Chef Ethem Aydemir of Azulia says that his trump card is incessant experimentation
“It's magic. Turkish magic,” murmurs the waiter. He tucks a dehydrated towel into a glass of cool rosewater and it blossoms into a towel. “It's not really Turkish magic,” counters Chef Ethem Aydemir, with a shrug. In a black apron with ‘C-H-E-F' emblazoned across it, rock star style, Chef Aydemir is as bluntly practical as he is staunchly proud of Turkey, and all its exports — from food to legend.
He insists, however, that his food goes far beyond the borders of Turkey. Since he's taken over the Azulia (GRT Grand) kitchen, he's been steadily widening the menu to cover more and more of the Mediterranean. Today, Azulia's food comes from 10 countries: Greece, Turkey, Lebanon, Israel, Egypt, Malta, Morocco, Spain, Italy and France (specifically southern France.)
Over lunch, he discusses how becoming a chef was an inevitable decision. “I started cooking when I was 14 years old,” he says, adding, “All my family, they're Chefs. The men, that is. They aren't so many women Chefs in Turkey.” He is hoping his daughter will change the statistics. “She's studying hospitality in Turkey,” he says, adding proudly, “When I'm there she cooks with me in the kitchen sometimes.”
Growing up in Istanbul, he dreamt of seeing the world. “So in 2000, I left and I've been travelling ever since,” he says. “I'm interested in new cultures, languages and cuisines. I grow as a person when I travel.” His work has taken him to from Moscow to Georgia, Uzbekistan to Saudi Arabia. “I worked in many big hotels: Hilton, Conrad, Radisson…” Along the way he's served the inevitable slew of celebrities: The Saudi Royal Family, Bill Clinton, Madonna…
A meal with Chef Aydemir involves a surprising amount of history, geography and legend. As the hummus arrives, glinting with fruity olive oil, he talks of how recipes change subtly as they're absorbed by different regions. Hummus, for instance, originally comes from Syria, though it's now popular in Turkey and much of the Mediterranean. The smoky Patlican, perfected in the tandoor after some experimentation, is a cool mash of smoked aubergine and capsicums blended with garlic, lemon juice and yoghurt. “Did you know aubergines have nicotine? That's why smokers like them so much,” he chuckles, going on to explain how to make the Haydari, rich, creamy and gently stained with paprika. The classic dolmades, which are stuffed vine leaves, he says, are called Yapraksarma in Turkey, and then insists on writing down the spelling, “Because names are very important.”
The hot mezze arrive like notes from a chamber orchestra: fast and furious. Falafel, crunchy outside with a fluffy, spiced stuffing of chickpeas brighted with dill, coriander and chillies. Bourak Bel Jibneh, cigar shaped pastry shells filled with a blend of cheeses. Bademli Peynir, balls of molten cheese covered in crisp slivered almonds. And deep fried Kibbe, kebabs of minced lamb. Along with a story about the infamous Trojan Horse. “You can see one in Troy even now.” Imagine all those people inside,” he states, looking secretly delighted at the thought.
Clearly, Chef Aydemir respects out-of-the box thinking. His trump card is incessant experimentation. While they do import some ingredients, he's been practical enough to also source products from around the country and then work on them till they taste right. Dessert for instance features light, crumbly and warm cheesecake that – incredibly – is made with Britannia cheese. “I played with the recipe till it tasted right,” he says. He's also justifiably proud of his hot soufflé that spurts molten chocolate like an angry volcano. And yes, there's baklava, a stodgier, richer and sweeter Turkish version, as opposed to the light, flaky Lebanese baklava the restaurant served earlier.
Thick, bitter Turkish coffee ends the meal. “In my country people turn the cup over and read your fortune from the coffee left at the bottom,” says Aydemir. “It's not true of course,” he rolls his eyes. It explains why the staff at Azulia call him “the man of steel.”