For a Restaurateur, the Secret Desire for Romance Was Finally Sated

At the height of the pandemic, Ilson Leir Goncalves was winning a reputation around Montclair, N.J., as a restaurateur who refused to quit.

In the spring of 2020, he sold his house and put the proceeds toward expanding his restaurant, Samba Montclair, so customers could sit farther apart. When everything in the restaurant was destroyed the following year by floodwaters from Hurricane Ida, he mobilized to get the place up and running again in less than a week.

He hadn’t always been a paragon of perseverance. Just before Covid, he quit dating and gave up on love. “I figured out that my purpose in life was not to have a relationship,” he said. “It was to cook for people who don’t have money.”

A life with room for both seemed out of reach until he met Yasar Sakman last summer.

Mr. Goncalves, 42, is from Brazil. Long before he swore off romance, he had quit thinking of that country as home. In 2004, he visited New York for the first time on a monthlong solo vacation. Instead of returning home to Blumenau, in the state of Santa Catarina, he stayed and was eventually granted a green card.

“I went out and I saw the New York City lifestyle, and I decided to quit my whole life by phone,” he said. Being gay in Brazil, where he had worked as a computer engineer at the Bank of Brazil in Brasília, had been a challenge. “It’s a completely different mentality there,” he said. “I had to hide behind my true self.”

In New York, he let a newfound sense of liberation guide him. He found an apartment in nearby Newark with four roommates and, knowing the degree in computer engineering he earned from the University of Brasília in 2003 wouldn’t translate to American employers, secured a job as a dishwasher in a Portuguese restaurant in Newark’s Ironbound neighborhood.

The work provided the comfort of familiarity. Back home, his mother, Nilsa Hostins, owned Paladar Restorante, a home-style Brazilian cooking spot he would later model Samba Montclair on. At 7, he had started peeling carrots and potatoes at Paladar, which means “taste” in Portuguese, after school. “I would pretend I was a chef.”

His stint as a dishwasher in Newark was short lived. By 2009, after working as a food runner and waiter at several more New Jersey restaurants, he had progressed to manager of Next Door, a casual restaurant in Montclair that has since closed, and moved to the neighboring town of Bloomfield. Samba Montclair, which he had been saving money to finance since opening his first American bank account, got its start in a former deli space the next year. On opening night, every table was full.

“I worked hard for my American dream,” he said.

Working hard on his love life had long been relegated to a back burner. In January 2020, at the conclusion of a relationship, he stopped trying. “I decided I don’t want to date anybody else,” he said. During a vacation to Cambodia just after the breakup, he doubled down on that decision. At an outdoor cafe in the town of Krong Siem Reap, an 8-year-old boy approached him asking for food. “The owner of the restaurant told him to go away, that he was not supposed to be there,” Mr. Goncalves said. He invited the boy to be his guest.

“In my mind, when I met this little boy, he taught me something,” he said. It was, “I don’t need to have a relationship or be married.” Feeding people who couldn’t otherwise feed themselves felt like his life’s calling, and it felt like enough. Since June 2020, Mr. Goncalves has been donating to Toni’s Kitchen, a soup kitchen in Montclair; 300 hot meals and 100 bags of food a week are not unusual.

Starving himself of romance while feeding others, though, struck his family and friends as misguided. Mr. Goncalves’s mother encouraged him from Brazil to keep dating. His two sisters, Debora Goncalves and Victoria Gabriela Goncalves, and his younger brother, Renato Goncalves, did, too. (Debora is a server at his restaurant and Renato resides in Boston, while Victoria Gabriela lives with their mother.)

On a vacation in Turkey in June 2022 with his longtime friend Patty Cain, Samba Montclair’s interior designer, he and Ms. Cain argued about his nonexistent love life.

During a drive through the Turkish mountains, Ms. Cain had repeated a warning that had become annoying to Mr. Goncalves. “I told him, ‘You don’t want to grow old alone, loneliness is terrible,’” she said. On the edge of a narrow dirt road, she said, “he took his hands off the steering wheel and glared at me. I think he thought he had finally shut me up.” She was convinced he wasn’t entirely through with romance. “But he was too afraid to admit it.”

Mr. Goncalves, she discovered, had a Tinder account that was still active. In Turkey, he used the app to connect with Mr. Sakman. “It was just to be friends with someone from a different culture,” he said. “I didn’t want to meet somebody.”

But Mr. Sakman, 32, who grew up in Izmir and was working in telecommunications at a pharmaceutical company in Istanbul, wanted to get to know Mr. Goncalves off the app. On June 20, after Mr. Goncalves said good night to Ms. Cain, they met in the Skalion Hotel & Spa lobby.

“I don’t know what happened,” Mr. Goncalves said. Despite a significant language barrier, he said, “it felt like a wall around my body broke down. I melted. I melted.”

Mr. Sakman, who is still learning English, was also captivated. “I remember his smile,” he said, “and his eyes.”

Over breakfast the next morning, before they left to continue their sightseeing in Cappadocia, Mr. Goncalves told Ms. Cain about his late-night rendezvous. “He showed me Yasar’s picture,” she said. “I could tell he liked him.”

A month later, Mr. Goncalves invented a novel excuse to return to Istanbul alone: He had made an appointment with a Turkish doctor for a hair-transplant procedure. The real draw, though, was Mr. Sakman. “I was super shy,” he said. “I didn’t want to show Yasar I was interested.”

When they met the second time, on July 20 at the InterContinental Istanbul, his scalp was still sore and he felt he looked terrible. But the connection that had stayed on the minds of both men since June deepened. “Ilson is super nice and handsome,” said Mr. Sakman, who graduated from Mersin University, in the Turkish province of Mersin, with a telecommunications degree in 2012. By the end of that night, both were falling in love.

In Turkey, where President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has denounced the L.G.B.T.Q. community, showing it wasn’t easy. Like Mr. Goncalves, Mr. Sakman said gayness was not accepted in his family. He declined to disclose the name of his parents and siblings out of caution. He said he had long felt unsafe there.

A first visit to Mr. Goncalves, in September, was both liberating and life-changing. In New Jersey, he was greeted by the smile that had so enchanted him in Istanbul and a sense of relief. “I felt very comfortable,” he said. “I felt freedom.” He has since applied for residency.

Binge more Vows columns here and read all our wedding, relationship and divorce coverage here.

On Oct. 30, Mr. Goncalves proposed after breakfast in their now-shared living room in Verona, N.J., where Mr. Goncalves had moved before expanding Samba Montclair. “It was a simple proposal, but I cried because I love him so much,” Mr. Goncalves said. “I don’t ever want him to go away.”

On March 15, they were married before 20 friends and several of Mr. Goncalves’s family members on the beach at 73rd Street in Miami Beach. Eddie Rodriguez, an interfaith minister through the Universal Brotherhood Movement, officiated a ceremony during which the grooms, both in all white suits, read handwritten vows.

Mr. Sakman delivered his vows in Turkish, English and Portuguese, which he is now learning. “I’m very far away from home,” he said. “But I’ve never felt more at home than here with Ilson and his family and all of you.”

Mr. Goncalves brushed away tears as he spoke in English to Mr. Sakman and their guests, who also wore white to symbolize their new beginning. “In the summer of 2022, a tall, handsome man came into my life and changed it forever,” he said. “We were two separate lives that will now become one.”

When March 15, 2023

Where The beach at 73rd Street in Miami Beach

Break From Brazilian After the wedding, guests boarded a bus for a reception at the nearby Seaspice Brasserie & Lounge. Instead of the home-style Brazilian fare Mr. Goncalves serves as Samba Montclair, he chose a Mediterranean menu that included filet mignon, lobster and grilled sea bass. Mini baklava cheesecakes were for dessert.

Painting the Future Mr. Goncalves became a U.S. citizen in February 2022. As his husband, Mr. Sakman is eligible for permanent residence. In Turkey, he worked as an artist on his off hours from the pharmaceutical company. He plans to continue making art professionally, selling his still life paintings via Instagram while helping Mr. Goncalves at the restaurant.

She Told Him So In a speech at the reception, Ms. Cain spoke to Mr. Goncalves directly: “Despite all your protests, you couldn’t wait to get married!” she said. “You can have a real fulfilling life now, full of caring and sharing.”

Dream Come True After Mr. Rodriguez pronounced them married, the couple recessed hand in hand through the sand as a violinist serenaded them with an instrumental version of a Turkish pop song. The same violinist had earlier cued the start of the wedding with a rendition of Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream.” For a couple who felt they had quit their former lives to one day find each other, the anthem had become their theme song.