The Anatolian connection

29 Dec 2016
6 min read
Mehmet Gürs is helping to put Turkish—particularly New Anatolian Cuisine—on the culinary map, writes Eva-Luise Schwarz.

About two years ago, one of Turkey’s most prominent chefs thought it was about time to put his philosophy into writing. The result is a manifesto that expresses a new perspective on Anatolian food culture, from traditions to techniques, from nature to products, thus creating the New Anatolian Kitchen. Mehmet Gürs is that chef, and what makes him ideally suited to be the author of such a manifesto, having grown up not in Turkey but in Sweden, is that he was able to discover and learn to cherish his ancestry from an outside perspective.

Born in Finland to a Swedish-Finnish mother and a Turkish father, Gürs grew up in Stockholm. He fondly remembers family Christmas dinners at his grandmother’s house in Finland and smoking fish in the summerhouse in the Finnish archipelago. But he also has memories of picking fruit with his grandfather in Turkey, on the Black Sea coast, who taught him when the fruit has reached its perfect ripeness.

During an internship at a Stockholm restaurant in his early teens, Gürs discovered his love for cooking. A few years later, he and his family moved to Istanbul and it was there that he decided to go to college abroad. He recounts: “I always had this idea of going to the US. So I applied to a couple of schools and after getting into pretty much all of them I picked Johnson & Wales University in Rhode Island. It’s a small town and there was a lot of practical training. I finished my bachelor’s degree pretty quickly while working and immediately after that I trained with the Hilton corporation, which was very good training, but a little bit boring and corporate, to be honest,” Gürs laughs. The foundations were laid but Gürs soon discovered that hotel restaurants weren’t the “real deal”. He moved to New York and then to Boston and joined the Back Bay Restaurant Group, a family-owned, hands-on business where he started working at one of their Italian concepts, gaining a good feel of the business aspect, he says. But when he was 26 years old, he and his then girlfriend, now wife Asena, decided to pack up, move to Istanbul and open up their own restaurant. Gürs recalls: “It’s amazing the courage you have at that age. [We took] crazy risks without knowing anything about Istanbul, because I hadn’t really lived here.”

On a small budget and with the help of his father and uncle, he opened Downtown, a small restaurant that slowly expanded to 40 seats. Surprisingly to him, it went really well: “Once you start doing your own thing you realise that you really don’t know much. So we made huge mistakes but we kind of learned quickly. I had never done stints at any of the big restaurants or with any star chefs in France or around the world. So I did a lot of self-teaching, made a lot of mistakes, observed and learned quickly through trial and error.”

Gürs must have done something right because now, almost 20 years later, he’s heading up a culinary empire. Building up the business through the years with his wife as equal partner, he went upscale, then went a bit more casual, then upscale again—today he owns the Istanbul Food & Beverage Group, consisting of the fine dining restaurant Mikla, the café and restaurant numnum, Trattoria Enzo, the casual Terr Kitchen, the coffee shop Kronotrop and finally the research lab, where Gürs spends most of his time today.

Mikla, which opened in 2005, is situated on the top two floors of the Marmara Pera Hotel with a breath-taking view over the historical peninsula and the Bosphorus. “At Mikla we work with really humble products,” Gürs explains. “We try to focus on the roots of the land, the region of Anatolia—very basic [ingredients], no caviar, no foie gras, no fancy products that people would traditionally think of as luxurious or noble. Instead we use what we think are the truly noble products, which could be a very simple yogurt or a tomato, but a perfect one. For us that’s the true luxury. It all depends on how you define luxury. For me the most luxurious thing is probably walking barefoot on a beautiful, clean sandy beach rather than having the fanciest watch. So it’s just a way of looking at life, I would say, that has been shaping what we do at Mikla.” And yet simplicity really doesn’t do Gürs’ creations justice, because while part of the creative process is the quality ingredient itself, the methods are equally important.

For the past seven years, Gürs has had a full-time anthropologist on staff, Tangör, who is travelling to the furthest corners of Anatolia to uncover ingredients, methods, people, producers and traditions of eating and cooking certain products. Back in the lab, these aspects are then considered by Gürs and his right-hand man, Cihan, carefully blending the old techniques with some of the more contemporary methods of modernist cuisine. Gürs explains: “If we tasted something, let’s say right on the Syrian border today—even if it’s a little bit messed up as an area today, but still there are some beautiful villages that have amazing flavours—you taste something there, then you come back and even if you’re not doing the same dish, you have that flavour profile in your mind and that’s where we get our creative sparks from.” He tells me of a snack that children from south-east Turkey like to carry around in their pocket to nibble on: chips made from fermented wheat, which Gürs has taken as an idea for a snack in the restaurant. He thus brings century-old traditions into the contemporary setting of a big city. One of Gürs’ signature dishes, Hamsi, is a shining example of a humble product that has been turned into something exceptional: the simple anchovy is turned into a sandwich, a crispy piece of bread with fish from the Black Sea—a dish so loved by guests that it hasn’t been taken off the menu for 10 years.

Guests at Mikla are given the choice between the full tasting menu with around 13 courses or the fixed-price à la carte menu, where they can choose one dish each from three sections, with petit fours before and after, in order to also benefit from as wide a variety of dishes as possible, but without spending three hours in the restaurant, explains Gürs. Popular with guests and critics alike, Mikla made it into the top 100 restaurants of the world in the S. Pellegrino list of 2015.

The restaurant itself was designed more than a decade ago but has since had a couple of renovations. The stunning artwork covering an entire wall was made by a local ceramic artist, who is now—10 years later—working on another contemporary artwork on a second wall of the restaurant. While Gürs likes to honour the wish of his guests to keep the white tablecloths—there have been debates of whether to go with blank tables—he is using a wide range of plates, a mix of ceramic, stone, wood and other elements, thus keeping the restaurant edgy, yet harmonious, moving forward in a constant flow of creativity.

In order to fine-tune his menu, Gürs discovered only a few years ago how important he finds it to eat in his own restaurant. He explains: “I realised that what we see in the kitchen is not very often what the customer is seeing. You create this beautiful plate in the kitchen [and] you think it’s great. But how does it work with the setting, with the wines or the amount of dishes that you had and how do people around you react? I think it’s very important and I don’t think enough chefs are doing it. But for me it’s been eye-opening.”

Ultimately, Gürs’ philosophy is based on his whole team’s connection with the land itself, the soil and the water in the region of Anatolia. He wants his young chefs to thoroughly understand this connection, to not only know which specific breed of lamb they’re using, but to be there when the lamb is slaughtered. Although it might sound nasty, he says this will give a chef a different perspective and respect for every single product they’re cooking with.

While his manifesto is a daily reminder for him, his chefs and even other restaurateurs, both in Istanbul and the whole country, who believe in the idea of the New Anatolian Kitchen, Gürs says that it is by no means written in stone and can be revised, developed and improved. In order to do that, Gürs likes spreading the word and exchanging ideas with colleagues. He attends conferences and even hosts his own. He also speaks of new ideas for the coming year and mentions new openings, all the while balancing the success his extensive restaurant business, innovating it and still finding time to spend with his family and staying close to nature: “We travel a lot as a family, my son, my wife and I. We either go sailing or up the mountains into the woods cycling. In half an hour I can be on a beautiful sandy beach, I can be in the woods or in three hours I can be on the mountain skiing. That’s something I do really often to get a breath of fresh air. Because when you’re in the business, you tend to need it.”

Mehmet Gürs’ deep connection to his homeland make him the perfect ambassador of the New Anatolian Kitchen and his constant drive to improve as well as his brilliance as a chef and businessman make him a top player in Turkish and international fine dining.