It is no secret to Turkish people that Gaziantep is a town known mostly for its delicious dishes. The town was designated as a creative city in the gastronomy category in the UNESCO Creative City Network four years ago, which has put the city on the map of the culinary world. Foreign food writers who are interested in Middle Eastern and Turkish cuisines already knew about the food from the region, but the star chefs had little idea about the city’s gastronomy. If they did know about its baklava or kebabs, their acquaintance with the knowledge would be often by mere coincidence. However, in the past few years with the dedication of Gökmen Sözen, founder of GastroMasa events, and the support of Gaziantep Mayor Fatma Şahin, top chefs are pouring into the city for a Gastronomy Festival. The event is a mix of a little bit of everything, pleasing the big crowds with food stands, pop-up markets, chef presentations and talks, fun events for kids, concerts and many more, but I think the most important event takes place in a tent where celebrated chefs from all over the world give talks, show their videos and tell about their creations. In its second year, I’m hooked on these chef presentations, and I always feel pity for the ones who have missed listening them. It is always like a marathon of inspiration.
One thing is certain. Star chefs with awards have their fame built on strong foundations. Being a celebrity usually is tied with appearing on a TV show, but in reality being a renowned chef depends on the toil in the kitchen, and even that is not enough. Much depends on the creative spirit you have in your nature. As the famous Italian patisserie chef, Gianluca Fusto has put it simply, one who works hard with their hands is a worker, one who works with their hands and head is an artisan, but one who works with their hands, head and heart is an artist. All these chefs are artists because they put their minds and hearts in their creations and get inspiration from history, traditions, nature or almost anything around them. I kept the little pinecone Joris Bijdendijk passed around during his presentation just to remember inspiration can come from anywhere. He had found it when strolling in the park just outside the festival tent and thought about grating it on the dish he created, to give a hint of piney aroma that naturally exists in the pistachio nuts he used as an ingredient. Joris is a chef at a Michelin-starred restaurant at Rijkmuseum in Amsterdam. He gets his inspirations from Dutch products but also from all international flavors that had influences on Dutch cuisine. He is very much into fermented products and created a fermented pistachio miso (Who would ever think of that!) to enhance the umami flavors in the traditional Dutch pea soup. He also created a vegan mock cheese with barley, which went so well with the candied unripe fig preserves we traditionally have in Turkish cuisine. Later in the day, when I told him that his barley-cheese could well be the long-lost murri - the fermented cheesy barley of medieval Arab cuisine, his eyes sparkled with curiosity. I promised to send him papers of Charles Perry, the foremost expert on medieval Arab cuisine, and of course, an expert who knows the cuisine of the region very well. Actually, Perry is almost like legend among baklava producers in the city, as his papers on the history of baklava have become like their manifesto of owning the famed dessert. The fermented creations of Joris were followed by a presentation by researcher Diego Prado, again on fermentation. I’m sure the nettle-fermented cheese will inspire many chefs who were lucky to listen to him.
The presentation of the amazingly talented Russian chef Igor Grishechkin of Cococo restaurant in St. Petersburg made me have flashbacks of The Indian Accent restaurant I visited in New Delhi years ago. Indian chef Manish Mehrotra had a similar playful approach, having inspirations from history, tradition and above all, childhood memories. Igor has presented a cornucopia of scenes and tastes from Russian culture, an incredible range from Fabergé eggs to simple rooster shaped kid’s lollipops. As he was presenting his buckwheat kasha dish, a young talented chef, Oya Süslü, from Gaziantep’s Culinary Arts Center tapped my shoulder and asked, “Is this dish similar to our keşkek?” I know she will be trying her own versions very soon, inspired by Igor.
Many chefs had very inspiring creations; it is so hard to name them all. Some were close to the heart of Gaziantep people, like Syrian chef Mohammad Orfali, who is actually having his origins from the neighboring city Urfa (Orfali meaning Urfalı, a citizen of Urfa), or like Mexican chef Santiago Lastra Rodriguez, his inspirations from Mexico will surely be inspirational for Gaziantep chefs. After all, the two geographies have so much in common though being continents apart. Another inspirational talk was by chef Eduard Xatruch of Disfrutar in Barcelona. Having scrutinized Antep cuisine in detail, he used not only the flavors of the region but also involved local cooking techniques in his creations, such as the grape gel coated walnut strings. I was flattered when he mentioned the book I had compiled, “A Taste of Sun and Fire: Gaziantep Cuisine.” I feel honored to have a pinch of salt in his creations. Of course, having a foreigner’s eyes is always good to realize one’s own gastronomic treasures. As Georgian chef Tekuna Gachechiladze has put it, transforming traditional dishes is not always welcomed locally. Changing local dishes is not easy but can be done. Her attempts in adding her own touches to Georgian tastes had an initial resistance at times, but now most keep being repeated by others. I saw Tekuna tasting the playful candies of Igor made from fruit leathers so typical of Georgia and Turkey; I’m sure these candies will be like whirl wheels of inspiration; listening to each other creates an interactive inspiration channel.