Chef Fatih Tutak on returning to Turkey to drive the country's food culture forward

The  Staff Canteen

Born and raised in Istanbul, Fatih Tutak always knew he wanted to be a chef.

The chef travelled to Ching Dao, Beijing, Tokyo and Singapore, working in hotels, honing local techniques along the way. 

He returned to Europe to work at Noma - becoming the first Turkish chef to work there - then moved to Hong Kong where he opened a restaurant with Australian chef James Larry - attracting international attention, including mentions in the Michelin Guide - but not bringing in enough revenue to satisfy investors - and thus, he was fired. 

He and his then wife briefly returned to Istanbul before the opportunity arose for him to launch a restaurant in Bangkok, which the chef said "made my career." 

Suckling lamb, pistachio, burnt yoghurt

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The 140 year-old building, formerly used as a Russian embassy in Bangkok's CBD became a hotbed of creativity for the chef. 

"I created my own concept," he said, fusing the knowledge and skills picked up working in Asia and his childhood in Turkey. 

"My cuisine evolved a lot, I started to use a lot of Asian ingredients, absorbing the culture and the heritage and I combined it with my own Turkish, Mediterranean, European style." 

A pivotal moment came for the chef when critics pointed out that the Manti on the 12-course tasting menu  - affectionately credited to his mother, whose recipe they were based on - was the most amazing dish. 

"They said: 'it was you. It represented you. You're Turkish, why don't you cook more Turkish dishes? Use your heritage and show who you are, you have a lot of modern techniques and you have a vision, why don't you use those to create a dining experience which can make Turkish cuisine succeed globally?"

The thought had never occurred to the chef, but from then on, everything changed. 

"I decided there and then to revolutionise my culinary perspective. The next morning, I talked to my sous and I said: guys, I've made a decision. I'm turning this restaurant into a Turkish restaurant." 

The decision paid off - the restaurant was named Best Restaurant in Asia twice in a row, and was mentioned in the Michelin Guide. 

"Then, we had a lot of young, Turkish interns who came to work with us. It was amazing, but in the end, I said, 'you know what, that's not enough for me." 

"I said: 'I really want to develop Turkish cuisine, I want to create a new alphabet, I want to share my knowledge with young Turkish chefs in Turkey." 

Smoked garfish from Canakkale, cherry woods,
lacto-fermented cucumber juice

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And so, after 15 years, he returned to his home country, and set himself the task of opening a restaurant which both represents his heritage and brings something new to the table.

"We shouldn't be modernising traditional recipes - everything has to be new. 200 years ago, 1000 years ago, the climate, technology, everything was different so we can create new recipes." 

The chef sought the right partners for his business, then took a 10,000 km road trip around Turkey to meet producers, fisherman, traditional matrons cooking in remote villages, bakers, ceramic, cutlery-ware, getting more than 150 people on board with the project. 

"We don't want to create a place just for eating, you experience Turkish culture, and the future." 

"This is what I want to continue developing." 

None of the food will be the same as it was at The Dining Room, he explained: "I don't want to repeat myself, I had to create a new style. Our dishes here are more ingredient-led, we use techniques to find the right umami in vegetables." 

"We don't want to do a show here - creating presentations to wow people. The most important thing here is to taste dishes and have Istanbul in your mouth." 

Using ingredients used to create the same dishes for millenia, Fatih wants to reinvent the taste of Turkey.

"You have to be curious and you have to work very hard." 

"It is not avant-garde. It is simple, done well, food from the heart."  

Kadayif, custard, nuts, molasses

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Additionally, Fatih explains that he wants to restaurant to be just as much about cherishing guests as it is about education, research and development, and has taken it upon himself to give young, aspiring Turkish chefs an outlet to change the country's culinary landscape.

As part of this, he attends symposiums around the country, to seek out young talent from the more rural parts of the country. 

"One day, my career will end, and whoever comes after me, I have to help them and pull them up." 

"I can go to private school in Istanbul and it's very easy to find them. But if I find them elsewhere, I feel it's more valuable." 

"I'm not a person that wants to do things alone. I have to feed those people with my ideas." 

Having documented the restaurant, a film tracing the team's journey to open Turk will air on Netflix in the near future. 

"It's not just a restaurant. We would like to create a community - from different aspects - connected with time, art, producers, the climate, food production and sustainability, creativity." 

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 24th December 2019

Chef Fatih Tutak on returning to Turkey to drive the country's food culture forward