Talk: Zeynel Abidin Uzun

In this week’s TALK series, McLean Today sits down with Zeynel Abidin Uzun, owner of Kazan restaurant. Since opening its doors in 1980, Kazan has become a Washington institution and is deeply rooted in the McLean community. Still in its original location in downtown McLean, Kazan underwent a major renovation in 1999. The family atmosphere, emphasis on the freshest and finest ingredients, and friendly service have remained constants since the beginning.

Q. What led you to McLean, Virginia from Turkey to open Kazan?

I came to the United States in 1976 as a chef, a Mediterranean cook, for the Royal Caribbean Cruise Line in Miami. On the ship I worked, I told people, I just want to open my own restaurant. They recommended this area, with the [U.S.] State Department , the British Agency, people who go to Turkey and enjoy the Turkish food live here. I came to Vienna, Virginia. We opened a Turkish restaurant there. It was a hole in the wall, small place. Now Kazan has been almost 44 years here.  I’m thankful, as I said, I asked all those people, they gave me the right address.

Q. Who taught you how to cook? Your mom, your dad, was it in your family?

My father was a chef. My father’s father was a chef. I went to chef school also. During the day I was working in a restaurant in Istanbul, the famous Topkapi Palace Restaurant, from there I took military service. I guess I loved cooking all my life. I still do. I don’t cook much as I used to but now, after the pandemic, because it’s hard to get workers, I do more and it’s still good.

Q. What’s the most challenging thing about owning a restaurant?

Well, the first thing I can say to you, I would only recommend to open a restaurant to my enemy. I can tell you that much. I love the restaurant but it’s the hardest business in the world. The riskiest business. One day you come in, maybe the cook has some problem and the next day you come in, maybe one of the waiters has an emergency, but you have to open the restaurant. I’m very lucky, I have a daughter and a son. And my son [40] has his own business and my daughter [32] works in a law firm but still they are helping me on the weekend. Sometimes when I need them during the week too. They want to help their dad so they’ll come in and help me out. My daughter wants to be more to be involved in the business side of the restaurant. She wants to open her own restaurant. It’s a tough business to be in.

Q. Does your wife come into the restaurant to help as well?

She does sometimes when we get busy, but my wife loves gardening. We have about 3,000 flowers around the house, in the yard. She plants all these flowers around all the gates and everywhere else. She is obsessed with the flowers and gardening. She loves that, all day long.

Q. I bet you have some loyal customers after all these years.

Some of the people I still have from the day that I open the restaurant. Sometimes people come in the restaurant and they tell their grandsons, I used to come here, I was just like you. They were little kids, they used to come in there, father, mother, dad sitting there, now they say We have the grandkids. They still come unless they move. Then Christmas time or any of the other holidays, people call me from all over the country and they say, Are you still there? We had some people from Hawaii and they call me, people from Alaska, from around the country, Jacksonville, Wyoming, they say: Are you still there? We are going to bring our family, our kids. They are coming back for reunion with family, friends in the area. This area is a very cosmopolitan area. People live here from all over the world and they know about the good food. In the almost 45 years, so many restaurants come and go. I know one thing, as long as you give people good food, consistency, good service, care about your business — people come back. Our business is 95% repeat business.

Q. What’s your favorite dish to eat at the restaurant, what do you suggest for someone new to Kazan?

The Doner Kebab . We make it Wednesdays and Fridays for lunch and Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays for dinner. People always mix it up with the gyro. It’s not a gyro. It’s thinly sliced lamb and veal cooked cooked over a vertical flame and served over pita bread and yogurt sauce or with rice pilaf and topped with a tomato sauce. That’s one of the most famous dishes people love. I love it. Fish wise, we make an excellent fresh swordfish. I never cook frozen fish. We make a very nice fresh swordfish kebab on a skewer, along with green peppers, tomato, onions. We’ve also lately been getting white sea bass from Turkey. It comes over on Turkish Airlines a couple times a week, Turkish Cargo and we cook it on the grill. Sometimes people call and say, Do you have white sea bass or Is it coming? Sometimes people say, Call us when you get it. We have it a couple of times a week.

1969 when Zeynel Abidin Uzun started cooking at Topkapi Palace in Istanbul. 

Q. When you’re not working, what do you like to do?

I like to go to the beach and whenever I get a chance also to, Berkeley Springs, West Virginia. They have some nice Roman baths, natural water and it’s so relaxing. There’s some restaurants there I go to. I go the horse back riding. It’s a wonderful place, I can rest for a whole weekend.

Q. We keep hearing about the proposed redevelopment/renovation of the Giant shopping center that you are located in. Do you know what is happening, what is your future there?

I asked the man who owns the shopping center and he said they don’t know yet. They cannot answer to me. So we don’t know. Maybe in a year or so we know. Maybe sooner.  Would you believe that a United States Supreme Court judge comes in in the afternoon at the door and says, Zeynel, I read in the newspaper that something is going on in the shopping center, What can we do for you? That makes you feel good. And all these senators and congressmen and many of the agency people that eat here, they say, Zeynel, We want you to stay in McLean. I said, Whatever the future, that’s destiny. What will be, we don’t know. Still the flag of the Kazan will still fly in the future again.

Gayle Jo Carter is the editor of McLean Today.

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