A Turkish family tradition

Turgay Erdogan (left) and Zeliha Yahsi

For Zeliha Yahsi and Turgay Erdogan, the owners of Efes Turkish Cuisine on Spring Garden Road, getting into the family restaurant business just made sense.

Erdogan’s parents and grandparents are cooks and his grandfather opened the first Turkish restaurant in Ottawa, The Topkapi, in 1974.

“It’s kind of, like, in their DNA,” says Burak Ozter, who’s been working at the restaurant since 2019. He isn’t related to them, but Yahsi says he’s become part of the family.

Yahsi immigrated from Turkey to Canada in 2009, and Erdogan followed in 2010. They started working at Efes Turkish Cuisine (formerly Café Istanbul) in 2012, before taking over in 2019.

The name refers to Ephesus (Efes in Turkish), an ancient Greek city in what is now the İzmir Province in western Turkey. The logo depicts a column from a home located in the ancient city.

Efes specializes in traditional Turkish cuisine. Everything is fresh and nothing is ever frozen, says Yahsi. Erdogan is from Turkey’s Bolu Province, a region long known for its cuisine and a surplus of chefs. “He’s the best chef,” Yahsi says.

The menu includes a variety of hot and cold appetizers like the red pepper purée (roasted red peppers, olive oil, parsley, and feta), falafel (golden fried fritters of ground chickpeas, spices, garlic, cilantro, and parsley), and lentil soup (red lentils, onion, and mint).

Main courses include different kinds of kebabs (like spicy chicken, kofte, and seafood), moussaka (layered minced lamb, eggplant, potato, bechamel, sauce, and cheese), and a vegetable platter. And if you’re familiar with Turkish dining, you’d already know that the decadent baklava dessert (a buttery phyllo pastry filled with walnuts) and a strong Turkish coffee are the ideal codas.

A selection of Efes’s offerings. Photo: Submitted

The menu also has a variety of lunch options, like wraps. Yahsi plans to expand the menu to include new specials and some more vegetarian and vegan options.

“I have too many ideas,” she says.

The restaurant business is notoriously stressful. Yahsi and Erdogan have both been routinely working seven days a week.

“We would like to serve everything, but it’s too much. I can’t do everything!” Yahsi laughs.

The combination of good food and a comfortable, friendly atmosphere led to a successful first few months for Yahsi and Erdogan. Efes Turkish Cuisine won platinum in the Turkish food and drink category in the 2020 Halifax CommunityVotes contest.

Then, COVID-19 hit.

The couple had been operating the business for just six months when they were forced to temporarily shut down in March 2020 due to COVID-19. After being closed for two weeks, they reopened for takeout only. At first, business was slow.

“Everyone’s scared. I understand,” says Yahsi. The restaurant became busier as the year went on, the days got warmer, and people got used to the public health rules.

Yahsi is grateful for the support they’ve received from the community. “The local people, they’re really, really helpful to us; they’re really kind,” she says.

“We appreciate our customers,” Ozter adds.

Not having diners in the restaurant has been hard. Yahsi and Ozter’s favourite moments at Efes Turkish Cuisine have been celebrations like birthdays and holidays. “We enjoyed them the most because everyone’s having fun and happy,” Ozter says.

Despite the difficulties of the past year, Yahsi is optimistic. They’ve recently hired another chef, and they hope to add new Turkish dishes for people to try. They’re currently offering takeout until they’re able to welcome guests back inside.

“We can do it,” Yahsi says. “It’s a hard business, but we will try our best.”

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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