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There are some chefs who, even when attending foodie events, do their utmost to recount their culinary philosophy and to enable participants to taste the authentic fruits of their everyday work. Maksut Askar is one of them.
I was lucky enough to eat at his restaurant Neolokal, looking out onto the Galata bridge in Istanbul, a few months ago. And then to meet him at Care’s 2018, the three-day event dedicated to ethical issues and sustainability, I was pleased and surprised to find the same flavours in his dishes and the same placid yet lapidary manner of presenting the concepts he cares about most: zero waste, a focus on small-scale producers, a return to the culinary traditions of his country.
He immediately points out that “There is no such thing as one type of Turkish cuisine. I prefer to use the term 'Anatolian', to encompass all the cultures of which it is comprised”. An Anatolian cuisine he defines as being essentially “the way mothers cook' handed down from generation to generation which now, unfortunately, is at risk of dying out.
Maksut has a decidedly atypical background: university studies in tourism and hotel management, some experience as a restaurant manager, a rapid foray into the design world and, finally, the decision to open his own venue. “A place that was definitely underground, open only three days a week, with the city’s top DJs” – and then to concentrate on the restaurant side of the business. Neolokal was opened in November 2014. Here Maksut presents his ‘refined dining’ concept, a rediscovery of Anatolian traditional cuisine with a maniacal attention to seeking out ingredients.
To describe your cuisine, you use the words “taste of childhood”. What does this mean exactly?
We base our menus on recollections of our own taste of childhood. Many restaurants in Istanbul do traditional dishes, but, when you taste them, the flavours are different and the ingredients are wrong. We start out from the ingredients and the recollections they spark. Reconstructing a recipe is tantamount to reconstructing an entire culture: for example in the typical mezze restaurants they serve cheese melon and raki as a starter; we have created a dish that combines the three elements. It is not just a question of history but also regards the product of these farmers and the living culture of Turkey. We wish to respect and honour it.
What does the concept of waste minimization actually imply in your everyday activity?
You need to invest a lot and make just as many compromises. We cannot just pursue our objectives without considering the customer’s experience. In any fine dining restaurant, leftovers are inevitable. How many of us have the courage to go up to the customer and say: ‘Sorry, but we have finished this dish, we cannot afford to prepare more and create useless waste’? I see it as a moral issue. When I was a child, whatever was left over from dinner, became the next day’s lunch. Even if it is a minor change today, it will become a major one in the future.
Are there many restaurants in Turkey that follow your example?
Five at the most in all of Istanbul. Mikla does the same as us, but from a different angle. It is only very recently that a proper restaurant scene has started to emerge in Turkey. Previously, people always ate at home and dining out was only for special occasions. Now people go out more and the effects of the economic crisis are making themselves less felt. We feel safer today than we did a few years ago.
You don’t have a typical ‘gastronomic’ background. What drove you to enter the business?
I was annoyed by the way our cuisine was perceived abroad and wanted to reveal its authentic side. It took a while to win the confidence of Turkish customers who tend to be conservative but I have been successful and can now say that I have achieved 80% of what I dreamed of doing a few years ago. I can also say that I have done it alone: I have never wished to gain experience abroad because this would have influenced me too much. The only exception was a brief internship at El Celler de Can Roca because, well… naturally, I wanted to see how it was possible to become the best in the world!
What does the future hold for Neolokal?
I want to be a positive role model and an inspiration for Turkish restaurateurs to offer a cuisine that is fair, good and just.