It only takes one table to start a restaurant. At least, it does if you’re Busra Erkara. The food and culture writer/editor founded Prince Sabahaddin—a pop-up Turkish breakfast spot, which she runs out of her apartment—with a new set of dishes, a strong sense of detail, and one seafoam table, where she offered seatings throughout the day. (It helped that the table looked great on her Instagram.)
On a recent Sunday, Erkara prepared breakfast at the same table, now at her new Queens apartment. Over meticulously-arranged dishes of every size and function—shallow bowls for jam and honey, a saucer for tea, plates of varying blues piled with cheeses, nuts, vegetables—Erkara discussed the origins of Prince Sabahaddin, how she learned to cook, and the effect that a meal can have on one’s psychology.
Before we left, she wrapped whole leaves of sage in a blue-and-white napkin and tied the bundle off with twine. Her eye for specificity was, again, astounding. “It’s great as a tea,” she explained cavalierly, unaware that she had just made something beautiful out of what would usually be stuffed into a Ziploc bag. I placed my bundle in my purse, careful not to change its shape.
ON PRINCE SABAHADDIN, A POP-UP BRUNCH SPOT
Prince Sabahaddin began while I was still working at BULLETT Magazine. Producing a magazine requires really long hours, and you’re lucky if you even have time to make food for yourself. You really miss cooking for yourself and having a good meal—or at least I do. So, after every issue close at BULLETT, I would make Turkish breakfast for myself at my cousin’s apartment, which is where I lived at the time. That was also when Instagram was taking off—I think it was 2011—and the first thing I did was post photos. I think everyone had like five followers, including me. When I moved into another apartment, I kept making breakfasts and taking photos of them. Instagram kept getting bigger, and people started asking if they could come over for breakfast.
At the back of my mind, I always had the idea to open a cafe or a restaurant. I loved the 19th century Ottoman aesthetic. But then I started writing about food, and I realized how much commitment and money it would take to start a proper restaurant. So I told myself, maybe I’ll just start doing it out of my apartment! And that’s how Prince Sabahaddin began.
News traveled by word of mouth. I also had an initial mailing list, and I signed people up to it if I thought that they would like it. The first official sittings were all with friends of friends, where I knew at least one person in every group. I also gave out referral cards that said “this card invites you to Prince Sabahaddin” and I told people to give it to someone that they thought would like the food. That kept it safe, and kept it to people who were actually interested.
I served the meals in my bedroom, on this table near my bed. I liked how intimate it made the meal, how it felt like having breakfast in your hotel room. But there was always an initial awkwardness. People would ask lots of questions. I had a hard time getting people past the living room/kitchen and into my room, because they really wanted to talk about what was about to happen. So I would talk to them a bit, and then seat them. I would first bring the small plates, and as they were eating them would prepare the main. I always gave background information on the dishes, explaining the history or origin of an ingredient.
Because I only served at the one table, I created time slots for customers: 10 am, 11:30 am, 1 pm, and 2:30. I mostly did it on Sundays and it was always fully booked. Often, people would comment on Instagram photos at random times, saying “we’re right in front of the spot, where is it?” because they thought it was a restaurant. Meanwhile I’d be in my pajamas!
I’m currently deciding on whether to continue Prince Sabahaddin. What made the meal nice was enjoying it in a home, and I don’t know if people will come all the way out to Queens. I’ve started talking with two possible spaces in Manhattan and Brooklyn where I could reboot the idea in a larger scale. I’d bring the ingredients there, cook and serve.
I still can’t find Turkish breakfast here in New York, which is why I think I could do it on a larger scale. It’s this really amazing thing that only some people know about, and it’s not available. Also, often when it’s done on a commercial scale, it becomes so Americanized. There’s only one good Turkish restaurant that I go to in New York, Sip Sak. It’s all the way uptown, and they don’t serve breakfast.
ON PREPARING A TURKISH BREAKFAST
Prince Sabahaddin always had a menu. The initial table spread was for two people—it’s really good to share—and getting a main made it a full meal. You wouldn’t need to eat anything else for the rest of the day. The Turkish Breakfast usually includes two to four types of cheese, two different types of olives, different jams and sweet things. I served them in different combinations, though people usually always got the biggest spread. It was also really affordable considering you were eating at a private space.
To prepare, I would try to take the Friday off, and clean the apartment and shop for ingredients. In the evening I would prep for the next day’s menu. If there was anything that involved chopping without taking away its freshness, I would do that either really early in the morning or the night before. I always asked people if they were vegan- or gluten-free. I usually prepared three seasonal mains.
When I lived in Brooklyn, I would shop on Atlantic Ave. I love Sahadi’s and all the small shops along the way toward Barclay’s Center. If I have someone coming to town from Turkey, I ask them to bring me stuff—especially cheese. I get fresh produce from the farmer’s market and basic necessities from Trader Joe’s.
Today, I prepared a dish called Cilbir, which means eggs in Armenian. It’s a poached egg, with garlic-yogurt and sage butter. I made the sage butter myself with sage that my boyfriend brought back from Turkey. To make it, you melt the butter, add half a teaspoon of paprika, half a teaspoon of Aleppo pepper, and twelve fresh leaves of sage. Keep it over the heat until it begins to sizzle, and take it away before it gets bitter. Originally this recipe didn’t have sage butter or the flowers but I thought that both would be good additions.
ON LEARNING TO COOK
I started cooking complete meals when I was 17, but I grew up helping my mom in the kitchen. When I was 17 I moved to the US from Eskişehir—three hours from Istanbul—to do a year abroad, but of all places, I went to high school in Cleveland, Ohio. The family I lived with was not into cooking, so I had to learn how to cook my own food. Looking back, everything tasted weird, especially fruits and vegetables. I’m a vegetarian—I’ve been one for fifteen years now—and the vegetables just didn’t taste right. I think it’s because they are shipped, never fresh.
Living there, I made a lot of Turkish food. In downtown Cleveland they had a middle-eastern neighborhood where I could buy spices and the basic stuff that I’d need. It was otherwise hard to find ingredients.
I moved back to Turkey to go to college. While in college, I lived in Uppsala, Sweden for eight months as an exchange student, which was another difficult food city, because I was there in the winter and for a vegetarian all they had was root vegetables.
I was my mother’s sous-chef growing up. I would chop things, hang out in the kitchen with her, watch her. She assigned me all the tasks that would take a lot of time, like picking parsley or dill leaves apart from their stems, or going through the rice to remove any dirt or particles from it. I liked doing the work. I still find it meditative.
In my family, you’re not allowed to have a shitty breakfast on a Sunday. We have a tradition of making Sunday breakfast all together. We sit down together and eat for two or three hours, just nibbling. It’s so delicious.
ITEMS IN HER KITCHEN
There’s more space in my new kitchen. It feels nice to be able to move things around, to take up room if a recipe is a two-fold process. I’m trying to work with more recipes from cookbooks, because in my old apartment I was cooking stuff that I already knew well.
When I go to Istanbul I bring back tea, a lot of herbs and spices, a shit ton of green olives—you can get them vacuum-packed—cheese, and jams that my grandma or my mom makes.
I bought this teapot in Turkey two years ago. You can put it directly on the stovetop, although it used to have another part to it that burned out because it was aluminum. I bought a couple of them because I thought they would make cute gifts.
I have this tomato knife from Turkey that cuts without making the seeds spill. I get super pissed if people use it to cut anything other than tomatoes.
When I first decided to do Prince Sabahaddin, I asked my mom for seed money and bought a set of dishes and cutlery that I would only use for customers. I also thought it would make people feel safer health–wise. It felt like the right thing to do. The blue-bordered plates on the table are from that time. I buy or find a lot of kitchen stuff like that. I really like Broadway Panhandler on Astor Place. It’s family-owned, you find all this really useful stuff.
On the weekdays, I try to have breakfast before I go to the office. That’s one thing I really like. I put the coffee on the broiler, get dressed while it brews, and come back and fix something and eat it.
I go through the whole day dreaming about coming back home and to the kitchen. I love how food is this quick accessible thing that can instantly change your psychology. You know how you have those moments where you take a bite out of something and you just know that today will be a really good day? Of course money and access is involved—not all foods are accessible to every person on earth—but in some way I think everyone has their own version of it.
I want to read more about the history of food, about how a food or ingredient traveled. I was working on a story about food trucks in New York for a magazine in Istanbul, and I learned that—you know all those Halal carts in Midtown? They first came into existence after the Gulf War, because a lot of Iraqi people migrated to NY. A lot of them became cab drivers, and they were looking for places to eat lunch on-the-go, and that’s how the first Halal carts appeared, to serve them. And now they serve all of Midtown!