Beyond the Plate is a monthly series looking at the motivations and passions of local chefs. This month: Fisun Ercan.“You can only become truly accomplished at something you love. Don’t make money your goal. Instead, pursue the things you love doing, and then do them so well that people can’t take their eyes off of you.”— Maya AngelouFor Fisun Ercan, Maya Angelou’s lyrical quote echoes in both her personal and professional life. From her childhood in Turkey to her time in Montreal, her life has led her to do what she loves.Ercan was born in 1969 in the Turkish town of Seferihisar, “a very small, tiny village off the coast of the Aegean Sea.” The youngest of three children, she recalls: “I had a really paradisiacal childhood. I was very lucky to have a large and loving, beautiful family.”Ercan’s father passed away 2 1/2 years ago, but it’s clear his influence will always run deep.“My father was a very passionate person,” she says. “He enjoyed life. He loved food and family. If he was going out with his friends and ate something new in his life for the first time, he was in the kitchen checking with the chef, learning the recipe. The next day, he would go out and buy everything.”Ercan’s mother and father both shared in the delight of fresh food and the importance of gathering the family around the table.“My father was in charge of ingredients — he was always checking for the best tomatoes, the best grapes. Everything would come fresh daily. Fish would still be alive on the kitchen counter. But my mother was the cook, and still is. She is very meticulous and detail-oriented. She cooked all her life, and is known in the village as the best home cook.“I was always curious in the kitchen. I was like an apprentice to my mother since a very young age. I wanted to cook, make things, learn.” But, Ercan adds, “I never thought this was a profession — that this was something you could turn into a profession.”Despite a love of food being a continuous backdrop in Ercan’s youth, at 18 she enrolled in finance and economy at Dokuz Eylül University in Izmir, Turkey. After graduation came her first job, then love and marriage, then pregnancy.“I thought I was going to stay home for a few years and raise my daughter. I worked until my last day of pregnancy. I never quit — I was a workaholic.“For me, it is never a job. It is not work. I just do what I love. I never think, ‘Oh, I want to just take a day off.’ ”Once Ercan’s daughter Su was born, six months at home took a toll.“After I stayed home a bit, I said, ‘Hmm, this is not for me. I love my daughter, I want to really be with her, but I think if I stay at home with her I will lose my head, my passions and feel miserable. I don’t think it would make me a better mom.’ ”Ercan’s entrepreneurial spirit took over, and she devised a business venture that could soothe both her mind and heart.“I opened a kindergarten. That was my way out. I could keep an eye on my daughter and be a business person at the same time. I had 14 employees and 50 kids enrolled. I did this for five years.”At 25, Ercan was divorced and felt the pull of something bigger fuelling her adventurous side.“I started thinking about changing my life. I was always curious about travelling — how it could be if I was living somewhere else. One day I found an advertisement offering studies out in the world. I checked in with the agency, and they told me they were working with schools in Canada.”
Fisun Ercan’s dolma — sweet peppers and zucchini stuffed with rice, tomato, onion, garlic and herbs.
Ercan says her only thoughts about Canada up till then involved our brutal winters. Undaunted, she moved to Toronto in her late 20s, enrolling in an English program. But she missed her daughter, who stayed behind with Ercan’s mother and father in Turkey.“I left her with my parents because I wasn’t sure what I was going to do — what was waiting for me. How can I take a five-year-old with me to a new place?”Ercan didn’t feel grounded in Toronto, but Montreal resonated with her when she visited here.“It felt like home. I think this European look, narrow cobblestone streets in Old Montreal, there was a charm more than Toronto for me.”Feeling an ever greater longing for home, Ercan moved to Montreal and arranged for her mother to bring Su here.“I was far away from home for the first time and I was homesick. I was crying for my daughter every day. I missed her a lot and I didn’t know what I was doing. So I said, ‘Yes, why not?’ ”Ercan studied computer programming in Montreal, at a time when concerns about technology were growing.“Because the year 2000 was coming, people didn’t know how it was going to go. Technology and computer programming were hot, and I am a very mathematical, analytical person: my forte is all those puzzles and problem-solving. But I was learning French and computer languages at the same time. I didn’t sleep for about six months. I would take power naps standing up in the métro and on buses. I was alone with my six-year-old, studying, taking her to school, then going to work. Winter was harsh. I said to myself, ‘My god, what am I doing here?’ ”
Fisun Ercan’s spicy chickpea-stuffed manti (Turkish ravioli) in garlic yogurt and tomato sauce, topped with sautéed button mushrooms.
With immigration applications pending for herself and her daughter, Ercan packed up again, travelling back to Turkey with Su. She immediately scored a job as a computer programmer in Izmir, and soon met the man she would eventually marry.But, she admits, “I wasn’t 100 per cent happy.” Thanks to Su, who was intuitive beyond her years — and who had made close friends at school in Montreal — she came to a clear realization.“Even though she was very young, she’s always been a very wise person,” Ercan says of Su. “I think she has an old soul. I always said that I was a kid when I had my daughter — I tried my best to raise her the best way, but I can easily say that she raised me. She was so mature — still is. She said to me, ‘Maybe it will be better if we go back to Montreal?’ ”Ercan came back here with her new husband, Tulga, and her daughter in tow, and the return brought a newfound clarity as she channelled her deep connection to her cultural roots in the kitchen.“I was cooking more and more. I was making three-layer birthday cakes and catering for friends and their children’s parties every weekend. People started saying to me, ‘Do something about it!’ ”At 32, Ercan enrolled in LaSalle College’s culinary program, took her cooking to the next level, and dived headlong into a new career.“I announced to my friends everywhere: ‘I am changing my life. I am going back to school, and in the meantime I want to learn more, and I will do catering service from home. If you need anything, just call me!’ ”
Fisun Ercan’s borek, made with Swiss chard, spinach, herbs, ricotta and feta.
As Ercan’s delectable cuisine — all inspired by her childhood — became more and more popular, she outgrew her cramped kitchen.“Working from home became impossible. I was doing catering for 400 people from home. I said to my husband, ‘It’s not going to work. I am going to open up something.’ ”She initially looked for a catering kitchen, but found a space that was so big, she decided to create an even more ambitious project, and in 2006 Ercan inaugurated her Wellington St. restaurant Su.“People started to come in. Then the same people came the next Saturday, then slowly, word of mouth. We had a very good review and boom, it was a restaurant!”After years in the trenches at Su, where she continues to work, Ercan set out to find a way to come back full circle to her family roots. By happenstance, a 161-year-old farmhouse for sale outside St-Jean-sur-Richelieu caught her attention. She and Tulga snapped it up, and set about transforming it into a home. They will move in within a matter of days.
Fisun Ercan in 2010 at her Wellington St. restaurant Su, named for her daughter and inspired by the cuisine of her youth. “People started to come in. Then the same people came the next Saturday, then slowly, word of mouth. We had a very good review and boom, it was a restaurant!”
For our Beyond the Plate food adventure, inspired by the family picnics of Ercan’s childhood, we set out for the countryside and shared the first meal in the nearly finished sunroom off the farmhouse kitchen. The meal was replete with Turkish and local delicacies, served picnic-style as the midday light streamed in.The sun beams down on the expansive grounds where Ercan and her family plan to live off the land, with open fields awaiting cultivation. The place is a chef’s paradise.“You follow nature’s path all year round,” Ercan says. “Our table is always (based) around the calendar. I never looked for a slice of watermelon in January.”Listening to Ercan reveal the plans for her farm’s bounty — including private cooking classes in the farmhouse’s gourmand kitchen, as well as a soon-to-be-built barnwood restaurant on the premises — I hear Maya Angelou’s words, for I can’t take my eyes off of Ercan as she speaks.“There is not a single memory of my childhood that is not related to food,” she says. “My dream is to have a farm. I always thought it would be somewhere in the Mediterranean’s milder climates, but we found our small farm here in Quebec!”Related