We first met Naz at a breakfast meeting that she had thoughtfully catered. Intrigued by her food, style, and personality, we were eager to get a closer look at her personal and professional life. A designer by trade, a chef + caterer by passion, and a mother on top of it all, Naz does a little bit of everything. She has a meticulous yet laid back approach to life, which comes across in the work she creates (food and design alike), and in the way she speaks about it all.
We caught up with Naz in her Brooklyn home to capture her process in the kitchen, and came to understand that whether you’re dealing with food, kids, clothing or designs, simplicity is key.
You’re a bit of a jill of all trades, but can you first tell me a little about your work as a designer? When did you get started?
As a kid, I painted a lot, I used to skip classes and hang out with my art teacher, preparing for school exhibitions. I owned many magazines, their pages were cut up and made into collages. I always wanted to study arts or design. I studied Graphic Design at Bilkent University in Ankara. I moved to Istanbul and worked for a small design firm. Then moved to New York and attended School of Visual Arts’ MFA Design Program. My first job after graduating was at a company called Number Seventeen. It was run by two friends, and great designers, I learned a lot from them.
You’re originally from Turkey, did you feel that moving to New York was crucial for your career or did your move happen more organically?
After college, I really felt like spending time in a different country. And I wanted to keep studying. While in Istanbul, I started looking into schools abroad with my boyfriend who is also a designer. We both applied to SVA and got an acceptance. We moved, not really knowing what to expect. We enjoyed the program, started working, got married, we stayed.
Do you have a particular philosophy when it comes to design?
Make it clear, simple, beautiful and fresh but not trendy. Tell a story.
What has been the most challenging aspect of your design career thus far?
I am a very methodical person, sometimes it is hard for me to shake off my rigor and create spontaneously. Also, I am married to the best designer I know.
In addition to designing, you’re also a cook. How did that happen?
I went through a phase when I ate and cooked so little. Then I recovered to find that eating and cooking was all I ever cared about. I spent my all my down time rummaging through cookbooks and grocery stores, preparing dinner for friends. I took a break from my job, went to the International Culinary Center in SoHo for 6 months, followed by stages in restaurants. But to be honest, I couldn’t manage to commit to the lifestyle that I was so excited about to begin with. I felt too old and distracted by other fragments of my life. So at some point I started freelancing as a designer again. The love for food and cooking remained, it was interesting to apply what I learned in restaurants to home cooking. Then there was a brief period when I delivered sandwiches in Brooklyn that I meticulously wrapped and labeled. And more recently I’ve started to cater lunch occasionally to companies that happen to mostly be in creative fields.
Would you say there are certain similarities between designing and cooking that people might not immediately recognize?
Nowadays, you read menus that list all of the ingredients in a dish including quite esoteric ones. I am totally fine with that if it has a purpose and you can see and taste each and the combination is wondrous. Some chefs do this brilliantly. I hope I could. This is what good design is. And then sometimes in a similar setting, you end up with a one-note, overly seasoned muddle. This is bad design, even when it is made with good ingredients. I guess knowing where to stop is crucial to both practices.
High-end dining is changing, restaurants that really matter right now (at least in cities like New York) put a lot of thought into the ingredients they use, and present them in a very candid way. There is more storytelling, less show. Also a great deal of respect and camaraderie within their kitchens. It really makes me think that now is the time to really blur the line between great chefs and great designers, or restaurants and studios. They are after the same ideals, and more connected than ever before.
Both designing and cooking are very creative outlets, how does your work translate to your every day life?
My everyday life is sometimes a mess and there might not be time to cook or live as creatively as I would have liked. I try to make do with whatever is in the fridge, trusting that it would be plain but good anyways, I am quite picky about groceries. I respect makers and suppliers of good food, as much as I respect good designers. I hope the kids will too. I always talk to them about beauty of a strawberry, a shoe, a painting, a car.
Is there influence on your personal style from your work?
I like basics, a muted palette, accent pieces and a just a little makeup. I love jewelry that is small and subtle, and feel naked without any. It could be said that my cooking follows the same aesthetic but my design work could at times get bolder and more colorful.
On top of all of this, you’re also a mom. How do you manage to balance everything?
When my first baby, Aziz, was born, I stopped working. I was lucky to be able to do that and spend all my time with him for about two years, I was completely under his spell. Now I remember those days as being lazy, sweet and rewarding even though it didn’t always feel like that at the time. After he started preschool, there was more time for myself, yet it took a while to commit to jobs. My second baby, Ada, was a different story. She seamlessly blended into our already chaotic life, and this time I kept working and I had help. Now, they are both not babies anymore and it feels like I have arrived at a good place. I try to finish working around 5, do the school pick up, and hopefully there is still time to take a stroll in the park before heading home to prepare dinner. Some nights the kids stay up pretty late but that is fine with us.
I am a huge multi-tasker, which helps, but not always, sometimes I feel the need to focus on one thing at a time very strongly. Then of course, there are moments I get completely overwhelmed and feel like cursing and screaming and crying out loud but they are usually followed by a break, to sit down with the kids and have a casual conversation. Aziz says a sweet thing, Ada practices her kissing skills and it feels quiet inside me again.
Bottom line is, I guess it is OK to lose it sometimes. Your family will understand.
Did your work change at all after becoming a mom, in terms of style or technique?
I found new sources of inspiration. It’s very stimulating to watch children grow up, make sense of images, learn and use languages. I was happy to find myself in the world of children’s books, I definitely have favorites and I love reading them with Aziz and Ada. I also now have to give engaging answers to the most fundamental questions, constantly, so hopefully it makes me a better storyteller.
What’s your biggest source of inspiration these days?
I have been reading a cookbook written by Margaret Wood, Georgia O’Keeffe’s companion/cook at her Abiquiú home in the late 70s. They met when O’Keeffe was ninety, she was tending an organic garden overflowing with heirloom varieties, milling her own flour, buying eggs and honey from her neighbors. She never dined out, her meals were light and healthy and always elegant. She fried locust flowers and ate raw garlic slices on buttered bread. She wore white dresses in summer and black ones in winter, a brooch with her initials “GOK”, designed by Alexander Calder. She told Atwood, “you carry your good times with you. If you don’t make your own good time, you might not have it.”
Being as busy as you are, how important is comfort and practicality in your wardrobe?
I am into practical, easy clothing no matter how busy I am. I am not a big fan of layering, the less material on me, the better I feel. I love dresses in summer, but never wear them in winter. I dislike sweatpants but I am fond of loose linen pants, like ones made by Black Crane that I wear all the time, especially when I was attached to newborns. I am shy about patterns but I love horizontal stripes. My wardrobe is pretty small, I am good at editing down.
Are there any other creative endeavors you’re thinking of pursuing?
I would love cook more thematically. I would love to design a cookbook.
What’s your favorite dish to make?
Rice pilaf, Turkish style. The rice is soaked first, then fried, then boiled. May sound simple but it took time to master. It never gets old.
Is there any dish you’ve yet to perfect?
Many, of course. I am weak on desserts. One night I was trying to make a yoghurt panna cotta and it wasn’t really working. I started over three times, went to bed at 4am, it was still just OK, and I was just disappointed. I couldn’t eat panna cotta for a while.
What’s your favorite thing to do when you’re not working?
Grocery shopping. Sitting on the grass with my kids. Riding in the car with my husband with good music and good conversation while they are asleep in the back.