As a child growing up in Bursa, a city in northern Turkey, Aysegül Sanford spent most of her afternoons working alongside her mother in the kitchen. With a ritualistic consistency, Aysegül would assist her mother, learning traditional Turkish recipes, all while rattling off the events of her day. In hindsight, Aysegül speculates that this was her mother’s way of ensuring her only daughter stayed out of trouble.
"My mom’s biggest fear was that I would get into drugs. To prevent that, every day she would bring me into the kitchen and have me talk about my day to the most minute detail. I never got into drugs, so she just had to listen to me talk about boys every day.”
These cooking sessions left an indelible mark on Aysegül, who now has become a renowned food blogger and photographer, with her blog FoolProofLiving gaining universal acclaim. Though it would be easy to look to the kitchen in Bursa as where this success story began, the true tale has far more to it.
“I didn’t want to be a chef originally,” Aysegül explained, “All my life I wanted to be a doctor, like my father. But back home we had a standardized test you had to take to study medicine. You have 3.5 hours to prove yourself. If you don’t succeed you have to wait another year.”
Unfortunately, though she knew the material, test-taking was not a particular strength of Aysegül’s. She failed the test the first time, and after studying diligently for a year in hopes of passing the second, she returned with a score even lower than before. Feeling dejected, Aysegül and her parents decided that it would be best for her to pursue another field of study in college.
When she entered university, Aysegül did so with a major in hotel management. It wasn’t long before she discovered that her true talent lay not in sciences, but in the social sphere. She graduated with high marks and, itching for a life abroad, began searching for international job opportunities.
Aysegul at her graduation ceramony with her parents
In 2002, Aysegül ultimately settled on an offer to work at a small hotel in the Princeton area of New Jersey. Soon after arriving, however, she realized that reality did not quite synch up with her expectations.
“Princeton was beautiful, but the hotel was not all that exciting. I was working for about $4.50 an hour, almost 70 hours a week cleaning rooms and making breakfasts. I didn’t mind the work, but it was just so unfair.”
Despite the grueling working conditions, Aysegül persisted knowing that her stay in the U.S. was dependent upon maintaining her J1 visa. After 6 months, she decided it was time to move on and starting sending out applications again. Once she had a job offer from a wedding planning company San Diego, she quit her job and prepared to make the big move.
“I had 30 days to get there and transfer my visa,” Aysegül said, “I had only saved up $550 in my bank account, so I bought a 1988 Nissan Sentra from my coworker and drove to San Diego. I arrived with $35 in my pocket only to find out that this wedding company did not exist. It was a total scam.”
With hardly any money, no place to stay, and the threat of being deported for not transferring her work visa, Aysegül found a nearby hotel with a business center and frantically searched her email to see if the wedding company had emailed her, but there was nothing from them. There was, however, another email waiting at the top of her inbox.
“Luck would have it, back when I was in school in Ankara I had an internship squeezing orange juice in the Istanbul Swiss hotel. There I became buddies with a guy at the front desk named Koray. He had become the front office manager at the Swiss Hotel in Atlanta, which I had also applied to before I came out to San Diego.”
Koray had stumbled across Aysegül’s résumé, and upon recognizing her name immediately had reached out to offer her the job. In less than 3 days, Aysegül had driven back across Texas to Atlanta and began her new job.
Over the following years, Aysegül steadily progressed at the hotel, going through a series of promotions until she eventually attained the role of department head. After a number of years, Aysegül eventually moved on to working for a luxury hotel. It was there that she met her new boss, the man who would go on to become her husband.
Shortly after the two were married, Aysegül’s husband took a position working in Virgin Gorda, a 9-mile island located in the Caribbean. Aysegül quit her job, and the two moved there together.
Aysegul & Dwight and Aysegul's parents - November 2011
“It was the most amazing for a while, but then 6 months in I was about to lose it because I was just so bored. There wasn’t good internet, food was limited, you’re living with the minimum. Above that, I couldn’t find a job there because most were reserved for locals, not expats.”
As ennui set in, Aysegül and her husband began considering the possibility of her taking a job in Miami and carrying the relationship on long distance, visiting Virgin Gorda once every three weeks. The two had all but settled on the plan when Aysegül’s mother, with whom Aysegül had continued Skyping every day despite the passing of years and the miles between them, intervened.
“I’ll never forget, my mother looked straight into the camera and said ‘Over my dead body—you are newly married, you’re not going anywhere. You need to be with your husband.’”
Her mind already made up, Aysegül dismissed her mother’s insistence and resolved to accept the job offer the following day.
“The next morning was a Friday. We woke up and I saw that my dad left me a voicemail telling me my mother had a heart attack. The next day, my mother died. It was the last thing we talked about, so of course I couldn’t say yes to that offer.”
Aysegül spent the next three months back in Turkey taking care of her father, being the rock that kept the family together. When she returned to the Caribbean, she was the one who felt lost and in need of care.
“In addition to losing my mother I was in this place by myself, not doing anything.”
When things seemed at their darkest for Aysegül, a close friend reached out and suggested that Aysegül try putting everything she was dealing with into a blog. Inspired by the idea, Aysegül dug into those past cooking sessions with her mother, recalling the hours spent chatting over the stovetop.
“After her passing, I started to realize how many things would never happen again with her. It took me a while to realize that some of the dishes she made the best, I would never have again.”
To preserve the memory of her mother, Aysegül began to collect all her old recipes and sharing them on the blog. Cooking had always been their deepest connection, and it was a connection that Aysegül was now willing to share with the world.
“Bulgar pilaf and karniyarik were the biggest things in our house, it had to be in there with all the other things that are near and dear to me. I shared it all with the pain and sorrow I was feeling, and somehow it resonated with people.”
Aysegül’s blog began to gain more and more momentum shortly after she began. In her free time, she took online courses to hone her skills and improve her trade. In just two years, she had built up a strong enough following and portfolio which enabled her to take on professional food photography jobs. After three years, Aysegül and her husband moved back to the United States, but her blog had become so successful that she was able to generate a sustainable income from any location.
Over the years, Aysegül has had to adapt the blog to suit American palates, but she still tries to share her mother’s recipes any chance she gets.
“How to make Turkish coffee is, to this day, the most famous post. The response to Turkish food is great.”
Amidst its many changes, Aysegül reflects on her life abroad often. Though she believes she would’ve been a different person had she stayed in Turkey, she feels that the risks she took in moving to distant shores have ultimately paid off. Though there were certainly trials along the way, it was the very trials that helped mold Aysegül into the successful entrepreneur that she is today.
“I didn’t think I had anything in me to do all I’ve done, but the challenge was all I needed.”