Vegan Community Kitchen, 803 East Williams Street, Apex, 919-372-5027; www.facebook.com/vegancommunitykitchenNC
When Sadiye Sezenol arrives at her restaurant, the other storefronts in Apex’s Plaza 55 shopping center—a Mexican grocery store, Enterprise Rent-a-Car, Subway—are dark. 4:00 a.m. isn’t an unusual start time for pastry chefs, but since Sezenol left her job at SearStone, an upscale retirement community in Cary, she’s up this early not to make cheesecake, but to bake “meat” crafted from grains, vegetables, and flour. The slices and patties are destined for kebabs, burgers, and gyros at Vegan Community Kitchen, which she opened in the former Sweetcheeks Bakery space last week.
Opening a restaurant requires a certain leap of faith, but particularly a vegan restaurant in a nondescript suburban strip mall, and one that specializes in Turkish cuisine, which tends to be meat-heavy. But Sezenol has always dreamed of opening her own restaurant, and she believes in the power of her food to heal, make people happy, and bring them together.
In 2008, Sezenol and her husband, Akin, and daughter, Cansu, moved from Bursa in northwestern Turkey to Huntington Beach, California where Cansu pursued additional college education and Sezenol, a former school teacher, enrolled in culinary classes. While the family arrived in the U.S. with money, Sezenol says that because they lost most of it during the economic recession, they decided to move somewhere with a lower cost of living and where she and her husband could retire. After reading a Forbes article about Cary’s ranking as a top place to retire, Sezenol and her husband visited, fell in love with the area, and relocated in 2010.
Fast forward to March 2014, when Sezenol’s husband was diagnosed with a rare, aggressive form of lymphoma. He began chemotherapy the day after his diagnosis, and on his dietitian’s recommendation that he try a protein-rich vegan diet, Sezenol overhauled her husband’s diet. She made him fresh green juice and fruit juice daily and began substituting in seitan (also known as wheat gluten, the main protein in flour) for meat.
Despite Turkish people’s affinity for meat, veganism wasn’t completely foreign to Sezenol. Her sister, Oya Toris, had become vegan a couple years earlier and opened a vegan restaurant, Community Kitchen, in Istanbul in 2012. Here, Toris perfected her seitan recipe, which combines wheat gluten with lentils and seeds, as well as the herbs and spices found in Turkish kebabs, particularly the Iskender kebab which hails from their hometown. The dish consists of thinly sliced meat served atop pita bread and topped with tomato sauce and yogurt, but pleasantly chewy seitan slices stand in nicely and the “yogurt” sauce is made from rice. (It’s also a signature dish on Vegan Community Kitchen’s menu.)
Akin lived for another four and a half years.
“I think the food saved his life,” Sezenol says. “Food can save your life—it’s a treatment.”
But Sezenol isn’t here to evangelize veganism; she wants to nourish people and make them happy, whether they’re vegan or not, by serving freshly prepared, flavorful food that happens to be plant-based.
Plenty of omnivores eat vegetables as part of a balanced diet, and many vegans don’t want to eat something that approximates meat anyway. Turkish food, like other Mediterranean cuisines, also includes several vegan dishes. The first thing you see when you walk into Vegan Community Kitchen is a deli case of bright salads—pink coins of radishes and pickled turnips, a duo of sweet potatoes and beets, and a medley of green beans, chickpeas, and olives. You’ll also find other Turkish staples, such as falafel bolstered with quinoa, and a trio of hummus that includes a silky classic chickpea, one with roasted beet, and another with avocado.
But Sezenol also respects where she lives and how hard it can be to change one’s traditions, so she added more familiar items such as broccoli mac and cheese, a loaded sweet potato, and burgers.
Sezenol also wants to make vegan food more approachable by changing the perception that it’s expensive. She laments that often, the vegan choices on restaurant menus are more expensive, and cites the Impossible Burger, a lab-created vegan patty made with potato and wheat proteins, as an example. Here, Sezenol crafts her burger patty with whole ingredients such as lentils, green peas, garlic, and sundried tomato; the “cheeseburger,” topped with a slice of dairy-free cheese costs $7, the kebab-topped “kitchen burger” runs $9.
And, she points out, even if the burger at other places is vegan, the bun likely isn’t, and the food is probably prepared in the same space as meat. Food prepared in a 100 percent vegan kitchen is a bonus for many vegans—and because Sezenol’s kitchen contains no animal products, it is also halal, and she has plans to become certified kosher, too.
This is important for members of the international community, many of whom moved to the area for jobs and for whom meat is not a part of their culture or regional diet. But no matter how or why you come to the table, Sezenol is certain of one thing.
“This is happy food. I see people gathered around the tables, asking each other what they ordered and sharing their experience about vegan food,” Sezenol says. “They’re talking to one another and building community. Food brings people together.”
As is the case with many who work in hospitality, feeding others and making them happy brings Sezenol joy. But I also sense that this journey has been healing for her, too. In Turkey, the anniversary of a loved one’s death is traditionally celebrated by sharing food to remember them by. This past Saturday, at the end of the restaurant’s soft opening and on the one-year anniversary of her husband’s death, Sezenol gave her customers rice and beans, her husband’s favorite dish.