Editor’s Note: New Orleans is more of a matriarchal city than most. Yes, patriarchy exists here, but New Orleans women have held influential positions in families, businesses, the community and the arts in numbers rivaling few other U.S. cities. So much of what makes New Orleans such a fabulous city is undergirded by the (sometimes unrecognized) hard work and sharp intelligence of its female residents. Exhibit #1: Oretha Castle Haley. #2: Ella Brennan. #3: Mahalia Jackson. #4: Joyce Montana. #5: Ruby Bridges. #6: Leah Chase. #7 +++: Pick anything you care about in New Orleans, and you can pretty much guarantee there’s a woman behind it, supporting the work through sweat and, sometimes, tears. This summer, we highlight a few of the city’s unique female voices. Next up in our series: Once Tulane economics student, now prolific restaurateur, Fatma Aydin, owner of Fatma’s Cozy Corner in the Tremé.
Who: Fatma Aydin
What: Owner and proprietor of Fatma’s Cozy Corner
Where: Tremé, on the corner of Ursulines and North Robertson
New Orleans has a way of turning plans upside down. She likes to flip what you think you came here to do on its head and then suck you into it, until one day you realize you’re even more invested than you bargained for at the beginning, albeit doing something completely different. This Crescent City alchemy worked on Fatma Aydin, who arrived here from Turkey in 1986 to study economics at Tulane.
Tulane may not have worked out, but it led Fatma to Delgado for ESL classes while she opened several restaurants and a club—all before she went to New York to finish her degree in Design Management at Parson’s School of Design. Tireless and bored easily, Fatma has helped open seven other local restaurants in addition to running her own places. Though it wasn’t the original plan, some of her family has followed Fatma here from Turkey: her mother comes for five months out of the year, and her brother’s wife, Sona, works the counter at Fatma’s most days.
Next in line to take over Fatma’s local restaurant empire are her two Dobermans—Zoana, the girl whose name means “queen of the bayou,” and Kanka, the boy, whose name means “best friend” in Turkish and “blood brother” in the American Indian language that Fatma’s husband knows. Over jazz playing softly through the Cozy Corner’s overhead speakers, Fatma spoke about being a foreign-born woman in New Orleans’ restaurant industry, the importance of food in every culture, and, very surprisingly, the internet sensation known as Salt Bae.
On her start in New Orleans and why she stayed
Fatma: I already had restaurants and a club before I finished school at Parson’s. Of course, my school life went so long because I was barely making it to school, anyway. I was busy! I was taking very limited credits, year by year! It was getting harder and harder. I had to get away from the business to finish.
Nora: And your brother managed the restaurants while you were in New York?
Fatma: Yes, and after that, my sister was here, my other brother was here, they were all here. Because this was my reason to come to America. I didn’t care what school I finished in. I promised my parents I was gonna go and then finish. My mother said, ‘Don’t come back if you don’t finish!’ So I had to, no matter what.
Nora: But then you stayed here, you didn’t go back to Turkey.
Fatma: No. If it wasn’t New Orleans that I’d come to, probably I wouldn’t go back. But I love New Orleans. The more I live here, the more I love it. Even before I’d finished school, I’d started a life — a career, making money, making friends. If I’d gone back [to Turkey], I’d have to start all over again. Why would I want to do that? […] And I love it here — the culture, the life, the people.
Nora: Sounds like me! I don’t wanna leave, either.
Fatma: There you go! For people who come to New Orleans and start something, it’s very hard to leave. A lot of my friends left, and then they came back.
Nora: It’s the culture, like you said! Is it very different from Turkey?
Fatma: Yes! Turkey is, first of all, a Muslim country. Even if it’s a democratic country, it’s still a Muslim country, so that affects a lot of things. It’s hard for women to start a business, especially 31 years ago. Even women who graduate from college, they get married and sit at home and make babies! That was never my intention, to sit at home and make babies. No!
Nora: Did your parents want you to do that, you think?
Fatma: Of course! They pressure you for that, of course! But I just don’t understand why they go through college and go through the hell and then go sit at home—what is it?! They have a college degree in [being a] mother? So that was another thing, if I’d gone back, probably I’d have a family and several children. Oh, God. […]
So I didn’t want to be part of that culture. After you go and see another culture that has an easier life to live, then you do not want to go back there. Unless I was a very good Muslim woman—I never did practice Islam—if I was part of that culture, then probably I would have been looking forward to going back, or I would have gone back, probably. But I was never that person.
Nora: It never suited you. I feel the same sometimes, about children.
Fatma: Do I want to bring children into this world, where every day I have to worry about what happens to them? Then I have to work to make his or her life better so nobody can touch them, then I die and what will happen to that person?! We have a zillion kids [who are] hungry and dying in the world. I will donate to the children; I do a lot of things for them, but I’m not gonna go make one. No. I have two dogs, I’m worried enough for them!
On opening a business as a Turkish woman and American-born racism
Nora: Tell me about starting your businesses here, as a woman.
Fatma: Two things. Being a woman and starting a business, and also being a foreign woman with a business. Oh, yeah. I had to have a lot of fights and falling back. It’s a lot of struggle to get where you are. Because I had a brother here, I would always put him in the front, and I would stay behind.
Nora: But you ran the behind-the-scenes?
Fatma: Oh, yeah! Even when we opened our first restaurant, they wouldn’t give us a liquor license in the French Quarter because we weren’t American citizens. Then we worked and became citizens, and we went and applied, and they still wouldn’t give it to us. A lot of people are racist in this city. Even if they won’t show it, they are.
We were American citizens, and even if we weren’t American citizens, we were paying taxes, we were very successful.
I’d never been faced with racism until I came to this country. There’s nothing like that in Turkey. There was not even a word for it! I never thought I would have those things that would block you, so when it comes, you don’t know how to fight with that. Then you have to step back and learn; then you have to go forward. It takes effort and learning and asking for help. Until then, you get a lot of pushback.
Nora: That takes persistence!
Fatma: Well, we wanted to make it! […] Men are first. I think that’s everywhere in the world. My weakness is: being from a Muslim country, being a woman, and not knowing the language very well, and not knowing how to defend myself and not knowing how to protect myself in a new world that [I don’t know]. Of course it’s a lot of things we had to struggle with, and it took many years, but besides that, there’s a lot of beautiful people I’ve met, and a lot of beautiful people who have helped me.
So I’m a part of a community that I’ve never even dreamed of. There are a lot of ups and downs, but I never regret [anything]. I learned how to fight! And the time came that people wanted to open restaurants, and they didn’t know what to do, even if they were a man. I would step in there and open their restaurant in eight days! I know everything about it now. But if it was so easy to do, I probably wouldn’t have known any of those things. It’s all a learning process.
On cooking and food in Turkey
Nora: Did you cook a lot at home in Turkey, before you came here? Is that where you learned everything?
Fatma: Yes, my mother. Girls have to learn how to cook in Turkey. If you don’t know how to cook, you probably won’t get married; nobody would think you’re a good woman. Now it’s not like that anymore, but when I was growing up, you had to learn how to cook. Especially because I was the older girl, I had to learn how to cook, and I taught my sister how to cook and it goes on after that. Whenever my mother was in the kitchen, it was girls in the kitchen. […] My mother owned tea plantations, so she would leave in the summertime, four months out of the year, and I would be in charge of cooking for everyone.
My dad owned restaurants all his life. He would say, ‘Come with me,’ and my mother would say ‘You cook! Learn how to cook! Don’t call her into restaurants!’ This is how I learned. And then, I love cooking. Feeding people and making them happier, it relaxes me. Putting effort into it and thinking about what to cook…it relaxes my mind, too.
Nora: And wherever you go, it’s bringing more people into the community that you start, by having food and a space for people to enjoy it together.
Fatma: Yes! People have to eat. The food, it’s a conversational element of our life. You go to the dinner table to spend a good time with people. So opening a food place, it brings together everybody, no matter what color, what religion, [or] what your beliefs are. It’s a dinner table, no matter what. It’s a happy place. That’s why, I think, no matter where I go — and I’ve been to a lot of places — like here [gesturing to restaurant location], nothing was around here, now it’s a community. Everybody comes here; they love to come here. People meet people here. Your stomach always goes to your heart.
Nora: What’s your favorite thing to eat?
Fatma: Charbroiled oysters are my favorite. Oysters Rockefeller, Oysters Bienville, or just charbroiled oysters. I’ll go anywhere for those. I like Pasca Manale’s or Felix’s, near where I live on the lake.
Nora: No oysters in Turkey?
Fatma: No oysters in Turkey. We have a lot of mussels in Turkey. Mussels are huge! They even have kiosks on the street everywhere. They have fried mussels. They put them in a beer batter and then fry it, and they put rice inside of the mussels’ shell. You open it, squeeze the lemon, and eat it on the street.
On Nusret (aka Salt Bae)
Nora: Who’s your dream dining partner?
Fatma: Nusret. He’s a Turkish chef who went to Brazil to study meat. I’m not a very big meat eater, but I like his restaurants. He has restaurants everywhere. His speciality is that he seasons the meat like this—
[Fatma lifts her arm and pretends to sprinkle salt on a piece of meat, like this:]
Nora: That guy! I know who that is! Salt Bae! Have you seen those videos?!
Fatma: Yes! He’s Turkish. He’s from my town. I want to eat with him so we can laugh and we can make jokes, and I bet we can have a great time. I bet if he cooks the meat, I [would] probably would eat more of it.
Nora: I bet. I only know him as Salt Bae!
Fatma: Everybody knows him as Salt Bae, but his name is Nusret! […] He has restaurants in Houston and New York! My dad owned one of the famous restaurants he worked at in Turkey. Then he went to Brazil to study meat, and I think he did very well for himself. And he looks so cute.
Nora: With his sunglasses on!
Fatma: Yes, in the kitchen. I want to eat what he cooks. When I was growing up, my family had a lot of animals. They don’t do that much now, but back then, they butchered their own animals. Then they made a wood fire outside in the yard, and then as it burned, there were hot coals right there in the middle. They would slice the meat — I don’t remember what part now — and add just a little bit of salt, then you throw it into that hot fire and it cooks it. They grab it with the long tongs, hit it on a rock to get rid of the coal on it, then you eat that meat. You’ve never eaten meat like that in your life. Just unbelievable.
But after that, we grew up and nobody did that anymore. Life got easier and everybody started buying meat. You never could find meat that tasted like that again. Then I gave up—what’s the point? I’m gonna eat meat just because I wanna eat meat? No!