Me as an assistant in a Turkish kitchen
It is 7.30 AM. It is still quiet in the streets of Istanbul. In the kitchen of Yildiz Köfte, a neighborhood restaurant, Ali usta is busy already. He’s putting the finishing touch on my favorite mercimek corbasi, red lentil soup with onion, garlic, laurel leaves, pepper powder and basil.
Many residents of Istanbul are still in bed. It is Saturday. The schools in our neighborhood, banks, the municipality office and the court around the corner are closed for the weekend.
Ali woke up at 5.30 AM. He lives on the European side of the Bosphorus and it takes him one and a half hour to get here on the Asian side on time to start at his job. Every day; six days a week. Sunday is his only day off. That’s the only day that he can spent some time with his daughters of two, three, five and eight.
Ali usta seldom thinks about it. He’s used of making long days. Besides the cook with the friendly eyes and the warm, modest smile, loves his job. That is obvious. With love for his profession and respect for the ingredients he’s busy in the kitchen. No luxury around. He’s cooking on four gasjets. Two watertaps and a big extractor. One deaf assistant is permanently washing, cleaning and straighten up the kitchen.
Today I am allowed to join them as an assistant. As someone who is fond of cooking I took already classes in the Turkish cuisine from Eveline Zoutendijk (www.cookingalaturka.com) and Sharon Croxford (firstname.lastname@example.org). I was also allowed to look behind the scenes and in the kitchens of the glamorous Ciragan Palace Kempinski Hotel under the guidance of the Dutch executive chef Rudolf van Nunen. Now I wanted to join the staff of a local Turkish neighborhood restaurant. And what could be a better choice than Yildiz Köfte Salonu on the ground floor of an apartment building where we rented the loft for a year and where we still have our lunch on a regular basis.
Idris bey (49), the chef and co-owner of the restaurant who has his birthday today, I get a chef’s cap, a jacket and an apron. As a boy of 13 he left his Anatolian hamlet to try his luck in Istanbul where he worked in a hotel and restaurants. His older brother Tahir, who takes the orders by telephone and handles the cash register, left their village one year earlier. ‘The big city was a kind of culture shock’, says Idris bey. ‘But from day one I had the ambition to own my own business.’
Idris bey prepares the kebabs of chicken and minced meat above glowing charcoal in front of the guests in the restaurant. The kitchen behind a screen is Ali usta’s domain. I give him yoghurt for the yayla corbasi, a farmer’s soup with yoghurt and dried mint.
Then I cut the peeled potatoes in four or six pieces for the türlü, a vegetarian stew with carrots, potatoes, egg plant, marrows, tomatoes and green beans. I have the time of my life. I relish the flavors of the herbs and the dishes, I enjoy the professionalism of Ali usta, of the camaraderie, of the tasting and the esthetic presentation of the dishes.
Here they cook unpretentious good. Traditional family dishes from mother’s kitchen.
And the neighborhood appreciates it. On average 130 guests per day visit this restaurant. Teachers, shopkeepers, employees of the municipality, the court and the supermarkets. Most of them are regulars. Some of them didn’t get their pay check last week because of the economic crisis. ‘For the time being they don’t have to pay’, says Idris bey.
I get a free lunch too today ‘because you worked like a real usta (craftsman)’, says Idris with a grin. One of the servants brings me as desert ‘kreme kakao’ that I helped prepare earlier this morning. I watch over my shoulder to Ali usta. He gives me a wink.