Turkish cuisine set for new touch with first gastronomy guide
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Turkey’s first gastronomy guide will provide a review of more than 400 locations selected by a core team and secret inspectors of gourmet end experts, according to journalist Müge Akgün.
“In addition to fine dining, our aim is to form a guide consisting of gastronomical discoveries ranging from the most authentic and safest street foods to traditional eateries serving local pot cooking as well as the very best destinations to shop for delicacies,” said Hürriyet writer Müge Akgün, who is heading the project.
Tell us what triggered the project?
There were a lot of complaints about the fact that there were a lot of restaurants and flavor destinations, but no guide to explain this variety and provide a selection from all the diverse and rich options. The need for such a guide was there for a long time, but it is such a challenging mission that no one until now dared to do it.
Daily Hürriyet is a newspaper that supports the food and beverage sector with its news articles and gourmet writers, but all these reflected personal choices; or the preferences of a dozen people; a guide is something else. So the idea was put forward by Hürriyet and as I set out to form the team, we found a project partner, Karaca, which is producing everything that pertains to kitchenware. They wanted to contribute, too.
How did you select the team?
I set up a team of people that is truly dedicated to the food and beverage sector whom I believe is qualified with what they have written so far with their education and the knowledge they have accumulated so far. Zeyno Gürses, the blogger of “iyiyemek.com;” Cemre Narin, who is an author and is currently a representative for the world’s 50 best restaurants for the Middle East, Balkans, Turkey and Greece; gourmet Gamze İneceli, journalist Nilay Örnek; and blogger Sinan Hamamsarılar make up the core team.
In addition to this core team, we have an advisory board of 18 people who are doyens of the food and beverage sector; some are writers, and some come from the business world.
But none has a business interest in the sector.
Not at all. There is no conflict interest at all. There is no owner of a restaurant or a chef and no relationship of interest.
We also have 130 secret inspectors. They are also foodies; some among them travel around the world in search of delicious food. We do not reveal their names, and if they were to reveal themselves, we have told them that we would part ways.
How does the system work?
We have questions and we have an evaluation system, which includes several criteria from quality to price, from the freshness of the ingredients to service, decorations, et cetera. But we also have sub-categories like whether the restaurant has a disabled entrance, parking lot, et cetera. So we prepared the most crucial questions to evaluate a restaurant. This is obviously our first year, and it will cover Istanbul, Bodrum, Çeşme and Alaçatı. This is a long-term project. It will be published in October this year and will be widened each year and will also include İzmir, Ankara and Antalya. The English version will be out next year.
In our evaluation, four pearls means the place received the highest points from all categories, be it the flavor, the quality, price and ambiance. This is followed by three, two and one pearl. And then there are the flavor stops which were not put under that evaluation, like small patisseries, charcuteries, bakeries and street food. They will be at the end of the guide. We decided to have the views of the chefs by asking their preferences, asking them where they like to eat.
So this is not solely a guide for fine dining.
Restaurants that offer fine dining are actually those that get four pearls; but that does not mean that three-pearl restaurants are not as good in terms of flavor or the quality of the ingredients. Maybe they are just a little bit smaller and more modest in a back street.
We don’t always want to go to the same places; sometimes we want to go eat in a simple, three-table, cozy restaurant. In addition to fine dining and many concept restaurants, our aim is to form a guide consisting of gastronomical discoveries ranging from the most authentic and safest street foods to traditional eateries serving local cooking as well as the very best destination to shop for delicacies.
Istanbul is said to have 120,000 places for food and beverage; we brought them down to 600, and we do not want the guide to have more than 400 restaurants.
Tell us about the sector in Turkey.
We can say that it is still on the way to development. We usually don’t like to be called a developing country, but if there is such a definition that means there are still some problems. Similarly in the Turkish food and beverage sector, there are some problems; it has still not taken strong roots. That is valid both from the perspective of the management and the clients. They do not know what to expect from each other, and that’s why I think too many places are opened and too many of them close their doors. We need to have ethical and quality standards. The guide can serve such a purpose.
Some underestimate this sector and think it is an easy one. They immediately want to make money. Clients, on the other hand, want both delicious and quality food but do not want to pay too much for it. That is an important problem; we need to break the perception of expensive. The price-quality balance is very crucial. You cannot eat the best döner in the world for five Turkish Liras. Yet you should not be paying 500 liras per person in a fish restaurant.
Although we have these kinds of inconsistencies, we also have fine dining restaurants which are at a world standard and which strike the price-quality balance well. We also have chefs of world quality.
Their numbers might not be that high, but still, there are very good restaurants that have recently been opened, and there are so many chefs I admire. The sector is on a good track; we just need to support it. In Turkey, people are still not after good food but they are looking at factors like the ambience and the like.
Turkish cuisine is said to be very rich, yet the sector does not properly reflect this richness and diversity.
That’s correct. Turkish cuisine is genuinely rich. Actually we can’t say Turkish cuisine; we should say Anatolian cuisines. There is an accumulation and legacy of hundreds of years, the traces of which you can find from south to north and from east to west. In all regions you find different food with different ingredients.
The importance of Istanbul stems from the fact that we can taste the several examples of Anatolian cuisines in this city, such as the cuisine of Gaziantep. Still, the cuisine of Malatya is very rich and yet there are no restaurants in Istanbul to show that. The same is for Amasya cuisine. Perhaps the guide will also serve to show the misgivings.
As a Turk, you would obviously say that Turkish cuisine is rich. What would you say to convince foreigners? What separates Turkish cuisine from others?
Had you asked this question 10 years ago, I would have said that Turkish cuisine is rich but that we were unable to reflect that; we do not have many creative chefs or we have not adapted our cuisine to fine dining. But we are no longer at that stage. Our richness stems from the quality and freshness of the ingredients, as well as its healthy characteristics. Natural and healthy food is in the gist of our cuisine. The world is now setting aside fusion or molecular cuisine and coming nearer to where we are. Our traditional cooking is extremely diverse and healthy.
Who is Müge Akgün?
Müge Akgün graduated from the Turkish Literature Department of Ege (Aegean) University.
She later worked as a teacher of Turkish literature at the İzmir State Conservatory while continuing her studies in 9 Eylül (9 September) University’s Cinema/Television Department.
Akgün subsequently went to Norway to study social anthropology at Oslo University.
Following her return, she worked for state broadcaster TRT in Istanbul as a producer and scriptwriter.
In 2003, she began working in print media and became the editor of the culture and art pages of daily Referans and the Turkish Daily News, while also contributing with articles on cinema and art.
From 2005 on, she has written on travel and the food and beverage sector. From 2010 until its closure, she wrote columns for Radikal newspaper while also preparing the “Gusto with Müge Akgün” pages. She continues to pen articles for Hürriyet’s Kelebek supplement on wining and dining.