Half Swedish, half Turkish, chef Mehmet Gurs' food has made him whole

Myffy Rigby
Istanbul chef Mehmet Gurs has 19 cafes and restaurants in the Turkish city.
Istanbul chef Mehmet Gurs has 19 cafes and restaurants in the Turkish city. Photo: Supplied

 Half Swedish, half Turkish, Mehmet Gurs learned to use his feeling of displacement in both countries to create something new on the Istanbul restaurant scene.

One of Turkey's best-known chefs, with 19 cafes and restaurants in Istanbul, including Mikla sitting at No. 51 on the extended World's 50 Best Restaurants list, Gurs is not exactly a household name in Australia. But he might easily have been. 

In 1996, the chef, who'd been working in the US, had to make a choice between moving to Sydney or Istanbul. Despite the fact he loves Australia and considers it his second home (Gurs visits at least once a year), it was Turkey that ultimately won the toss. "To be honest with you," he says, "I'm still regretting it a bit."

Still, the decision made sense. Gurs is the son of a Turkish father and a Swedish mother, who met in the early '60s while his father was studying architecture in Finland. Living between two places as disparate as Stockholm and Istanbul turned out to be both a blessing and curse for the chef, who never really fitted into either place. "I'm always a foreigner, a f---ing immigrant, an outcast. Sometimes you go through an identify crisis: what am I? Where am I? Who am I? What am I doing?"

In the mid-'80s, his family moved to Istanbul permanently. It was a difficult time. "Can you imagine moving from Stockholm, one of the most liberal cities in the world to Istanbul, one of the most conservative, when you're 15 and you've got hormones flowing out of your body?"

Now he can see what a wonderful opportunity it was to make the most of the two cultures, which shaped him into the chef he is today. He describes Stockholm, with its purist design. The cool, calm and quiet. Its subtle elegance when it comes to dining. And then Turkey, with its wild extremes. The food with its blow-the-roof-off spice and sweetness so concentrated it could be mainlined. The combination for a chef is intoxicating. 

Can you imagine moving from Stockholm, one of the most liberal cities in the world to Istanbul, one of the most conservative, when you're 15 and you've got hormones flowing out of your body?

Mehmet Gurs

But from the perspective of a teenager? "It really was a bitch."

Ultimately, his discomfort and displacement pushed him to create a new type of Turkish food, which he refers to as "new Anatolian cuisine", one that layers the cultures that have criss-crossed their way through Turkey (the Roman and Byzantine empires, the Greeks, the Ottomans) with a spare, Scandinavian aesthetic.

The idea is to embrace, but not be crushed by, their influence. "In our region, there are so many ethnicities, religions and national borders that keep on changing. It's like, 'Oh no, this is north-eastern food, or this is south-eastern food'. F--- that. For a great food culture to survive, you have to take it and move it. You cannot hold onto it, otherwise it becomes museum food."

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To that end, Gurs employs a full-time anthropologist, Tangor Tan, whose job is purely fieldwork, connecting Gurs and his team directly with producers from across Turkey. "We want look at the past, the present, and also into the future. Culture is never stagnant. What was valid yesterday is not valid today. And what's valid today is not going to be valid tomorrow. And food is at the centre of all cultures."

"Istanbul is enormous – 80 million people. It's big. It's dirty. And I had a hard time finding that super-pristine, perfect product. So, I had to figure out a way. So, I said to Tangor, here's a camera, camera gear, car, computer. Let's just go out there [to rural Turkey]. Take pictures. We'll look at it. We'll taste it."

It was trial and error in the early days. They'd come back with products that were unusable. But then he realised what he was looking for was quality people. Quality products would follow.

"That's what we're still doing and it's now almost 10 years," Gurs says. "We have this tremendous network of good producers. When we buy tomatoes, for example, we buy them by the field. When we lamb, we buy them by the flock. It might seem like an extravagant and very luxurious way of doing things, but I get it straight from the one who's actually slaughtering the animal. And then I don't have any middle men. I cut them all out."

Initially, meeting the producers was a challenge. The pair, both covered in tattoos, would introduce themselves in remote areas and no one would talk to them.

They learned to wear long sleeves to cover everything up. They started in south-western Turkey, where culturally the people are more open, slowly and gently winning the trust of local farmers. These days, Tan spends a lot of time travelling around Turkey by himself. "And he talks like them now," Gurs says. "I mean, he even has his own dialect, depending on what region he goes to."

When Mikla opened its doors 12 years ago, it was to a relatively unreceptive audience with a clear idea of what they considered Turkish food to be. "We had people getting up [from their seats] and telling us to f--- off, more or less. Which is OK. I mean, that happens," says Gurs.

"Every time you're doing something a bit new, a bit different, people will criticise you for it. But then after a while, they realise that OK, maybe this wasn't so bad after all. And now, they keep on coming back and act as if nothing has happened in the past, and as if it was always great."

Gurs is pleased he started rattling cages all those years ago and has no intention of stopping. "The one who sticks out the head first from the crowd is the one to get the rotten fruit in the face," he says.

"If you don't assume that risk then you'll stagnate. Some people are happy with that. I'm not."

Mehmet Gurs visited Adelaide as part of the Tasting Australia 2018 program. Myffy Rigby was a guest of Tourism South Australia.

Quickfire corner

Music to cook to: A lot of Metallica, a lot of Led Zeppelin.

After-midnight snack: A beer.

Kitchen weapon at work: A good knife.

Formative food moment: I think it was my first job in a real kitchen. It was in Sweden. I remember all I did for two weeks was tomato salad and chocolate mousse. I helped them do a mousse in the beginning. At the end of the two weeks I actually was allowed to do it myself. And to see that actually come through, I was like, "Wow. I actually did that." That sense of pride, like even talking about it now gives me the chills.

Non-cooking ninja skill: Woodwork. I would love to make my own boat.