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DIY American Dream

Chef Ahu Hettema says the food of Turkey is Mediterranean, with Middle Eastern, Arab, Egyptian and Syrian influences.



On this Independence Day holiday, we remember the different threads of history, culture, and experience that are woven together in American life. National immigration issues play out every day in Honolulu, a notoriously difficult business environment in the best of times. On Honolulu's culinary scene, a Turkish family's dream of a restaurant is coming true, in spite of the pandemic.

Credit Noe Tanigawa / Hawai’i Public Radio
Hawai’i Public Radio
Chef Ahu Hettema, pictured here, and her mother, Chef Nili are the culinary masterminds behind Istanbul. Ahu's father contributed lamb on a vertical rotisserie when he joined the Istanbul team from Turkey. Ahu's uncles have owned restaurants in the Bay Area for years.

Remember dining out? Quite a few people were doing that recently at Istanbul restaurant on Kamake'e St. 

A trellis shades some outdoor tables where groups of two and three stretch back on their chairs. Inside, Brandon Hettema, marine engineer by trade/restauranteur by night, considers opening at all a mini miracle. Twelve contractors laughed at their budget  and the one they finally signed with, took off with the money after finishing about 30% of the job.

"Everything else  is made by us, my wife, my father-in- law and me."


Chef Ahu Hettema, credits youtube videos with showing them how to lay drywall, install wiring, hang doors, and more.  She says now, with a purifying air conditioner in place, disposable menus, diner temperature checks, and outdoor seating, guests can relax.


"When they sit down, they can take their mask off and forget about Covid and just enjoy our cuisine," she says.


Chef Ahu makes kunefe, a flaky cheese pastry, and manti, a dumpling with local lamb and beef, with a sauce of burnt peppers, yogurt, and minted garlic.


"You just have to do it by hand, sometimes it takes five of us,  My mom wants to make the original food. She doesn't want to cut any labor costs. I even tell her, just know we're not going to make any money on this, which is okay but I just want you to know..."


Istanbul Restaurant started in a tent five years ago, then two tents at Kailua and Ward farmers markets. They did  pop ups, then four tents at special events, plus catering.

"People love our food, we appreciate that they support us, they support our family. We are thrilled by the demand and curiosity we receive. Even the times we thought we can't make this work, we received emails. I thought we were not going to make it."


"I like Honolulu," says Chef Nili, Chef Ahu's mother.  When she arrived, Chef Nili said, Ahu, do your own food, your own culture.

"I like Hawai'i people," says Chef Nili. "It's the same family culture, everybody talks about their ohana. In Turkey, it's like this too. So for us, it feels like we're family."


The restaurant feels like a contemporary living space, with a casual bar on the left as you enter, and a large open kitchen filling the back. Chef Ahu says they questioned themselves repeatedly through ten months of lease negotiations, and finally signed in May 2019. They've been paying rent ever since. 

Lack of funds caused a one year delay in opening, and along the way, they said they exhausted about every avenue for a business loan. Hawai'i National Bank came through finally. The person who did their floors helped out, and the plumber, they said, pitched in like family. 


In the end, Chef Ahu finds the location perfect. They're between two farmers markets, across from a major grocer, so local farmers, fishermen, and ranchers have no trouble including them in deliveries. There's parking directly behind in Ward Village.


About the recipes, Ahu continues, "My mom says, I didn't learn from school. I learned from my mother, my grandmother, my mother-in- law, my mother-in-law's grandmother, my dad's father, it is a collection of history and story comes with what I'm doing."


Ahu translated as Chef NIli continued,"My mom says I wanted to come live in U.S. because I was away from my children, especially Ahu. A small story," says Ahu, "I couldn't go back to Turkey because of a problem with US Immigration and Customs Service."


Chef Ahu spent ten years and a hundred thousand dollars on visa issues She moved to Hawai'i about seven years ago and her mother joined her 2 years later. 

"My mom helped me to go through that. That is why I started cooking," says Ahu. "It's super therapeutic for me, cooking next to my mom, it makes me feel very happy. That is why we started this business. We find happiness and peace in cooking and that grew so much now we can share this with people." 


Istanbul is currently open for dinner service only, take out is coming later in July 2020. The Istanbul ohana now all have their green cards and look forward to American citizenship next year. 

Noe Tanigawa covered art, culture and ideas for two decades at Hawaiʻi Public Radio.
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