families.

Sortun and Kurth are clearly raising a daughter who appreciates good food, and not merely the fancy stuff. Sortun laughed as she explained that Siena is already becoming a critical eater. She recalled a time when Siena was upset that her salad was topped with fried onions, exclaiming, “I don’t want French fries on my salad, Momma! I just want my salad.”(Baked Alaska Photo Above From Oleana at

Sortun and her husband define the ultimate foodie parents. They are role models for the rest of us. So am I making a reservation at Craigie with the boys? Not just yet. Oleana? Perhaps-for me and my husband. I am not sure my toddler will appreciate the Sultan's Delight (tamarind glazed beef and smoky eggplant puree with pinenuts) or the baked Alaska with coconut ice cream and passion fruit caramel as much as we do. But as for Sofra, we have already penciled it in.

Oleana, 134 Hampshire St, Cambridge, (617) 661-0505
Sofra, 1 Belmont St, Cambridge, (617) 661-3161
Siena Farms


  1. This is a terrific article! I love the way you juxtapose your family's way of eating with Sortun's. I identify with you and like you, I'm inspired by her. I can't wait to try Oleana. Maybe one of these weekends I'll be brave enough to reserve an early table for my husband and I AND our two babes. Hopefully our one year old who says hi, loudly, to everyone won't be too distracting to the people who are trying to enjoy their meals there...

  2. I applaud Anna Sortun and agree with everything she said. HOWEVER, the one thing that wasn't mentioned here is cost. The reason I don't take my kids to high-end restaurants is not that I fear they'll misbehave or that I don't think they'll try new foods, but rather because it ends up costing a fortune to feed a family of 5 at these places. And, really, if my husband and I are going to spend a lot on a really nice dinner, we'd prefer to take the time to savor the food and enjoy it at a leisurely pace, with a bottle of wine and some grown-up conversation. I don't want to just wolf it down and walk out 45 minutes later -- and $100 poorer.

  3. Nice meeting you at the PRK foodblogger meetup last week, Michele. I've been looking forward to your write-up since then and checked out Sofra earlier this week (after loving Oleana). It definitely has a family vibe as a more casual, take-out place while offering up a sophisticated palate. There was a woman sitting next to us with her 11/12-year old daughter, discussing the importance of trying different food, who asked what I was eating (falafel). Her daughter said, "I don't life falafel...I've never tried it..." and eventually by the end of the meal was talking about realizing she needed to try it before being able to say she didn't like it. It was a fun conversation to eavesdrop onto. And, at Sofra, you can't help but eavesdrop because the tables are quite close together.

    I have no kids but love having them over, and am often surprised by what they like to eat, like when I made "noodles and nuggets" at a mom's suggestion, only to have a 2-year old love the cauliflower-hazelnut-turmeric soup I made for the adults!
    - Gayle

  4. Great article! I'm having my first child in a few months and have been going to as many restaurants we possible lately, trying to squeeze as many in as I can before what seems like an inevitable, long dining-out drought...this gives me some food for thought. I'm a personal chef and have high hopes of having a foodie kid, but I DON'T kid myself that it will be easy, or cheap (maybe it can only be one or the other?) I just started a CSA membership at Siena Farms and I(and my clients) have been loving the local produce. We've seen Ana and Siena there as well as Chris; it really is a family place.

    Two things: Oishii II is so tiny; can it really be kid friendly?? And, the Baked Alaska at Oleana is the best thing ever. Period, end of story :-).

  5. Great interview and great food at Sofra. I went for the first time yesterday and posted about it. I will go back as soon as possible - it is wonderful. Oleana is next.