Cooking up a futureAt Salam, a Turkish restaurant neighboring the Muslim mosque in Itaewon, Ali Cona is busy laying raw slabs of beef on the kitchen table after unwrapping them from protective paper.
On this day, only a Korean woman and a blond-haired foreigner are here, nibbling on marinated cubes of meat known as kabobs at separate tables, cups of sweet but strong Turkish coffee within hand’s reach.
“On the weekends the restaurant is packed with customers but on weekdays there’s not many people coming in,” says Kim Jeong-hyo, an older woman behind the counter. She is owner Jeong Zakee’s mother.
Mr. Zakee, who converted to Islam in his teens, runs the eatery with help from just about all of his family members, including his brother and brother-in-law.
“When our family first started this restaurant most of our customers were Turkish or Arabic but today we have more Koreans coming in, and this is mostly attributed to our chef,” says Ms. Kim with a smile.
Though they’re longtime fans of Italian spaghetti, Seoulites in recent years have ventured to taste exotic cuisines of Greece, Vietnam, India and many points in between.
Even when the tables are empty, Mr. Cona, 43, rarely leaves the kitchen. He prefers to dote on his neatly arranged piles of vegetables, and tend to the side dishes he’s prepared ahead of time.
A Muslim, Mr. Cona tends to be quite reserved, and barely stops for a moment’s rest. Ms. Kim, who often mans the cash register, confirms that their chef is a workaholic, who spends nearly all of his time in the narrow kitchen filled with the aromas of Middle Eastern spices.
“Even when we give him a day off he rarely goes sightseeing,” says Ms. Kim. “When we first started business Ali didn’t want any days off. Ali said, ‘What’s the point of taking a day off?’ but recently I think his age has worn him down.”
Ms. Kim adds that saving money is Mr. Cona’s only concern ― and his singular purpose in coming to Seoul. The thickset man never hides his purpose in being in Korea, even remarking that it didn’t matter where he lived as long as he could beef up his bank account.
He sums up life in this city simply as “Good,” then follows up the response with a question: “Why no good?” His philosophy of life is simple: Everything is either good or bad, it’s just how you perceive it.
“If you see bad, then it’s bad; if you see good, then it’s good,” says Mr. Cona.
After three years in Seoul, Mr. Cona has few friends, aside from the Jeong family. They, in turn, consider their Turkish friend as part of their household.
At the moment, Mr. Cona has little interest in politics, sports or entertainment. Life revolves around his little kitchen. Mr. Cona’s obsession for work and wealth is no secret and the Jeong family does not question his motives.
The Turkish villager landed in the unlikely place of Itaewon, after friends of Mr. Jeong, whom he met while studying Islam in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan a few years back recommended him. Mr. Jeong’s friends stood behind Mr. Cona’s cooking abilities, and an arrangement between the Jeongs and the Turkish cook was sealed.
Mr. Jeong opened the modest restaurant at the same time the Turk arrived, a point when Arabic cuisine adhering to Muslim dietary laws were rare. Strict adherents of Islam can only eat halal meat, which comes from animals slaughtered by a single knife stroke that is supposed to cause minimal or no pain to the creature.
When he arrived in Korea in 2000, the Turkish cook spoke neither English nor Korean. Moving in with the Jeongs, he could communicate with Mr. Jeong only in Arabic. Even his Arabic wasn’t fluent; he had picked it up while working at a restaurant in Medina, Saudi Arabia.
Life has never been grand for this Turkish cook; the creases on his brawny hands testify to long years of hard manual labor.
The sixth child in a family of 10, Mr. Cona grew up in a small village near the midsized city of Konya, south of Ankara. His father, a construction worker, eked out barely enough to keep the family clothed.
“When I was a kid I had only one set of clothes and one pair of shoes,” says Mr. Cona in Arabic. Accordingly, food was in short supply, with so many children to feed.
After only five years of schooling, Mr. Cona left home at age 13 to earn a living. “I left for Istanbul with a 22 year-old friend, whose father introduced us to a restaurant in the city,” he says.
His brother was already in Istanbul, but they did not have the opportunity to live together. Mr. Cona had to live in a small room attached to the night spot where he worked.
He didn’t start off as a cook, but paid his dues cleaning out toilets and ash trays, mopping floor, and making deliveries.
With the odd working hours of 7 p.m. to 5 a.m., Mr. Cona was perpetually exhausted as his nights and days were turned upside down. But he refused to give up his ambition, and plodded ahead with his mundane work, with no time for frivolous amusement.
Mr. Cona said he seldom hung out with friends. Dating was not even part of his vocabulary.
Mr. Cona was married when he was 22, but the relationship had no passion. “My parents introduced my wife to me,” he said, refusing to elaborate.
Mr. Cona roamed from one restaurant to another across Turkey, spending 13 years in Ankara, the capital city. His itinerant lifestyle has continued since leaving home. Although he has no interest in buying things for himself, he admits to spending a huge chunk of his savings on his daughter’s wedding last year (Mr. Cona also has two sons).
According to the Jeong family, however, the spendthrift cook has succeeded in buying a comfortable, large apartment in his home village, which his family now occupies.
Due to his extended time abroad, Mr. Cona has not seen any of his brothers and sisters in 10 years.
“When I’m 50,” he says with a rare smile, “I will stop working in the kitchen and raise sheep in my hometown.”
by Lee Ho-jeong