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From news to menus: Journalist flees native country, starts new life as restaurateur

New in town: Journalist Ramal Huseynov left Azerbaijan after the government shut down his television show and he came to Southern Brooklyn, where he opened a Turkish restaurant, Istanblue Kings, on Kings Highway.
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Talk about a career change!

Not long ago, he was a well-known talk show host in the European country of Azerbaijan, but he started anew as a no-name restaurateur in Gravesend after leaving his native land following a controversial episode of his series that angered members of its ruling class.

Ramal Huseynov left Azerbaijan for Kings County in October after the government shut down the talk show he hosted and blacklisted him from the industry, and soon after that, he began a foray into the hospitality business — though he admits it was tougher getting things done as a non-celebrity.

“In Azerbaijan, if I needed something, one phone call was enough,” Huseynov said while sipping green tea in his Turkish restaurant, Istanblue Kings. “Here, things are very different.”

In his home country, Huseynov was the host of “Heyata Baxis” — which translates to “View to Life” — a current affairs show covering topical subjects, such as the need to modernize the Azerbaijani language, and an alleged cyber attack on the country by neighboring Armenia, with which Azerbaijan has territorial disputes.

But two years ago, when his show broached the topic of possible mismanagement at Socar, the powerful state-run oil company in the energy-rich country, the government took his show off the air, at the behest of the company’s leadership, according to Huseynov.

“You can’t talk about that,” said Huseynov, reminiscing about his old career. “Can you believe an oil president can close the program?”

Azerbaijan’ autocratic government has widely cracked down on dissent in the media in recent years, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Having lost his show, Huseynov found it hard to find work in journalism in Azerbaijan. He considered studying in Europe, but didn’t ever think about immigrating to the U.S. until a friend suggested he could find work here.

“People said everything was okay there, that I could find work,” said Huseynov. “But when I came, for sure it wasn’t easy.”

After settling in Coney Island late last year, Huseynov said finding long-time employment was difficult, so he decided to go into business himself, opening Istanblue Kings on Kings Highway near McDonald Avenue earlier this year.

And although he’s from Azerbaijan, Huseynov decided to open a restaurant serving the food of next-door Turkey, because the cuisine is similar, and he felt Americans aren’t as familiar with Azerbaijan.

Istanblue Kings serves all the well-known Turkish plates, including kofta, kebab, and baklava. Turkish pop plays from the joint’s speakers, and the decor is reminiscent of the stunning Eurasian country.

Still, learning an entirely new industry has proven a challenge for Huseynov, he said.

“Every customer has their own preferences,” he said. “You can’t be perfect. You do your best.”

But he said he’s getting the hang of it — especially grilling the meat the authentic way.

“We know our meat,” said Huseynov. “We know how to cook it.”

Istanblue Kings Restaurant [428 Kings Highway, between Van Sicklen Street and Kings Place, (718) 676–6060, www.istanbluekings.com]. Open daily 11 am–11 pm.

Reach reporter Adam Lucente at alucente@cnglocal.com or by calling (718) 260–2511. Follow her on Twitter @Adam_Lucente.
Updated 1:34 am, July 10, 2018
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