There’s a Turkish saying that drinking a cup of coffee with a friend corresponds to 40 years of heartfelt memories. Fortunately, there was plenty of coffee on hand and connections to be made at the fourth annual Yedi Istanbul conference. Local and international chefs, sommeliers, restaurant owners, scholars, doctors, a UN representative, business innovators, art curators, journalists, influencers, community organizations and the biggest name at the event, René Redzepi, came together for a day of presentations about “transformation” in the food industry.
Yedi, meaning “ate” in Turkish and also representing the seven regions of Turkey and seven hills of Istanbul, has drawn important international food figures in the past, including Massimo Bottura and Lara Gilmore.
Yedi co-founder Mehmet Gürs, the chef of Istanbul restaurant Mikla (ranked 44th on The World’s Best 50 Restaurant list) and chef and partner at 18 other restaurants and cafes, explained that the event was inspired by Redzepi’s MAD Symposium, where he first met the Danish chef. Along with Vogue Turkey food editor Cemre Narin and the Mutfak Sanatları Akademisi (MSA) culinary arts academy director Sitare Baras, Gürs decided to create something similar in Istanbul, a cosmopolitan city with a booming fine dining scene, an abundance of local products and a unique culinary history – thanks to its location at the junction of Europe and Asia and historic role as the centre of trade between the Silk Road and the Roman Empire.
The 18 people who took the stage at this year’s event wove “transformation” into talks on topics ranging from food sustainability to climate change, zero-waste kitchens, immigration, community kitchens, business innovation, Turkish food origins, food diplomacy and the past and future of Redzepi’s iconic restaurant Noma.
The highlights from Yedi Istanbul 2019
Noma's next steps
The next step for Noma is to transform from within, Redzepi explained. “For us, [re-launching Noma] was about trying to break out of that comfortable couch that Noma had become,” said Redzepi. “I believe if we truly want to make a difference in the food system, we first need to fix ourselves. Better work conditions, higher paychecks, gender equality —there are so many things to tackle in an industry that, not that long ago, was one of the easiest industries to find your way into.”
Redzepi has learned to embrace his role as an advocate for sustainable food systems, which he says is something more cooks should do. “The first thing I wanted to achieve was just to have success. I didn’t care about anything Nordic and the transformation of a cook or taking care of the planet. I just wanted a success,” Redzepi said. But now, he’s ready to help make things better. “I think people still really trust cooks. This industry has some of the most creative and passionate people that I know of, because people work so much for so little and they still want to do better. People are looking for leaders that they can connect to, and I think there are cooks around the world who have a lot to say,” he said.
Redzepi related to Turkey’s immigrant population (up to five million refugees live in Turkey, most having fled from Syria) through his heritage and how family food memories shaped his life. “I grew up partially in old Yugoslavia in Macedonia in a small Albanian community and getting chicken was a special thing. It was my favourite thing in the entire world, watching this thing getting plucked and seeing this bird roasting in the oven, the rice underneath, all the juices dripping down. And when it came to the table…it’s just one of the best things in the world. Thinking about these moments I realize, wow I love food. It is who I am.”
Noma and Redzepi won’t be popping up in Istanbul or any other international destination any time soon. “When you grow up with an Albanian background, you eat a lot of Turkish food. So of course we’ve dreamt of this, but it’s many years in a distant future. When we do these pop-ups, we close our restaurant for six months, during which we have no revenue other than in the five or six weeks we’re open. We travel with a team of almost 100. Everybody who’s married can bring their spouse. They can bring their kids. It is such a big operation,” said Redzepi.
When people meet, food flourish
Istanbul writer Levon Bağiş and Takuhi Tovmasyan say that Istanbul’s popular street food of stuffed mussels and meze of spiced dumplings called topig are two perfect examples of transformation through immigration. Anatolian immigrants to Istanbul, around the year 1415, started stuffing local mussels with rice and herbs. The mollusks were plentiful in nearby waters and much easier to get than meat. Later waves of Anatolian, Syrian and Kurdish immigrants varied the original recipe over time, as they moved to the city and realized that selling mussels was good business. Another traditional Armenian dish, topig, started as a filling meal of spiced onions stuffed into chickpea dumplings made and eaten by Armenian monks. It helped sustain them through long days of fasting. Now, it’s a popular snack or meze.
"Exposure to another culture through its food can reduce xenophobia" said professor Johanna Mendelson-Forman, who teaches a university course called “Conflict Cuisine" at American University’s School of International Service in Washington DC. In fact, after the war in Vietnam, more Vietnamese came to America and more Vietnamese restaurants opened. The same happened after the Ethiopian conflict, the Afghan crisis of 1979, the Cold War and multiple Central American wars.
Relief blossoms into community kitchens
Some examples of the high power of food to make people connect to each other and create communities were given during the Conference. A touching moment was the one when Munira Mahmud, Fatima Odonkor and Halima Al Huthaifa spoke about the Hubb Community Kitchen, a London-based organization of volunteers founded out of necessity when more than 1000 families were stuck living in a hotel with no way to cook after escaping the Grenfell Tower fire in London in 2017. “For a thousand families living in there – Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Jews, everything – it was a beautiful place to live.” The Hubb Community Kitchen started as a collective kitchen at a mosque two days a week, with participants bringing food back to the hotel. But it turned into a form of social transformation and community building.
Produce is the core
“70 percent of all farmers in Turkey believe that their kids won’t take over the family business,” said Ekrem Yazici of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). “It might be a bit of a transformation where new farmers will come on board,” he added optimistically, “but what happens to the family business when it no longer operates? It’s such a pity,” he said.
A taste of the incredible richness of Turkish produce was given to conference attendees in the dinner of meze from some of Istanbul’s top restaurants and producers. The meal was served by students at the MSA, which hosted the event in Istanbul’s Emirgan neighbourhood, trendy area that lines the Bosphorus with yachts, brunch spots and luxury accommodations. Dinner included silky slices of salt-cured bonito lakerda from Reşat Balik restaurant; cubes of seasonal roasted chestnuts (kestaneli fava) blended with savoury fava beans from Rana by Topaz; buttery meyhane bulgur pilaf from the MSA’s own kitchen; crispy fried Tulumba tatlısı soaked in syrup from Sakarya Tatlicisi.