It’s unclear when exactly Istanbul’s Karakoy neighbourhood left behind its reputation as a gritty port area and became cool. Some put it as recently as five years ago; others cite the 2010 opening of Lokanta Maya, a restaurant helmed by rising young chef Didem Senol that earned a glowing review in the New York Times and quickly became the darling of the international and local food press. Senol closed Lokanta Maya in 2016, but the area has continued to thrive. Young, suave Istanbulites smoke nonchalantly outside French brasserie-style cafés. Tattered posters wail about upcoming gigs from bands bedecked in tiny leather jackets and even tinier jeans. A hip coffee shop extols its own virtues with a handwritten sign that reads: Life is too short for bad coffee.
At the far end of Mumhane Caddesi, Karakoy’s key artery for strolling and unexpected discoveries, another of Istanbul’s star chefs, Seray Ozturk, discusses her industry. She is a generous host, offering me carte blanche on the menu at her restaurant, Naif, which has a formidable reputation for its high-quality take on Turkish home-style cooking. The space is dominated by a striking blue-and-white artwork depicting a giant artichoke flower, and the same colour combination continues throughout the restaurant to lend a Mediterranean mood.
Ozturk refuses to import ingredients, preferring instead to source the very best produce from across Turkey. “I’ve spent many years getting to know the different ingredients the seasons bring us, as well as the history of the many civilisations that have been here and influenced the food, so I don’t want to mix things up,” she explains. “It’s precise and clean and made with the very best ingredients.” Pretty soon, classic fare – such as stuffed vine leaves and an agreeably coarse hummus with crispy pastourma (cured beef) – arrives, alongside deliciously fresh patties made from greens and herbs.
Over the meal, conversation turns to women in Turkey’s food scene. “I’d estimate that female chefs only make up about 10 to 20% of the industry in Turkey… it’s very much a man’s world, and if you’re delicate or sensitive then you can’t survive,” she says.
The following day, a wander around the nearby neighbourhood of Beyoglu reveals cobbled streets, steep hills and an unmistakably bohemian vibe. Yeni Carsi Caddesi offers a sharp descent lined with cafés and boutiques selling everything from artisanal leatherware and vintage clothing to “100% vegan” soaps. The area is also home to Nicole, a sophisticated restaurant housed in a former Franciscan nunnery opposite the Neoclassical splendour of the Italian consulate, which was famously visited by Casanova in the mid-18th century.
Inside, a lift ascends slowly before depositing guests at the smart fourth-floor space with its white tablecloths and jazz soundtrack. Floor-to-ceiling windows afford sweeping views over Karakoy and Beyoglu and the Princes’ Islands beyond. “People compare Beyoglu to Le Marais in Paris, but I don’t like branding somewhere with a different place’s name,” says Aylin Yazicioglu, Nicole’s chef-owner.
Yazicioglu came to the industry late, enrolling at the famed Le Cordon Bleu Paris in her mid-thirties after quitting her PhD in social history at Cambridge University. But she has lost none of the intellectual brawn that saw her study at one of the world’s great institutions. “The level of cooking we’re doing here is… about [testing] your limits as a human being and what you can achieve with a simple product. Like onion for instance – look at all those things you can do with something that is so,” she pauses, searching for the right word, “banal.”
As we talk, 10 courses of exquisite cuisine arrive at the table. The lamb with jewelled siyez bulgur and young carrot might be the best lamb dish I’ve ever tasted – rich, tender and complex, it’s everything a meat course should be. Later comes the rightfully famous mille-feuille, replete with a custard so intense that it takes over your mouth like an imperious guest, moving in for a month, redecorating and then, just when it feels like it’s going to outstay its welcome, it’s gone.
Yazicioglu has an interesting viewpoint on working in a male-dominated industry. “The old school have a rather funny version of respect for women – they don’t want them to toil in the kitchen. They want to protect women from that.”
Well-intentioned condescension is a widely experienced phenomenon among the city’s rising women chefs. Lokanta Maya’s Didem Senol, who went to New York early in her career to train at the French Culinary Institute and then worked at the world-renowned Eleven Madison Park, recalls a time when she first expressed interest in the industry. “My father’s friend, a restaurant owner, asked me over for coffee,” Senol remembers. “He said: ‘Oh, you wouldn’t like it. Why don’t you go into PR or something?’” We’re sitting in Gram, her newer restaurant-café inside the Kanyon shopping mall in Istanbul’s shiny Levent neighbourhood, one of the city’s key business districts. Gram is every inch the modern cosmopolitan lunch spot, patronised by smart locals whose grey and black sartorial selections see them almost blend into the restaurant’s industrial aesthetic.
We talk over seasonal Turkish favourites with a superior twist. The hearty lamb trotter soup is perfect fare with winter approaching and rain lashing the stylish shopping mall outside, while the bonito fish comes fresh from the mighty Bosphorus strait at this time of year. A member of the tuna family, it is served with mashed broad beans – sweet and earthy and an excellent foil to the naturally oily fish.
Fortunately, the lack of encouragement didn’t deter Senol, and it certainly hasn’t stopped her former New York flatmate Inanc Celengil, who runs Aman da Bravo across town in Resitpasa. En route to this largely working-class residential neighbourhood, the taxi climbs a hill past grey and beige wood-cladded homes and away from the sparkling Bosphorus. The area is in the initial throes of gentrification – along with a smattering of restaurants and cafés, there is a yoga studio, and an artisanal bakery is slated to open soon.
Celengil is quick to laugh at herself and others and possessed of an enjoyably no-nonsense attitude to life, work and food. “Being a chef doesn’t mean going around talking, giving speeches everywhere,” she says. Aman da Bravo serves up “food that you want to put your head in”, she adds, while plunging her face towards the table and into an imaginary bowl of food so irresistible that a knife and fork simply won’t suffice. She’s right: both the grilled lamb neck and the urbane take on Turkey’s famed street food kokorec (seasoned offal wrapped in lamb or goat intestines) are big, bold and lick-your-plate good.
According to Celengil, Turkey is more accepting of female chefs than some other countries. “I think it’s because at home women own the kitchen. They can hit your hand, tell you what to do, they can kick you out.” She says she never felt like she had to prove herself because she was a woman. She admits, though, “I’ve seen many women who felt like that.” Indeed, the dominance of men in the restaurant industry is unquestionable, but in recent years the reasons behind it are finally being examined. In their 2015 book, Taking the Heat: Women Chefs and Gender Inequality in the Professional Kitchen, Deborah Ann Harris and Patti Giuffre analysed 2,206 restaurant reviews and chef profiles in publications including the New York Times and Gourmet magazine and found that only 11% were dedicated to women. Furthermore, they noted differences between the ways in which food was described depending on the gender of the chef – men create “daring” cuisine, while women’s food is “comforting”. The subtext is that the truly important cooking is done by men.
“The discrimination is innate… the media is dominated by males too,” Yazicioglu says. “If a guy is ambitious, it’s because he’s driven and of course he should be working hard to get to the top. For a woman, well, it’s good that you want to succeed, but what about your family?” Indeed, all four of the chefs I meet in Istanbul say they have lost many female talents due to the household duties that disproportionately fall on them. “Women have more stuff to do at home, in our culture especially,” says Celengil.
“Society has to change. Men have to take half the responsibility from women at home, so she can work as much as she needs to.”
There are, however, changes afoot. For starters, the image of the professional kitchen as a high-pressure trial-by-fire overseen by merciless chefs is becoming a thing of the past, an evolution driven in many cases by the new generation of head chefs just about old enough to have experienced the torment themselves. “I was working for about 15 hours a day in New York, but when I opened my own restaurant… I remembered how I felt when I was working there, so we changed it right away to two shorter shifts,” says Senol. “When people don’t have time for their kids, their families or themselves, after six months they’re so fed up they don’t want to work with you anymore.” On top of that, being a chef has become cool. Gone are the days of the browbeaten 18-year-old who becomes the browbeaten 48-year-old without ever graduating beyond salad prep.
“In Turkey… they study engineering or business at university, so by the time they get to the kitchen they’re 26 or 27, [and] they know what they want,” Celengil explains. “They want to work in a decent place with decent rules and a decent salary. There are a lot of educated people in kitchens now. And that changes the culture.”
But whether the media is changing is open to interpretation. The industry’s gender bias rears its head as a cause célèbre on occasion, often around the time of the controversial World’s Best Female Chef award. Recent winners have included Dominique Crenn, Ana Ros and Clare Smyth, and there often ensues a debate over whether the award marks female chefs out as oddities or encourages talk of gender imbalance.
In the meantime, it will be passionate women such as Yazicioglu who quietly revolutionise the kitchen’s potential for parity. “I have videos on my Instagram encouraging [women] like mad to come and work,” she says. “Positive discrimination – people say it’s against equality. Well, I can handle 20 years of inequality – but this time for the other gender.”
Singapore Airlines flies to Istanbul four times a week. To book a flight, visit singaporeairlines.com.
This article was originally published in the January 2019 issue of SilverKris magazine