I forgot to thank Ahmet Buğdaycı and the reporter Selin Özvaci for making me feel like a food celebrity, giving me my 15 minutes of fame, with an unexpected article highlighting my visit cooking with Dilara. Glory added to the surprise and delight in the five day life highlight of my trip to Istanbul.
Thanks again and can't wait to get back to Dilara (with her family and friends) soon!
Thank you to Turkey, a land of great food and equally great people! Thank you especially to Dilara and the friends and colleagues she generously shared with me.
Most mornings, the staff meandered in between nine or ten, save for one exceptional lady named Kamile. An artist who acted as and my translator, she was also the resident lunch bartender. Besides health juices, she concocted house made liquors and jams. The woman is a real artisan. Many afternoons, she would cool me down with tamarind juice. Morning, she'd brew coffee to wake me. In general she was just an overall big boost to my days
Then there was Hassan, a waiter who joked with me about my beer drinking. Night and day he went up and down the stairs carrying big trays of food, his skinny frame balancing these huge plates like they were nothing, periodically motioning with his hands to see if I wanted a drink...thank you Hassan!
Evenings after Camilla went home, I had a back up crew who saved me. This included Ali, another conceptual artist. And a very cool dude.
Dilara had just hired a new manager. His name escapes me but I'll always remember his gracious help in procuring me cold Birra from Brooklyn, as well as a ride back to the airport to catch my flight.
My fellow chef Harun Yüce, chef de Cuisine was a total pro. He'd make his mark anywhere, Istanbul, New York... again, anyway.
Murat Ceylan, Meze chef. Without his Patlican Salatasi or his Armenian mussels with rice, I would of been a lot less informed of good Turkish food.
Gökhan of course who showed me a thing or two about baking bread.
Mohamet his assistant,my bread baking friends.
Murat the waiter, who always practiced speaking English "hello, Jeremy, how are you?"
Patty, the Thai chef who whipped me up some great Pad Thai and helped a lot with finding ingredients.
The demure young quiet lady from Uzbekistan who was the fry cook and Yufka rolling magician who tasted virtually everything I conjured with approval and a smile, most of the time.
The waitstaff and all those whom I may have forgotten.
But most of all my host and new friend Dilara Erbay without her invitation and help I would never of had such a fabulous adventure. Tesekkür ederim
Most of the mornings visiting Dilara in Istanbul, I would enter her restaurant before any of the staff or customers. I'd sit there, lazily looking out on the Bosporus, taking in the passing tankers and small boats. I'm not sure if it was the heat, my vacation, or perhaps the leisurely pace of Istanbul, but it certainly seemed slow in comparison to my hectic lifestyle in New York. Their laid-back pace could become addictive. It seemed like even the food seemed more relaxed.
Certainly the breakfasts had a leisurely feel, even luxuriously indulgent. Apparently, the Turkish morning staples are the most important meal. The first breakfast I remember thinking it was a bit similar to your basic European assortment of jam, butter, bread
basket and cheese. Only here it had a Middle Eastern flavor: olives, string cheese, a neon-pink Turkish version of
mortadella, and a spread not entirely traditional but naughty, nutella. Snuggled between the
cheese and charcuterie was a julienne of cucumbers, tomatoes, and a dip of olive oil
One morning I remember slathering my honeycomb butter over my bread, watching Dilara direct her team for
the days business. In between she picked an olive from my plate, her eyes all the while busy surveying the action. "The olives aren't fresh !" she yelled out to her market purveyor who was just bringing in the delivery from his local village runs. All the while I was immersed in the flavors of honey-olives-oil and fresh baked bread- Not even Dilara or heat of the sun reflecting off the Bosporus could make the day go faster as I savored the unctuous sweetness of my Turkish breakfast.
Menu day 4 Istanbul: Cucumber yogurt soup garnished with avocado, chili and pickled onions with Dilaras favorite new garnish Bagel chips.
Upside caramelized fruit cake with strawberry red wine jam.
We whipped up all three of the dishes for demos and went down to eat. There I met a gentleman and his wife who apparently was also a restaurateur. We were joined by John, an expat friend of Dilaras who had a uncanny resemblance to James Beard. Dilara told me he wanted to take me to brunch at the Sultan Ahmet Four Seasons. Dilara and her friends chided John to take me to something more ethnic. For whatever reason, he was attached to the idea.
We had a tasting of meze dishes as well as some of my own, including grilled sardines. I tried Dilara's confit of lamb rack with Bulgur pilaf olives, lacquered with pomegranite molasses.
And then we had a varied meze plate that included a
variation of babaganoush with fava beans rather than chick peas. My favorite the Armenian rice and mussel dish with currants, pine nuts and spices. Calamari stuffed with cheese and grilled. Everything was great and the restaurant was full.
Dilara gave her final instructions as we bid adieu to Ahmet and the staff, we were heading to town.
Excited by my first dinner cooked for Abracadabra, I wanted something with more verve for the next chance "at bat." Besides, Dilara had my name plastered across the chalkboard stationed outside the entrance. I couldn't let her down. So I put on my Provençale hat, a tip to my mother's origins, but also the vicinity of the Mediterranean. Bouillabaisse or fish soup was stirring my palette, inspired by Istanbul's sun-drenched climate. So I took the bass bones saved from the previous evening and set about making my fish soup. For an appetizer I had thought of a classic with a nod to Constantinople. My initial title for it (ready for grand ambition or just pretension?) "Theodosius'slegume a' la Grecque." I don't know, would that be over-the-top gauche or, given that we were in Turkey, not Greece, politically incorrect? But Dilara told me to go for it.
While I was tourneeing zucchini, I noticed an intense expression on Dilara's face. " Is this all too much" I asked? " She shook her head. "No, no. It’s great, yella!” she said. Harun the chef, bless his soul, had ordered me some sardines. Actually I wanted anchovies but didn't know what they were called in Turkish! Regardless, Haroun found me magnificent specimens, gutted reluctantly by the grill man. "Should I do all of them?" he asked wincing. I winked and tapped his belly, "do them all!” No mercy from this chef!
Dilara's market buyer
Earlier I had spied the beautiful variety of peppers in the baskets brought by Dilara's market man. The appetizer would be grilled sardines with Basques styled peppers and fried parsley to garnish with a drizzle of Turkish olive oil. Ahhh, these ingredients native to Turkey, such a romance, indeed marriage, between earth and sea. In celebration, dessert would be a strawberry red wine soup with Bugnes Lyonnaise, something I remembered Jean Michel made for a lunch at restaurant Raphael for Beaujolais wine maker George De Beouf).
With Dilara and her salad man in tow, both jotting down notes,I rallied towards completing this fairly simple menu, setting up my fish and my stations. Then we held a meeting with the wait staff to describe the menu, as the cooks finished their prep. When people mounted the spiral staircase, Dilara announced that there were some critics from important newspapers who wanted to try my tasting menu. Yikes! I set about sending out three of everything when Dilara, kind of excitedly, came in the kitchen and asked me to make something special. "What do you have?" I asked looking around to answer my own question. Beef fillet! No problem. Pan roasting them, I sliced them and made a soft polenta (Dilara’s favorite) with an herb sauce, along with grilled scallions and roasted cherry tomatoes.
The bouillabaisse was steadily getting eaten. Indeed, as Dilara spooned each with rouille on croutons, intermittently she would eat one or two for herself. Like watching a curious kid liberated to a candy shop.
Chef Harun Yüce and Murat Ceylan
Things got only busier, and then Dilara started to get telephone calls, stopping to tell me that her business partner was downstairs. His name is Mike Norman, and he's a South African chef who has the most popular night Club and restaurant in Istanbul. Called "360," its name come from an amazing view over all points across Istanbul's skyline. When he came in, Dilara offered him some soup, and I joined them for a chat at the bar. Apparently, moments after calling Dilara, he left his i-Phone in a cab. The reason it's worth mentioning is a bit later, the cab driver showed up with it. A good omen. Mike relaxed and settled into enjoying his soup.
And then the evening moved to a close. I sent Dilara home, as she had stayed out the night before with her former schoolmates. Tomorrow, she promised, we would go check out Mike's place, enjoying some of the Istanbul nightlife in the Beyoğlu district, maybe catch a listen to Siyasiyabend if we bump into them.
My first dinner at Abracadabra was kind of an impromptu sweaty dizzying affair. Fueled by jet lag, thrown in to the arena with no language skills, I was even more determined to succeed. Being the guest in another chef’s kitchen made me uncomfortable, but my skills were going to be tested. Dilara introduced me to her chef de cuisine, Harun Yüce, who seemed amiable enough. With both of us sharing sign language, I pointed to things, gestured, grabbed a cooks knife and cutting board, in between slapping a menu together with Dilara, pairing native product with some of my transatlantic medicine bag of goodies which I had brought along to play with.
The other cooks stared at me, the strange guest chef pulling out a bag of black rice (wild rice) and strange grain (Quinoa), as well as some non-native jarred condiments for heat: Yuzu kosho from Japan, chipotle chilies, Mexican pickled jalapeño’s, and some cranberries, which to my surprise had already been introduced to Turkey. When Dilara asked me what I would make for my evening specials, my eyes spontaneously moved over to a huge octopus cooked in wine. Right then I decided to marry it with some salad and a simple dressing of yuzu kosho, soy, yuzu juice and a bit of oil combined into a vinaigrette. Earlier at the market, we had seen some corn meal, so I suggested some polenta frites to go with a beautiful sea bass. Grilled, it would be accompanied with baby eggplant studded and baked with tomato, onions, Turkish thyme, garlic and olive oil. Wanting to wow that night's crowd, we added another course of wild rice, quinoa, cranberry and chicken salad, the ultimate North American mix of grains and greens. We also decided to add in some free range chicken that Dilara thought would make a nice main salad, topped with a few slices of avocado on top. For dessert I used the figs cut in half and baked with some frangipane for dessert. Dilara was happy. She loved it!
So I scurried about, moving from one side to the next of the cramped kitchen, cooking and getting my mise’en place set. Finally the crowd started arriving. Orders were called. Just as I was showing my salad man how to get the appetizers together, Dilara told me I had already several fish on order. Forget names by faces, get the food out , appetizers and fish! Wiggling through to the other side of the line to the grill station, I got my fish orders portioned, surprising Dilara and the chef with their heft. Turkish portions are smaller than the New York club specials I usually serve.
And then the fish orders kept coming, as well as the other specials I had put on the menu. Honestly, I was thrilled to have sold out. Throughout the evening, all the staff, including the front of the house, proved eager to assist, and seemed interested to taste everything me and Dilara had prepared. Personally, I had become interested by the talents of one staff member, Gökhan, who was turning out a beautiful pide (bread), baked fresh along with a whole wheat and a corn bread which looked a bit more like a muffin.
Realizing my time here would be way too short, I decided to wake up early. Dilara told me to wake her, up too, but that night I decided to go it alone. Let her get some time with her family, I thought. It would be interesting for me to fend for myself in her kitchen. Before going to sleep, I tried to familiarize myself a bit with the kitchen staff, putting faces with names, not as easy I thought as I would find out the next day!
Dilara and I leave the restaurant and make our way through the fish stalls that line the Bosporus. She tells me it's the first time she has brought an "occidental" to the restaurant I am honored. We climb the steps on to a bridge that spans the Bosporus (Galata or Haliç,I don’t recall?), Dilara and I walk a ways when she turns and hails a cab in the middle of the traffic.
We drive across passing fisherman whose lines and hooks fall anchored below in the water. She gives instructions, but it seems this driver has other plans to give me a tour along the roadway; they commence arguing while we slowly wade through crowds of women covered in various styles of the hijab.
Dilara and the driver argue as we stop on the bottom of a hill, it seems he didn’t like her tone when she told him he screwed up her directions choosing the worst route instead of taking her where we intended to go. Dilara remarks how men in this country have such a stupid eastern mentality as she disembarks and the driver continues yelling as I leave the taxi; I remark that most men are that way all over not just here. We walk up a steep hill that is covered with various stalls of vegetables and fruits too clothing. Dilara leads as I gawk at the incredible variety of foodstuffs and their bright colors. The stalls are shaded by canopies overhead, I ask Dilara about this and that vegetable or fruit that I don’t recognize, what a bounty and the market seems endless as it winds down through the alley ways like a snake.
We reach a particular merchant that Dilara tells me is her regular vendor from a farm within Anatolia, a weathered woman who offers yogurt that we taste. Dilara passing food to me feeding my senses making my occidental mind open to the range of flavors that my palate so accustomed to a certain taste jumps with excitement with every sample. She tastes at every stall without hesitation, from fresh yogurt to fruits, some unrecognizable so mysterious. I let myself fall into her command of “taste!”
We hire a friendly porter who encourages my snapping pictures of the food, he later shows me a photo that someone had given him while he was working. He tells busy kebab seller to turn around while I snap, he seems less than interested even as I capture him slicing a portion from a skewered slab of layered meat I notice the large majority of vendors are men save a few women; Dilara seems to know all of them. Along the way I peer into a bakery with flat breads and pides as well some white looking batards loaves,
I snap a bread porn picture for my bread forum friends.Dilara wants to buy cheese and we enter a bustling dairy store filled with various counters, large different colors of butter, cheese, yufka, honey are displayed. The men at the counter busily weigh, cut and bag the food attending multiple customers who dodge the picture snapping occidental fellow in the midst.
Dilara asks for samples of cheese and I taste a very salty cheese, when the clerk slaps a piece of yellow butter and makes me understand that I should taste both of them together to appreciate the way they marry and compliment each other. The butter is sweet and calms the saltiness
it is good and rich. Dilara waiting for her packages starts to trim the edges of the layers of yufka neatly stacked next to the window, she smiles like Cheshire cat as I notice the store owner looking at her, she has no fear nor scruples I think! We stop to buy red and ripe tomatoes from another farmer, she rips off the tips of chilies, the vendor scolding her she laughs all the while yelping from the intense heat of the
As we pass several stalls, Dilara ask me to find something inspiring for a meal I will prepare for the specials she wants me to make tonight for the restaurant. Eyeing figs we decide that will be our dessert course, maybe some cornmeal? Polenta? She concurs, as polenta is not a typical dish that is known in Turkey. We fill a basket full of produce and hail a cab in the busy street and head back across the Bosporus to the restaurant, I am about to cook my first meal in Istanbul!
This past week I was in Istanbul to visit recent guest on Stir the Pots, restaurateur extraordinaire Dilara Erbay. After interviewing her a few months back, she talked me into coming to Istanbul as a guest chef at her restaurant, Abracadabra. Though I would only have five days, Istanbul was too enticing to refuse. After a nine hour flight, I was greeted by a driver Dilara had sent. He spoke no English, and I was tired, so I just soaked in the sun-drenched scenery that was both ancient and modern, from the Sea of Marmara, to the Bosporus. Along the highway still stood walls built by Theodosius of the ancient Constantinople.
And on top of the city's seven hills were minarets shooting out like rockets across the horizon. At some point in that sunny morning drive, Mehmet, the driver, passed me his cell phone. It was Dilara. "Welcome", I am at Abracadabra see you in a half an hour." Wow, I thought, I have arrived in Istanbul.
We enter Arnavutköy, a former fishing village that was once a Greek neighborhood. Abracadabra, Dilaras' restaurant is a four story red building surrounded by other restaurants and nestled on the shore of the
Bosporus. Dilara welcomes me. Her pace is fast. Faster than fast. Furious! I follow her as she lightly scampers up a spiral staircase, passing thhe kitchen and dining rooms covered in conceptual art. Already I feel wrapped snuggly in a whirl of Turkish voices, kitchen smells, heat and humidity. I need a drink! She brings me Turkish coffee, thick and not too sweet, perfect for jet lag.
Lunch with Dilara at TARİHİ KARAKÖY BALIKÇISI
After a quick introduction of the staff and a short interview with a
local reporter arranged by Dilara's husband, Ahmet, she takes me into
town for lunch. We get into a cab headed back towards the old Ottoman
neighborhoods. The decaying buildings are left like old skeletons
amongst the heavily trafficked streets. Dilara listens to me as I ask
her questions. But I wonder if the heat is getting to her. For some
reason, cabs here operate without air conditioning. And Dilara looks
like she's melting. "Jeremy, my brain cannot function without food, I
am sorry, I am weak!" At that she turns to the driver and says: "stop
here!" Then she pays him, and without a word, hops out of the cab into
oncoming traffic. Holding up her hand with the command of a New York
City cop, Dilara stops the traffic with me in tow, walking me through
the cars towards a narrow alley leading to the Bosporus.
This non-descript neighborhood was once the Old Ottoman city. Now
it's a neighborhood inhabited by Turkish minorities: Armenians, Jews,
Greeks and others who seem to run a stretch of hardware and
construction stores. We pass into another alley, entering a ramshackle
building and then inside into a tiny room. Inside is a menu on a
blackboard and a chef grilling fish. Dilara starts chatting to the man
at the grill. He has a grimace on his face, but he nods as she talks to
him, I guess listening to her order our food, or perhaps telling him
about the heat of the cab. She comes over and tells me it is a
restaurant her father first took her to as a child, her favorite place
for fish. She explains that her father taught her about taste,
something I would soon understand. First, we are served a soup speckled
with herbs. The texture is creamy, the flavor lemony. I ask what type
of soup it is, as it's hard to tell. Fish soup she says, not so good I
guess from her expression. She tells me that the chef is new. The
original chef has disappeared or died, and the new chef failed to get
the formers recipes.
As we wait I ask about the neighborhood, interested in a nearby food
stall cooking rice and some other sort of protein. "Arroz con pollo?"
I query. Yes it's rice and chicken, a staple meal that costs around a
dollar and is accompanied by pickles and washed down with yogurt. We've
finished the soup but no more plates are coming. Dilara scolds the
young waiter. "Where is the food?" "They’re so slow!" Finally he comes
out with a salad of greens, tomatoes and cucumber (but no dressing),
along with a loaf of white bread and some fish. Dilara gets grilled
fish while mine, a huge sea bass, is baked in parchment with tomatoes.
The flavor is fresh, just barely seasoned. Dilara is happy, all has not