Mehmet Gürs admits that, “sometimes I look at myself and don’t know who I am, or where I’m from”. But he knows what he’s doing. Through his restaurant Mikla, often cited as the best in Istanbul, he’s trying to create a 21st-century food movement based on traditional cooking from Asia Minor. Since he pioneered the New Anatolian Kitchen last year, it’s easy to trot out the much-parroted line that he’s Turkey’s answer to Noma’s René Redzepi.
Gürs was born in Tammisaari, Finland, to a Turkish father and a Finnish-Swedish mother, and his schooling was split between Stockholm and a French school in Istanbul. He pulled out of medical school and spent eight years training in the US as a chef, before returning to Istanbul in 1996 to open Downtown, a 40-seat American-influenced restaurant.
“My girlfriend (now wife) and I were in Boston, and considering going somewhere with sunshine and good waves, when we both got phone calls from relatives saying we should move to Istanbul,” he says. “When I came back, I had no idea what Turkish food was.” That changed with his second restaurant, Lokanta, a brick walls and no-tablecloths kind of place that revelled in its own rusticity. (A lokanta is the equivalent of the Italian locanda, or inn.) Through it, Gürs learnt from his local chefs – as he puts it, “foie gras and caviar didn’t seem right when I realised there were so many honest ingredients around”.
Gürs was already gaining a reputation for ruffling feathers in Istanbul’s static dining scene when he opened Mikla in 2005, on the rooftop of the hip Marmara Pera hotel overlooking the old town and Hagia Sophia. From the beginning, the chef brought Scandinavian restraint to Turkish food. “I think of it as cool, calm and monochromatic meeting fiery extremes,” says Gürs, who considers himself Scandinavian and travels north regularly.
But his current vision didn’t start to emerge until almost five years ago, when he hired Tangor Tan, a food anthropologist who had studied under Slow Food founder Carlo Petrini. “We started driving around the countryside and learning different methods, often from grandmothers and grandfathers,” says Gürs. “We went to places like Syria, Iran, Iraq and Georgia – and realised that we wanted to cover the whole area, not just Turkey.”
While Tan would live in villages for weeks at a time, Gürs created a food lab at Mikla to experiment with “bringing simple ingredients to a different level”, from double-fermented tarhana (a mix of grain and yogurt) to traditional methods of hydrating unslaked lime. Mikla’s menu emphasises its geography, from Trakya Kivircik lamb from northern Turkey to artichokes from Karaburun on the Gulf of İzmir, and Antep “Birdshit” ice cream, after the nickname given to a type of pistachio.
Now Mikla sources ingredients from more than 250 small producers in Turkey, Armenia, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Greece and Bulgaria, and last year Gürs gave his mini-movement a title – the New Anatolian Kitchen. While there are currently only a few restaurants in Istanbul that fit the tag, two of them run by Mikla alumni (see below), he says the number is growing. “It’s not quite a movement yet, but it’s coming. More young chefs are thinking it’s cool to cook the old way, and this summer the Culinary Arts Academy of Istanbul started a new Turkish curriculum.”
If anyone is going to bring Anatolian cooking to the wider world, it’s Gürs, who had his own TV series for three seasons, is working on his second cookbook (yes, it will be called The New Anatolian Kitchen) and runs nine branches of American-style café, numnum. He’s planning to add a brewery, bakery, coffee roaster and public library of artisanal Anatolian ingredients to his growing portfolio, making him look more and more like a Noma-esque food ambassador than a simple chef.
Still, he says, “I really dislike the term celebrity chef, though it does help to be recognised, even if some people rip into us for coming up with new ideas about Turkish food.”
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Three new New Anatolians
Mikla alumni Üryan Doğmuş and Cihan Kipçak cook up high-concept food based on traditional Turkish flavours. Think minced lamb with walnuts in baklava filo, with beets, black aubergine cream and mint yogurt.
A Scandinavian-style place run by Didem Şenol, who worked at New York’s Eleven Madison Park before working under Gürs. Think caramelised sea bass with sautéed chard and figs.
Young chef Civan Er serves up elegant produce-centric small plates, many from a traditional wood-fired oven. Think sweet-roasted carrots drenched in burned yogurt or Turkish Manti soup dumplings.