Cousin's Incredible Vitality
3038 W. Irving Park
"I know now that cooked food is an addiction," Mehmet Ak says, explaining his decision to shutter his successful restaurant, Cousin's Turkish Cuisine, last summer. The previous fall he'd done a raw-food detox at some friends' urging--they claimed it could prevent cancer, but Ak, topped out at 235 pounds, was simply desperate to lose weight. Feeling super after the monthlong cleansing, he stuck to a raw diet apart from the occasional trespass--a slice of bread or pizza or, his weakness, crackers. In a year he'd lost 75 pounds, cut his cholesterol nearly in half, and run the Chicago Marathon. He's since gone 100 percent raw (or "living," the term preferred by raw foodies).
For eight months after his conversion Ak continued to run Cousin's, but he felt increasingly guilty. "Why should I try to make money on something that is not healthy?" he says he asked himself. Plus his heart just wasn't in working with meat any longer: "I lost my passion to go behind the grill and make the kebabs," he says.
This wasn't the first time Ak's life dramatically changed course. He left Turkey at 20 to "discover the world," he says, and landed in New York after months on the crew of a cargo ship. He got his feet on the ground, then set off again with plans to drive cross-country, but halted in Chicago one sunny spring morning. "I said, you know what, I'm going to stay here, just like that," he says. In 1990, having worked for several years at Italian Village and other restaurants, he opened the first incarnation of Cousin's in Lakeview. By 1994 he'd opened three more locations. Business was good, but four years later Ak was burned-out. "At the time I said, this is too much work, it's no good," he says. He sold all four restaurants and started over as a general contractor.
In 2002 he signed up for a personal development seminar called the Landmark Forum, a descendant of est, where he came to feel he'd been wrong to leave the kitchen. "Being a chef and serving people lights me up," he says. He opened a new Cousin's, with all-new recipes, on Irving Park in October 2002. It did well over the next two years, becoming a favorite of Reader Restaurant Raters. Regulars were disappointed to see the place shut down last July.
Ak spent the next several months educating himself about raw foods and developing a menu for what would become Cousin's Vitality. He attended Living Light International, a raw-food culinary institute in California, where he learned to make things like "tuna" simulated with sprouted almonds, sunflower seeds, celery, spices, and kelp powder. Afterward he tweaked the spices in certain dishes and converted some of his old Turkish recipes: in his hummus, for example, he swaps pureed zucchini for chickpeas, which have to be cooked; his tabbouleh uses soaked and sprouted quinoa rather than bulgur. To test-drive dishes and drum up excitement for the new place he hosted a series of potlucks for other raw-food enthusiasts.
At one of these an energetic young woman named Lisa Persico introduced herself. She told Ak she'd been raw for three years, and had also converted after years of struggling with her body image. "I would just drink coffee and smoke cigarettes; I was on that diet," she says. A few years earlier Persico's sister had badgered her to attend a lecture by raw-food guru David Wolfe. "I was like this the whole time," Persico says, raising an eyebrow and crossing her arms over her chest. "He comes out and says, 'Today's the best day ever!' and I was like, What? Is he kidding?" But a few things Wolfe said that day clicked with Persico. She bought his book and started reading it, cigarette in hand. Eventually she canceled all her subscriptions to beauty mags, quit her corporate PR job, and signed on to work as an independent contractor for Wolfe's line of living foods.
Ak, as it turned out, was already using Wolfe's raw cacao powder and nibs in his desserts, such as a chocolate mousse made with pears and figs. Persico offered to be his wholesale supplier. She also suggested the addition of "Incredible" to the restaurant's name and threw out some ideas for fresh decor. Before long she was part of the Cousin's makeover team. "It evolved very quickly into a closer-knit relationship," she says.
Ak gave Persico free rein. She replaced the mustard-colored walls, white table linens, throw pillows, and Turkish kilns with a color scheme of earth tones. The tables are now bare except for a shock of bright nut grass in a petite yellow vase on each; the chocolate brown walls, accented by aqua molding, are also currently bare. The ultraminimal look is temporary, though: Persico plans to hang shelves of thick ivy. "I want it to be almost like a jungle," she says, "that feeling of oxygen. My goal is to have it be a place with a lot of energy and life force."
The menu still nods to Ak's Turkish heritage, with "living mezes" like stuffed grape leaves, shepherd's salad, and house-marinated olives alongside new creations like "not tuna" wraps and minipizzas with avocado, mushrooms, olives, and almond cheese on flaxseed crackers that Ak makes with the help of two dehydrating cabinets. Mediterranean "pasta" has angel-hair made from zucchini, raw marinara, and "Parmesan" made from pine nuts; Ak makes mock feta and other cheeses with other ground seeds and nuts, which are as key to raw cuisine as veggies. A delicious wild cherry cheesecake contains cashews, dates, and raw agave nectar for sweetness; its crust is made of walnuts. Persico contributes rich hand-rolled raw-chocolate truffles.
Ak and Persico want to make Cousin's an education center, emporium, and juice bar in addition to a restaurant. "Forget Cooking" classes and demos are scheduled to start at the end of the month, and Persico's offering weekly and monthly prepared-meal packages. The picture wouldn't be complete without yoga, Saturday and Sunday mornings.
If Cousin's sounds similar to Karyn's Fresh Corner, Chicago's current raw-food mecca, that's fine with Ak and Persico. (And apparently with Karyn Calabrese, whose letter of welcome hangs on a bulletin board in the entry.) "We're not trying to reinvent the wheel here," Persico says. "We're trying to get people closer to what I like to say the truth is. They weren't kidding when they said eat your fruits and vegetables."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/A. Jackson.