In the kitchen with... Semih Arif Ozdemir,
It was not his original aim in life to own and operate a Turkish restaurant, but the transition has been a smooth and successful one for Semih Arif Ozdemir, proprietor of Agora Mediterranean Kitchen in the Northwood section of West Palm Beach.
“After graduating from college I was a mechanical engineer,” Mr. Ozdemir said. “I was involved in a medical business and I did finance as part of a real estate business. But I soon realized there was not a good Turkish restaurant anywhere in the Northwood area and decided to open one.”
It was a good move for Mr. Ozdemir, who started up Agora Mediterranean Kitchen three years ago. Since then the reviews have been impressive, with top rankings on TripAdvisor and Yelp.
“Turkish food is good for those who wish to take care of their bodies,” he said. “We use a lot of olive oil in our cooking, as well as the freshest ingredients to prepare our meals. Not a lot of people know about Turkish cuisine, so I try to make my restaurant customers feel as if they are at home, eating together. That’s why we call it ‘kitchen.’ Now we have a lot of fans around Florida and even around the world.”
Mr. Ozdemir credits his mother for inspiring his appreciation of Turkish food.
“She is a very good cook and makes delicious food,” he said. “And when I first came over to the United States I worked for a catering company. When I invited the owners over to my house for dinner, they tried my mom’s food and loved it — so much so, in fact, that they organized some Turkish dinners themselves. That’s when I first started to think about how a good Turkish restaurant could be successful.”
The menu is inspired by a variety of Mediterranean specialties with a special focus on Turkish preparations, he added.
“Turkish cuisine and Greek cuisine are very similar, but we don’t stop there,” he said. “We’ve added Middle Eastern dishes as well. Because of its location, Turkey is the bridge to all countries, all continents and all religions. And our food reflects that.”
Agora Mediterranean Kitchen promotes locally sourced ingredients and caters to a variety of dietary options by including a wide array of vegetarian and vegan dishes as well as traditional Turkish fare. The menu emulates this, offering everything from your basic burger ($12.95) to Izgara Kofte ($16.95), which consists of grilled meatballs with rice and crispy greens.
“Our most popular dishes right now are the Grilled Aegean Octopus ($22.95) and the Red Snapper en Papillote ($19.95),” Mr. Ozdemir said. “Also, our Mixed Grill Platter ($39.95) is a delicious combination of all the meats on our menu — char grilled chicken shish, chicken on flat, gyro and Izgara Kofte, served with rice and grilled vegetables. But don’t order these until you’ve tried our Mezes, or appetizers, first.”
Cold Mezes range from the Ezme (mashed garden veggies with pomegranate sauce, at $5.95) and Violet Artichokes (braised in olive oil and fresh lemon juice, for $6.95) to the Just Aegean Dips (Hummus, Eggplant Salad, Cacik, Ezme, Htipiti and Pink Sultan served on warm pita bread for $17.95) and the Agora Signature Sampler (Imam Bayildi, Dolma, Spinach Delight, Piyaz and Braised Leeks served with pickles, olives and warm pita bread for $19.95). Hot Mezes vary from the Zucchini Pancake ($8.95) and the Spinach Delight ($8.95) to the Warm Hummus ($9.95) and the Grilled Octopus ($13.95).
When he’s away from his restaurant, Mr. Ozdemir enjoys Mexican food, particularly fajitas and burritos, because their spices remind him of those used in the Turkish cuisine he loves. He also likes Japanese sushi, Chinese food and Thai dishes.
“But I will always focus mainly on Turkish food, because it is the cuisine of my childhood and my family,” he said. “And we have a family feeling here, by the way. I’m not the boss and they are not my employees. We are family. We eat together and drink together. If I’m away from the restaurant for a few days I begin to miss it, because I’m away from my brothers and sisters.”
Semih Arif Ozdemir
Original Hometown: Ankara, Turkey
Restaurant: Agora Mediterranean Kitchen, 2505 N. Dixie Highway in West Palm Beach. Summer lunch hours are 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; dinner is 5 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. on Friday. Saturday the restaurant is open from noon until 10 p.m. For more information, call 651-7474 or visit agorakitchenwpb.com.
Mission: To introduce locals to Turkish cuisine and eventually open more restaurants of this kind around the country.
Training: No formal training in cuisine. Trained as a mechanical engineer; also worked on the business side of medicine and in real estate.
What advice would you give someone who wants to be a restaurateur or chef? “You have to like what you are doing. You also need to have a good team.” ¦