Catering To Istanbul’s Burgeoning Tourism Industry


Observations preceding my first and only year gainfully employed in Turkey at a company that, while not perfect by any means, is struggling to turn the local tourism industry in the right direction.

There is a constant power struggle in the world of restaurants, particularly those catering to a transient crowd of travelers or tourists. The back-end accounting mongers who define a restaurant by its profitability, and (hopefully) the craftsmen in the kitchen who are driven by a culinary passion.

In essence, the entire controversy boils down to the same ancient rift between the artisan and the patron. The patron invests capital with a reasonable expectation of a return on investment. But. art cannot be classified in such simple monetary terms, and so the chef’s creativity is often hampered by the management’s desire to put bodies in the chairs, by tempting them with tablecloths and candles, while ignoring their reaction to boiled, burned, or otherwise mangled creations are served, because repeat business WAS. essentially, a non-issue in the tourism industry.

To the management, the plate is only a small part of the entire culinary experience, which starts with advertising and ends not  with paying the bill, but increasingly often sharing the experience with others via social media in the form of a review, or pictures.

For a chef, the food is king. Serve it on non-matching china atop a table made of fruit crates if necessary, but serve it fresh and delicious. The frilly stuff is an extra, an extravagance, which is nice until the cost of napkin cleaning impedes the budget for fresh ingredients and the chef’s prerogative to refuse serving a sub-par dish is compromised.

The tourist trade seems to attract the food market capitalists who want to serve simpler, quicker, prefabricated food allowing them to turn over more tables in a night, and cut supply costs. Budgets are spent on advertising and finding the best food becomes a chore, meals start to be prepared in advance, or kept frozen, and quality takes a nose dive.

Places like Sultanahmet in Istanbul, or Göreme in Kapadokya have more than their fair share of these money pit restaurants, and the result is permanent damage to the image of an entire nation’s culinary heritage.

To be clear, most of the best food for sale at restaurants in Istanbul comes from the darker, back alley variety specialty shops with loyal followings and are often only open for about 5 hours per day, or until the available product is sold-out.

Restaurants which serve a compliant native population also have their fair share of problems. In Istanbul especially, the menu generally offers an array of unoriginal and uninspired dishes, completely predictable from one slop-shop to the next, often floating like bloated corpses in a luke-warm tray of used vegetable oil or sliced dry and chewy from industrialized döner spits. The food must be simple and easily executable so that the establishment can hire a cook, rather than a chef, to save money. The misogynist  tradition of having a personal chef at home cooking all your meals (be it mother or wife), means that the majority of men know very little about the kitchen, and those who are single often frequent the fast-food or the insipid Turkish pagoda style quickie meal joints called “Büfes” for slimey hot dogs on nutrient-free white buns.

Perhaps the steepest cliff blocking the trek up the mountain to world renown is that of consistency. As a country, Turkey is notoriously inconsistent in such diverse categories as international relations, the enforcement of laws, and especially, what your local lokanta (lunchtime cafeteria) might serve you. Absolutely delicious one day and burned to a crisp the next? Was the first time simply luck or was the second a bad day? If you are going to serve bad food at least serve it bad every time.

The excuse? “We give the people what they want…supply and demand.” The same excuses cigarette companies have always posited. Sadly, the people do not know what they want. They need to be educated; they are gullible and believe most anything you tell them.

A business model which represents an end goal of mediocrity, or making the highest percentage of patrons reasonably satisfied is an ungratifying proposition. No strong emotional response,whether it be positive or negative, means your business is not innovative, original, or creative and will never be more than pleasantly mediocre at best. True game changers are invariably met with criticism by those who resist or fear change, and these conflicting emotional responses can serve as an excellent indicator that an impact is being made to the larger marketplace.

An ideal restaurant situation consists of a kitchen producing food that the chefs and owners want to eat, and disregarding the notion that anyone really knows what the customers want. No one wanted an iPhone before Jobs told them they did.

Word will spread and they will come. The information age is upon us. Foursquare, Facebook, Yelp, Chowhound, Twitter, and Tripadvisor now have the power to make or break a restaurant. If you operate a restaurants and don’t know what one or all of those are its a very bad sign. Assuming you operate a local and popular establishment these sites may not matter at all, but if you want the tourism crowd to roll in then its time to plug-in, log-on and sign-up.

Now, lets take a minute to remember a favorite meal or two. Do you remember the flowers on the table or the light fixtures? Or do you remember the way your tongue tingled even an hour after your meal.

The best food is from the back alley or your grandmother’s kitchen. They cook to make themselves happy as much as to please their audience. The recipes are based on tradition and passion, not price-feature-benefit.

The majority of people i ask say the best Turkish food (in particular döner kebap) they ever had was in another European capital (London, Berlin, Vienna), and not in Turkey at all.

You get what you pay for. You get an obsessively clean restaurant with impeccable service, or you get a heartfelt meal that you can be assured the chef would feed to his own family. Is it possible to have both?

The future of the industry must be made not of compromise but of a covenant betwixt creativity and reliability. Artists are notoriously unreliable. Corporate business managers are particularly soulless and misguided. A balance will be struck and the coinage of a new marketplace will be minted with a mold cast of an alloy including intuition, consistency, and business savvy.

This will be the result of an exhausted marketplace for poor food, and a dwindling of the demand for overpriced frills and bills served with a side of cold, dry, genetically modified, cage bound chicken. As the customer base becomes more sophisticated, so must the business management system.

What was commonplace 50 years ago may have become socially unacceptable and morally inappropriate. Products which are unethically sourced, or cause irreparable damage to the environment should be expelled from the menu. In the same way in which a restaurant cannot serve an elephant burger, so should they avoid endangered fish species like Chilean sea bass, fruits and vegetables transported thousands of kilometers, or ingredients which are produced in the third world for low wages. An organic, free-range, cage-free, and fair trade, locally sourced food stock is not only a selling point for potential customers, but produces a fresh, more delicious meal.

Management and chef must work together for the mutual benefit not just of their pocketbooks, but those hungry travellers who simply expect a culinary experience as diverse and dynamic as the city which they visit. A new perspective will come to the Istanbul culinary marketplace, and the old school will quickly reinvent themselves or be forced aside by the invisible hand of the free market.

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