From psychology to culinary arts, Turkish chef Refika Birgül’s life has taken her on quite a journey. She shares her love for life and cooking, her fusion recipes and the perfect mistakes she’s made along the way. Erin Zeynep Güler-Tuck
Istanbul has been a home-sweet-home to many civilizations, their cultures and their cuisine. It would be a shame not to embrace all these cuisines under one roof. Chef Refika Birgül seems to have done just that in her kitchen, and in her bilingual cooking book, Refika’nın Mutfağı/Cooking New Istanbul Style. Embracing her love for cooking at a young age with the encouragement of her mother and older brother, she took to an undergraduate education in psychology, then a job in advertising, and straight into medicine, until she landed back where she had started: in the kitchen, simmering on her past and fulfilling the culinary creations of her dreams.
When and how did your love affair with cooking begin?
My love affair with cooking started at the age of 15. But I really got into it three years ago when I got my own house. When you are with your parents, it’s hard to cook food and do a lot of things, because they’ll like it or won’t like it, but friends accept you as you are, you have time, you want to entertain. Basically, after I moved into my house, all I had was an IKEA bedroom, cushions and towels, and the kitchen was complete. I wrote my first business plan on opening a restaurant when I was 22, while I was working with ifPeople, Pelin Serra. We were planning on opening a meze place like Wagamamas. I think that’s still a very nice plan. What I realized through interviews is that in Turkey, some mothers don’t let their kids in the kitchen, and I really didn’t understand why...maybe because [the mother] wants to make things as perfect as possible. And the girl, let’s say, can’t dice the tomatoes properly, and the mother says “ah, leave it, I’ll do it.” I think this is something that takes away from the kitchen. Luckily, I didn’t have that experience, plus my mom was working so hard and it was a gift to her to have someone else cook. Actually, the first person that led me into imaginative cooking was my brother. He’s 4 years older than me.
Have you ever made a mistake in the kitchen? What do you do about these mistakes and what happens when you don’t get the desired outcome of your recipes?
I think we have to embrace making mistakes in every aspect of our lives. It’s how people learn how to walk. In order to move on in life, as real as moving on, making mistakes is a part of it. When I want to make something perfect, I really go crazyand just can’t do it. When I want to make something nice, then I make it great. Perfectionism is in my soul. I want everything to be in my control. But I don’t believe there is the perfect chicken or perfect stir-fry, there are so many variables there, and those variables are so interchangeable.When you ruin something, you learn more than you’d learn had you made it great the first time. You start to learn what you did wrong, and in the kitchen, to be able to make something out of the ruins is also a part of pushing yourself to be better. Also, my business strategy teacher, HasanYılmaz, the youngest CEO of Unilever, said he wouldn’t hire a guy who always had successes in life, but rather, a guy who instead had a failure and came back from it. That is the spirit of the journey itself.
What is it about Istanbul’s food that makes it so authentic and unique? The cultures within it probably are what [make] it so unique. I see Ottomans as the first and the best fusion kitchen ever. The fusion, in fact, evolved in 500-600 years because it was also on the Spice Road. The culture that dominates the world basically gets all the best things from the world, it was once England, and then it was America. The word 'fusion' came from California because a lot of people were immigrating there, and there were lots of different foods. London is now, gastronomically, the best place. As we know, they never had great food. But basically, what happened was that other cultures poured in, and then contracted the culture. Istanbul has always been the most appealing city. The Ottomans brought the whole world here. The food was always a mixture of religions and cultures. They go together. When we walk around [the Kuzguncuk neighbourhood], there’s a church, synagogue and a mosque, all near each other. You cannot find such a thing anywhere in the world. Very naturally, I think this affects the food. I think this is what makes Istanbul food fascinating. What happened was, after the Ottoman Empire collapsed, Turkey closed its borders in order to heal its wound. Very recently, the new generation went abroad and saw and brought many [things back with them]. What they also discovered when they ate abroad, was how good [the local] food is and how fascinating it is. At some point, it [seemed that] when you [went] to a very good restaurant, you [ate] French food or Italian food in Turkey; it was something that displeased me and made me very sad. Now people started to realize this, and you are starting to see cool Turkish food in cool restaurants, like Çanga, the one that started it.
What is “fusion” andwhat role does itplay in your cookingstyle and the dishesyou prepare? I’m one of those people who has been abroad and whose had an American education in Turkey, so, what basically happens is that you can look at [your culture] as a person who is born into it, and as a foreigner - we have the chance to look at it both ways. My fusion is Turkish food fused with world [cuisine], and food with life. It is in my nature to mix things. I like food being a basic, but a beautiful part of life. That’s why the food is not only recipes, that is why the ingredients are so important; the kitchen and how you present [the food] is so important. Because it’s all a part of the joy you get out of cooking. For things to be able to continue, like a company to survive by making money, a tradition can survive if it brings joy and happiness. It’s probably like your mother tongue. Even if you learn 5 languages, the language that you learned from ages 1-5 is the mother tongue, it’s the language you can grasp things easily in. I think food is a similar thing. The food you eat when you are a child, it’s the taste that we have had for years and years, so if you relate to that, that gives you a deeper, more genuine experience.
How do emotions and your feelings for those you cook for become a part of your cooking? What is the "Invisible Ingredient"?
Some chefs, or people who like to cook never go out and see the reactions of the people who eat their food. That, I personally do not understand. People’s reactions to my cooking intrigue me, and they really feed me. My own emotions feed my way of cooking. It’s really the 'Invisible Ingredient,' you don’t add anything different to the food. I think it’s magical; I don’t have much to say about how it works. It’s really magical and it happens. The relationship between the one that cooks and the one that eats is very important. That’s why I don’t think about opening a restaurant anymore, because you lose that at some point.
Do you mostly focus on cooking with local ingredients or can people all over the world enjoy cooking your fusion recipes? The beautiful thing about globalization is, in most of the big cities, you can find [lots of different] ingredients. If I want an Arabic ingredient, I can find it, Japanese, Chinese. They bring it via the Internet. But some of the ingredients in the book are very locally made. It’s important to have a specific filo dough. To find that, it might be a bit hard. We almost know the basics of Italian or French cooking, even though we don’t know how to cook it on our own. But Turkish cooking is really different, maybe not as different as Arabic cooking. For a Lebanese person, they can find all this ingredients; it does depend on the country. But basically, it is the idea, the spirit that [people] can be inspired by.
Your cookbook doesn’t look like other cookbooks? What was the inspiration for the eccentric design? When I was in university, I thought I’d get into advertising. When I was 18, I started to work with Medina Turgul DDB, one of the best advertising agencies ever. It was a great experience. I think it’s those times that helped me to look at things and how they can be easily read, the colours etc. The design of the book - to find someone who would do that was a process [in] itself. And it took a year to settle the design. [For] every page, there were at least 10-15 revisions.
What are some words of wisdom to novice cooks just starting out? Never push yourself. Do the things you love; if you like making bread, just make bread for a while. Do not ask 'Why?' ask 'Why not?' Never throw anything away. I hate throwing food away. Push yourself to find other uses for it and be happy not throwing it away. I put stale bread into pudding and make dessert out of it.
Not many people know that you are an avid photographer. Did you also contribute photographs to the book? Half of the photographs are mine, but the other half - the magical photographs of the book - are from Alp Korfalı. He is the husband of a very good friend, and he sees me in a great way.
Quick bits about Refika
Fave Istanbul spot to cook? My mom’s house, my mom’s garden, actually. In that garden, when I was 15, I designed a lahmacun oven (similar to a pizza oven).
If you could, where would you want to cook in Istanbul? In the public space at the foot of Galata Tower.
Fave tool to use in the kitchen? Knives, I guess.
Fave Istanbul moment? Hanging out in my neighbourhood café chatting with people I know and just being - that is the ultimate freedom.
Something funny we should know about you. I am dyslexic. I cannot even write my own name from time to time. For me to have written a book was really pushing my boundaries. It’s all thanks to Microsoft Word!
Fave ingredients? Yufka (filo dough) – it’s a miracle!
Fave TV Show? This BBC 1 game show Can’t Cook, Won’t Cook really helped a lot of Brits to cook and develop their skills. And today, if London is one of the world’s culinary centres, I believe all those experiences helped.
Make a fusion meal in less than 30 minutes:
CHICKEN WITH PASTRAMI
• Chicken breast, 1 whole piece
• Turkish String Cheese, 1 big strip
• Pastrami, thick and with side paste, 6 slices
• Mint, 1 pinch
• Large toothpicks
• Teriyaki sauce
Prep and cook time: 25 minutes.
• Pound the chicken breast in order to make it a little larger than an A4-sized paper. If you are not experienced with pounding meat, you can ask your neighborhood butcher to do it for you.
• If you are going to do it by yourself: place a fridge bag on the chopping board, lay the chicken breast on the bag and add another layer of fridge bag over it.
• Place the pounded chicken breast in a flat-bottomed but deep bowl.
• Add the teriyaki sauce. To make sure the breast absorbs the sauce, make very thin scratches along both sides with a knife. Think of the chicken as an A4-sized paper that you will fold from the long side: lay 3 pastrami pieces on one half.
• Put the string cheese and mint on the pastrami and add another layer of pastrami.
• Fold the chicken as if you are sealing an envelope, and attach the edges together with the toothpicks.
• Pour a little oil in a pan. Cook the chicken on medium heat, covering then uncovering the lid - on and off with 2-minute intervals for 10-12 minutes, so that the insides will be cooked but it will not be too juicy.
The Refika’nın Mutfağı/Cooking New Istanbul Style cookbook can be purchased at all major bookstores in Istanbul and on idefix.net. Visit Refika’s fun-filled, user-friendly website for more recipes and tips in the kitchen, www.refikaninmutfagi.com
*Originally published in the July 2010 issue of Time Out Istanbul in English.