By Douglas Groesser
Imagine sharing your culture and family cuisine in a foreign land. Imagine creating every part of that vision with your own hands and ingenuity. Imagine working together in a business with your family. And then imagine doing that all with the threat of a worldwide pandemic on the horizon. Let me introduce you to the Hettema family and their restaurant Istanbul Hawaii.
Ahu Hettema was born in Mersin, Turkey on the northeastern edge of the Mediterranean. While her mother, Executive Chef Nili, loved to cook using knowledge passed down through generations in her family, Ahu left Mersin for San Francisco at the age of eighteen searching for a new path for herself. She studied animation at college, but in the end didn’t feel it was a field she wanted to pursue. She got married, and her parents joined her in San Francisco. When her husband, Brandon, had to move to O‘ahu for work, Ahu and her parents came along. It was here that she found a new direction.
Landing on O‘ahu, Ahu felt at a loss for what to do next. Then, she started cooking with her mom at home. A dish called manti – hand-rolled mini pasta filled with meat or cheese and topped with a garlic yogurt – awakened something inside her to the joy of cooking. Another was Turkish Delight, gel starched colored jewels flavored with rose water, pistachios or walnuts. Her father, Aydin Bey, added his knowledge of lamb kebabs and ‘kunefe’, a warm gooey desert of shredded filo, hellim cheese, butter and syrup. Ahu felt joy and family connection in the kitchen, and she began to share their cooking. “I started to give food to our neighbors and our friends. They were the ones who told us we had to open a tent at the farmers’ market,” said Ahu.
The family started with a food truck and the food was so popular that the business quickly expanded. “We just started with one tent and that turned into two, and two tents turned into four and we realized we needed a commercial kitchen. It was not gonna work out in a small place,” she explained. In the end they boldly decided to directly transition to a restaurant so they could bring customers into their ‘home.’ However, it was not an easy transition. They ended up almost building and installing everything except the chairs and service ware. “I designed the whole place with my husband,” Ahu declared. “People come and say there’s so much detail in this place… It’s because we built it ourselves.”
Upon entering you immediately feel the Turkish vibe. A round six-foot copper and glass chandelier floats high above the eighteen-foot-long wooden bar and the rustic wooden dining tables. The open kitchen design allows customers to watch the food preparation in real time at a safe distance. Ahu even imported copper Turkish trays and dishes to serve the ‘meze,’ the six vegetarian appetizers. “I felt it was important to serve the food visually in the way they would be served in Turkey,” she said.
The family had to push back the restaurant opening to come together to literally build their dream. And then…Covid. The shutdown pushed that delay for months longer. It was scary and nerve-racking. Ahu knew they had the product and the service to appeal to the local population; they had loyal customers from their five years of serving at the markets. And now, they couldn’t deliver. With loans, debt, and rent adding up every day, the pressure to make it right and be a hit became paramount.
Finally, in July of 2020, Istanbul Hawaii in Kakaako opened to the public. Despite another four-week shutdown in August, the restaurant has been open six days a week to nightly sellouts, with distanced seating, both indoors and outdoors. Reservations usually fill up days in advance. Recently, Istanbul has also opened for lunch.
‘Ohana is everything to Ahu. She says that she would not have been able to succeed without the family’s support. Her husband is the architect and accountant. Her father, the engineer, carves his magic with ‘doner,’ a lamb roasted on a vertical spit with a caramelized exterior. Her mother, Chef Nili, creates homemade baklava and ‘su borek,’ a filo pastry with feta cheese served warm. Ahu inspires new creations for the menu. For the holidays she has created a lavender and rosemary turkey and for desert a baklava with pumpkin and pecans! How yummy does that sound?!?
The joy of sharing their rich culture and cuisine with people is what fuels the Hettema family. Their bountiful Turkish & Ottoman cuisine represents the seven diverse regions of Turkey, the Mediterranean and the Middle East with recipes that are authentic to that part of the world. Serving both street-style and elevated Turkish cuisine, Istanbul uses fresh, organic, and local ingredients whenever possible.
Istanbul has added another Turkish member to their ‘ohana whom the Still & Moving Center knows well, Murat Demirtas. Murat and the Hettemas first connected when they catered the food for his ‘Turkish Night’ extravaganza at the Still & Moving Center in July 2019. That night of dance, food and celebration of Turkish culture was a big hit. Murat now serves as the General Manager, showcasing his Turkish hospitality nightly at Istanbul Hawaii.
“We are very lucky because the food is fantastic. The location is fantastic and the people who come here are fantastic. So everything together is just perfect,” enthuses Murat.
Address: 1108 Auahi St STE 152, Honolulu, HI 96814
Telephone: (808) 772-4440