As Turkey looks set to emerge as the next destination for gastro tourism, chef Fatih Tutak is the right man in the right place, at the right time.
Tutak’s passion for Turkish cuisine is evident in everything he does – you can’t fake his brand of genuine energy. The chef has spent a long time travelling the world, picking up experience in some of the world’s best kitchens in order to return home and start his own gastro revolution at his Turk restaurant in Istanbul. With the Michelin Guide announcing that it will debut in Istanbul next year, and the government rolling out a plan to make Turkey a fine-dining destination, all the pieces of the puzzle are falling into place. For Tutak, it feels like destiny – he always knew he’d come home.
“It was always my dream, to return home,” says Tutak. “Even when I was living in Turkey [prior to leaving], there was a moment when I told myself, ‘one day I will come back,’. I wanted to bring my heritage, my experience, my career steps back to Turkey, to help make Turkish cuisine more recognised internationally.”
Tutak’s resume is impressive indeed – including stints at three-Michelin-starred Nihonryori Ryugin led by chef Seiji Yamamoto in Tokyo, and at Noma in Copenhagen under René Redzepi. He can now bring all those years of experience to bear on a new Turkish cuisine, one that can finally showcase the country’s incredibly rich history and culture.
“There are great things happening in Turkey right now. There are many young chefs coming up and they’re very passionate about cooking new things, about learning. They are curious about Turkish cuisine.”
“There are plenty of things to discover in Turkey, They want to make them in a modern way and at the same time, the tastes are undiscovered. The ingredients and techniques in our heritage are not so well known outside the country so I think the world will be seeing much more than just the kebab.”
Like pizza has done for Italy, the kebab has done much to fly the flag for Turkish food culture globally. But unfortunately, while Italy has been able to diffuse its rich gastronomic heritage beyond street food, Turkey hasn’t been able to realise itself gastronomically. Despite its incredible history and a population of nearly 85 million, the country’s significant economic problems (the Turkish Lira is in freefall) can be identified as the main reason for the current status quo in food.
“Things are getting better in gastronomy because the government is supporting us more now,” says Tutak. “I think there is a way to go still to reach the level that I expect, but every country has issues. It is time now for Turkey to pass this period and for its gastronomy to shine. That’s why I wanted to come back, because I saw the time was right, after spending 17 years in Asia. I think Turkey is ready now to show our culture.”
Every country has its own challenges, and Tutak has experienced numerous different food cultures and worked within them. What, then, does he see as the main challenges for Turkish gastronomy, if it is to take its rightful place alongside the cuisines of Europe?
“The supply chain needs to be developed more in Turkey,” he says. “We chefs are giving producers direction and educating them on how they can deliver better quality products, respecting nature, without using hormones, adhering to micro seasonal timings… We work with them closely, the fishermen, the butchers, and the farmers, with everyone. There is collaboration, and with collaboration you bring success.”
“You need to be proud of your country and of your culture, because this is where we grew up, this us where we developed. From our childhood. I was born and raised in Istanbul. I keep discovering the rest of Turkey, when I have time, because it’s important to find inspiration from everywhere in the country. It is limitless.”
This is both Turkey’s greatest strength and its weakness. It is a country of juxtaposition – of East and West, of young and old, tradition and modernity. There’s a tension that exists between all of these antipodal forces giving the country its dynamism and yet holding it back. But how does this environment affect Tutak’s cuisine?
“We are inspired by the past but we cook for the future,” he says. ”This is how we develop our cuisine. I always look at history and what people did in the past, even a thousand years ago, when they came from central Asia, and how the cuisine developed. If you want to make something modern and contemporary, you have to respect the basics, the tradition. We always respect tradition, it’s very important.
“You can convince foreign people very easily, but first you have to convince Turkish people. The Turkish people have accepted us. I remember I was reading something about Massimo Bottura, about when he first made pasta in a contemporary way, there was no Italian acceptance in the beginning, but now there is. This is what’s happening in Turkey right now.”
This is where the Michelin Guide steps into the frame, with the guide announcing its first-ever edition for Istanbul next year,
“It’s important to have the Michelin Guide in Istanbul because it means that chefs will have to raise their standards if they want to be included. It will also help to attract visitors to Turkey who will be coming from a food point of view.”
Tutak is a leading light of this new food movement in Turkey. Iit has taken him years to get here and he can now use that experience to help young Turkish chefs coming through. This is not a project that will be completed in a generation. It will be an ongoing process of creating a new culture.
“As a chef, the most important thing you can do is to help mould the young chefs,” he says. “You have to take them by the hand and help them up the mountain because one day we will go away and they will carry on the work. This is the biggest happiness for a chef.”