Photography by Tina Sargeant

Originally from Ankara, Turkey, Berna Nar has been preparing Turkish organic meals at Café Zuppina for the past six years. (In fact, when Berna sat down to talk with The Lakelander, it was exactly six years ago to the day that she and her husband, Erkan, opened the restaurant.)

For three years, Café Zuppina has been rated the top restaurant in Lakeland, bringing visitors and tourists from all over the nation to the doors of this humble restaurant. And though the setting may often be described as small and meek, Berna’s fresh creations and warm, rich spirit keep customers coming back.

The Lakelander: What inspired you to start Café Zuppina?

Berna: We were in Plant City first, for seven years, running a sandwich shop. And then we decided to move to Lakeland. Lakeland is more of a city. It’s kind of a little city. So we thought maybe an ethnic restaurant would work here. I was originally looking for a soup place, maybe soups and little salads. But I always wanted to make something different, something healthy.

Wherever you go, you always eat the standard food. It’s always the same things, mashed potatoes or broccoli. But there were no different veggies. And I said, “Why don’t they eat veggies?” But even if you go to Mexican or Italian [restaurants], it’s always the same thing. So I said, “I will do something different.” Even when I put celery root on the menu, so many people said, “Why would you put that on? They will not like it!” But I said, “I will try.” And it worked.

A lot of people ask, “Why is this Zuppina?” I had lived and studied in Italy for many years, and I know my Italian. And when  I entered this location that we decided on, I thought “I’ll make soup — and call it Zuppa.” But this can’t even be that, because it’s so small. So, in Italian you add in a and it’s smaller. But I said “I can do this! I will start in the small.”

Really, I think I’m here because of the Brussels [sprouts]. Everybody loves the Brussels. When I started Café Zuppina, you couldn’t find Brussels sprouts in any Lakeland restaurant. No one else made them. Here we make mostly veggies, almost no bread. In classic Turkish food, you will find bread. But I don’t do that. The more you eat healthy, the less you need to go to the doctor’s, right?

When I first moved here to Lakeland, I had to stay here because of some health issues I needed treatments for. And soon I was sitting at home and thinking, “I don’t want to sit here and worry. I have some health issues. I have some problems. I can’t do this. I need to work.” I’ve always worked in restaurants, and they always have the same thing. There’s something missing. And I wanted to try something different.

TL: What’s unique about the food at Café Zuppina?

Berna: Vegetables, and fewer grains. The more vegetables you eat, the healthier you’ll be. People always come in and ask for a kids’ menu. I tell them, “There is no kids’ menu, no nuggets.” But they like what I do! The kids love the way I cook the vegetables. I cook a lot of my dishes similar to how they were cooked when I was raised. At the time (when you’re a child), you think you don’t care, but you remember. Whatever happens in the family, it remains in your mind. We used so many vegetables in our home. In Turkey they’re very important, very fresh. It’s like nature is your home. And I find variety here, too. If you look, you can find it. But the thing is, here, no one knows how to cook it!

And we also serve chicken, beef, lamb, salmon, and Icelandic herring (when I can find it fresh). With all of our platters, Brussels always come. They are our signature veggie.

TL: What is your favorite part of working in Lakeland?

Berna: It’s a great community, great people. I love all of my customers. They’ve supported me from the very beginning. When they take the love that I give to the food, they answer. The food is like medicine to a sick person, and it brings them health. The people I cook for have healed me, actually, with their love, with their support, with their warm words. It’s a big love here.

TL: What is your creative process like? What inspires your meals?

Berna: Mainly the cooking I grew up around. I remember the big weekend parties with family — grandmother, aunts, everyone’s in the kitchen. Everyone is in the kitchen when the holidays come. This is a cooking time and an eating time. Holiday times are the most memorable times in people’s lives. You remember what is good, what is not good, what you hated that your mother cooked.

I try to make a menu that meets all expectations. I mainly cook recipes from my mother, which are mostly vegetarian (but at the same time, with meat options). Sometimes I call my aunts in Turkey, and they remind me of different recipes I grew up with.

When I put the food in the pan, I see the life. It’s so good for me. It’s a pleasure for me. I love hearing people enjoy my food; I know it brings life to them. This is the best thing. Not the money. Money is second. Of course, you make your living, but the satisfactions of the appreciation of the people … that is something else.


TL: What do you enjoy most about your cooking classes, which have become very popular in town?

Berna: I love when people ask questions. I want to teach people how to cook fresh meals in 20 minutes, instead of eating the frozen stuff. You can cook fresh, and freeze that for later. The other products, we don’t know what they put inside. I want to teach people how to make good things for themselves quickly.

I’ve been teaching for two and a half years, and people love it. The classes are always full. Now people know how to cook things other than potatoes and green beans. People always say they don’t have time. But how much time do you take on preparing a frozen meal? At least 30 minutes! It’s very easy to cook healthy. In January, I’m teaching a soup class where I’ll teach them how to make three soups and one entrée. I teach at least two classes a month. I want to stop sometimes, but everyone says, “No! We will not let you!”

TL: What is your favorite place in Lakeland?

Berna: We love Lake Hollingsworth and Lake Morton. When we have time (if I ever have time), we go and walk among the swans and ducks. My dream is actually to have a house on Hollingsworth one day. We love this place; it is home. Wherever you feel like home, it’s home. The more important thing is where you feel you belong. And my husband and I, and Café Zuppina, belong here. It is a joy serving the people.


 For Café Zuppina’s hours, catering, and  class schedule, go to cafezuppina.com.