By Sara Cooke
Self-described “old-school and opinionated” chef and business owner Mustafa Somar recalled answering questions on his restaurant’s Facebook page back in December when, on a whim, he inquired via post if patrons would have any interest in attending classes focused on cooking Mediterranean food. Within 24 hours, the post had received over 1600 “likes” and 84 comments.
And those numbers only grew.
Since that initial enthusiastic response, Somar has held a class every Saturday to a crowd of hopeful cooks who are eager to learn. The menu changes from class to class and features between five and 10 items pertaining to a specific theme. One week they cooked only Spanish food. Another week was “all about chicken” and the various ways of preparing it, including salad, smoked, made into broth, poached, stuffed and grilled.
One type of food you won’t find in the classes or at the restaurant? Fried. Somar’s background in Istanbul exposed him to fresh vegetables, seafood and meats at a young age and he has carried his early love of flavorful, nutritious food with him to the present day.
“I want to encourage people to go out of their comfort zones, try foods that are good for them and question what they’re buying.” He encourages shoppers to read product labels and taste foods and flavors that aren’t characteristic to southern cooking, things like yogurt, olive oil and quinoa – but that are delicious, fresh and healthy.
“What’s the worst that could happen?” he laughed, “You hate the food and never make it again.”
The cuisine Somar cooks in class mirrors what can be found at the restaurant – the freshest meats, seafood and vegetables, whole grains, with no unnecessary added ingredients or preservatives. They are what Somar calls “crap.” In fact, over 90 percent of the menu is gluten free.
Local resident Nichole Lubert attended one of the first classes and is already signed up to go back for another.
“Mustafa taught simple techniques like how to hold your fingers when you are chopping and how to properly wash vegetables…He showed me how to look at produce without blinders. I had never cooked or eaten a leek or bulgur before.”
It’s all about education for Somar and not just where nutrition is concerned. He begins each class with a geography lesson, as the chef refers to the laminated world map tacked to the wall and points out the Mediterranean region. He discusses the culture and the economics of food and things like the spice route.
“You may think you don’t know how to cook this way, “ Somar said, “but if someone holds your hand and shows you how, it’s not hard.”
Sherefé, named for the Turkish word for “cheers,” is family-owned and operated, and is located in the heart of downtown Fayetteville. The restaurant originally called a smaller space on Ramsey Street home. A year and a half ago, they relocated to their location in historic downtown. Floral curtains adorn the windows and Somar knows patrons by name. During the lunch rush he can be seen answering questions from cooks and servers about the specifics of ingredients and nutrition information.
After 33 years of traveling as a regional manager with Hilton hotels, Somar settled in North Carolina and made the jump to the food industry when he opened his own restaurant in 2004.
“When we moved here, there was no restaurant in Fayetteville that offered what we like to eat. So we started our own place that serves what we like.”
The “cooking school” is located in the original kitchen and the 20-person maximum class size keeps it small to fit comfortably in the intimate space. Students and teacher move between the kitchen and the small adjoining dining room, where healthy snacks like vegetables and nuts are displayed.
It isn’t surprising that teaching comes naturally to Somar, who spent most of his career training corporate employees. The chef is energetic, witty and full of knowledge about agriculture and seemingly of every stage of food production.
“One of the things that makes me want to go back for another class is Mustafa’s passion for teaching people about quality food,” explained Lubert, “He talked about what made good olive oil and what was just plain crap. He also talked about when buying more expensive meats or produce was important, and when it is not.”
Somar said his daughter laughs at him for the “cult” following he has acquired, referring to those, like Lubert, who return again and again. He plans to continue teaching as long as the interest is there.
In contrast to the fast-paced, eat-on-the-go tendencies of most Americans, Somar said that where he comes from, eating is social, is about relaxing with friends and is a long process.
“People regularly stop during the middle of their work day and enjoy a leisurely two-hour lunch.”
Once the cooking is done the whole class sits down, and in the true Mediterranean fashion, sips on wine and enjoys the company.
“How many award-winning chefs do you know who will give you recipes to dishes from their restaurants and tell you where to buy the ingredients?” Lubert laughs, “He gets a gold star in my book. I’ve learned that cooking nutritious, delicious meals for my family of five is not hard. Go! It’s worth every single penny.”
Classes are $50/person every Saturday from 1:00-4:00 p.m. and fill up quickly! Call or email the restaurant to sign up. Visit their website or “like” their Facebook page to see a list of upcoming classes or the daily specials.