New and local
“New and local, hence the name Neolokal, is the motto of chef Maksut Aşkar, who is inspired by his mother’s cooking and his native town Antakya in Hatay, a province in the southeast of Turkey, close to the border of Syria. He meticulously deconstructs, recreates, redesigns, and beautifully presents his creations without losing the traditional flavors of his childhood. His plates are highly contemporary, but the tastes are surprisingly authentic.”
This is what I have written in the TL&CC World Guide for the entry of Neolokal Restaurant located in Salt Galata Museum in Istanbul. TL&CC, short for Truth, Love & Clean Cutlery, is as its name suggests a new kind of dining guide designed to identify the restaurants and food experiences that go above and beyond great food and wine in the ethical, organic and environmentally sustainable ways with which they run their business. As the editor for Turkey, the reason I chose Neolokal was the place perfectly fitted to the criteria of the guide, but chef Aşkar truly has a passion for traditional tastes, applying them to contemporary plates in a miraculously creative way. Last year at a joint chefs’ dinner in Tblisi, Georgia, he served imam bayıldı, the ubiquitous Turkish eggplant dish. But his version did not look like the traditional one even remotely, yet it gave all the taste sensations of a home-cooked one in a single bite. First it did not even have the usual boat shaped eggplant at all. There was bread, which is not in the original recipe, but it made sense, we always mop the cooking juices of the beloved dish with bread, so in a way bread and imam bayıldı goes together in our taste memory. So apart from the basic six ingredients, which are eggplant, tomato, green pepper, garlic, onion and olive oil, there was bread in his version. Actually, it was the bread, but not the dish itself. He explains how he interprets the traditional recipe: ‘My mom used to thinly slice all ingredients and fry them separately, stacking each ingredient on top of each other, and have them slowly cooked. The next morning, when it’s cooled, it is an amazing dish. I like eating bread with this dish. All eggplants should be eaten with bread. Somehow, a way to incorporate bread in this dish was needed. The skin you throw away from the eggplant, I cooked them whole, then took away the skin, to dehydrate then to make a nori out of it. I ended up making a brioche like bread that smells like imam bayıldı. When you look at the dish, you don’t see the tradition, but a single bite gives you the ‘explosion’ of imam bayıldı flavor.” It was indeed an explosion of taste in a single bite. I still wonder how he achieved this.
Aşkar is like the flying-chef ambassador of Turkish cuisine, attending food events as a guest chef around the globe, also inviting his colleagues to pop-up events at Neolokal called “See-Feel-Taste Anatolia.” The guest chefs explore Turkish food culture, create a menu with their inspirations and go back home with a suitcase of new ideas and ingredients. In the course of the past five years, he hosted at Neolokal 26 chefs from all around the world, namely Ana Ros, James Close, Philip Raichinger, Manu Buffara, Santiago Lastra, El Celler De Can Roca, Taku Sekine, Bernie Bermudo, Sebbie Kenyon, Tobyn Excell, James Lowe, Nicholas Darnaguilhem, Dimitri Zotov, Ivan Shishkin, Jaime Young, Evgeniy Vikentev, Anatoly Kazakov, Albert Franch Sunyer, Alexander Yourz, Paul Ivic, Yves Le Lay, Oswaldo Brito Guzman, Carlos Henriques, Christophe Hardiquest, Willem Hiele and Josean Alija.
Even reading through the list is overwhelming, but this reflects exactly who he is, a guy who likes to play around with ideas and tastes, and gets his inspiration not only from the traditional and regional, but also from the global and modern. He describes himself as such: “At Neolokal, I try to create a bridge between local/traditional and global/modern. If we don’t keep our traditions, we cannot have a sustainable future. One needs to respect the ingredients and techniques of past, not changing but enhancing and elevating them, using the right produce, in the right season. I call my food ‘Modern Traditions’ which hopefully will remain in the future.”
I wish both the restaurant and the chef (yes, he is a Scorpio) a very happy birthday and many tasty years to celebrate, in hopes that the modern traditions will sustain in the future.
Fork of the week: Neolokal is celebrating its fifth anniversary with there renowned chefs, Margot Janse, Manu Buffara and May Chow, representing Africa, Latin America and Asia respectively, joining chef Aşkar for only one single night. On Tuesday evening May, Manu and Margot will be performing a dinner titled 4M@5y celebrating the fifth year of Maksut. Definitely an event not to miss, the dinner will be a true opportunity to experience the bonding power of like-minded global chefs. For information and reservation send a mail to email@example.com or call 02122440016. After the dinner, chef Aşkar will be directly flying to U.S., to attend the 21st annual conference
Worlds of Flavor, at the Culinary Institute of America at the Copia Campus in Napa Valley. He will be joining other famed Turkish chefs, the pioneer of all, Musa Dağdeviren from Çiya Sofrası in Istanbul, together with Burak Epir and Sayat Özyılmaz, who have successfully carried the flag of the traditional tastes of Turkey in the U.S., and the big chef (by all means literally) Somer Sivrioğlu, who has introduced flavors of Anatolia to Australia amazingly. I wish I’d be there to witness their joint panel, for any readers who will be lucky enough to be near Napa Valley, do not miss.
Cork of the week: Neolokal has always stocked with a wide variety of Turkish wines, only the local and the most exciting. The good news is, there will be a new wine bar soon opening, an unusual one featuring the lesser known indigenous grapes of Turkey and giving place to the very few natural wines of the country, a joint venture of chef Aşkar and wine expert Levon Bağış. Watch this column for further news. All I can say is the festive opening will hopefully be before the festive season before the end of the year.