Most newlyweds spend a week honeymooning on a Hawaiian beach or trekking around Europe. Chefs Laura Millan and Sayat Ozyilmaz started their married lives on a road trip across the US and Mexico, “staging” at restaurants in each city they visited. Beginning in June, they cooked across the continent at establishments like Husk (Charleston), August (New Orleans), and Michael Mina (Las Vegas), blogging about their experiences for the Culinary Institute of America. In their inaugural post, they explained the rationale for their endeavor: “It’s curiosity that drives us both…it’s what makes us who we are…It is the best way to learn about the regional cuisines of the country we have both come to call home.”
The tale of these chefs seems like something out of a romance movie. Meeting in the kitchens of the CIA, Sayat says he and Laura “fell in love with each other and each other’s food.” Separate stints at some of New York’s most notable restaurants (Blue Hill Stone Barn, Cafe Bouloud, Le Bernadin, Eleven Madison Park, Mugaritz) and a decision to embark on this culinary adventure together has led them to San Francisco, where they have recently unveiled their pop-up, Istanbul Modern. This true labor of love is now their full-time endeavor – most recently, Laura worked in pastry at three Michelin-starred Saison while Sayat cooked at one-starred Mourad.
Istanbul Modern is an homage to Constantinople, the city that “could have been–cosmopolitan, diverse, and open-minded.” It weaves together the story of this once-capital of four towering empires and a mélange of oceans, rural landscapes, and urban bustle. It is Turkish, but it is much more than that. The fare expands the definition of Turkish cuisine, echoing Sayat’s heritage and Laura’s passion for it. It achieves a delicate balance between tradition and innovation.
Through their service, Laura and Sayat aim for sophistication without stiffness, having fun and appreciating the ride. Sayat says, “We want to enjoy the journey together and build a community around the story while we develop recipes, our concept, and the guest experience.” Those who have already dined at Laura and Sayat’s table agree. One Feaster boasted that Laura and Sayat cook dishes “worthy of Ottoman sultans,” while others commented on their contagious energy, attention to detail, beautiful presentation, and unique taste.
What makes Laura and Sayat special goes beyond their Michelin-starred resumés and culinary talents. They are storytellers with a genuine warmth and inviting disposition, animating their personal history and that of a past cultural titan. And their story is just beginning.