ARTIST IN THE KITCHEN
Kemal Demirasal, the eccentric chef behind a quiet revolution happening on the Turkish food scene, has a confession to make: he hates chopping.
“It will sound weird, but the thing I least enjoy is the cooking,” he says with a shrug. “The reason why I wanted to be a chef is because I like design… the process of creating something new.”
This is just one of a number of quirks that characterize Demirasal’s story. An energetic man who wears orange-rimmed glasses that accentuate the ginger in his beard and hair and make him look more like a Scandinavian hipster than a Turkish chef, his route into the industry is utterly unique.
After 15 years as a professional surfer, he decided to study economics. It wasn’t his first choice; he wanted to study design, but it didn’t work out. So instead he looked to the world of food to provide the creative outlet he was searching for, putting himself through the grueling training that all wannabe master chefs must undergo. “But it was not my vision to be a proper chef,” he says, adjusting his distinctive glasses. “I was always thinking, ‘Are you going to be chopping onions for the rest of your life?'”
He was not. Instead, he started traveling, making it his mission to visit the 50 best restaurants on the planet. So what did he find most inspiring during that trip, where he tried everything from molecular gastronomy to foraged food? For food and taste, it’s San Sebastián in Spain’s Basque region, hands down.
His eyes glaze over for a second before he continues. “There is this fish restaurant by the sea called Elkano. Not fine dining, not fancy,” he smiles. “They grilled this turbot and before they served it they let it rest in its own juice. And the gelatin from the fish melts and they whipped it until it turned into a cream somehow. That’s what I would choose as my last meal on earth.”
When it comes to creating a unique culinary experience, however, Demirasal aspires to something totally different: the Nordic style. “I like the way they design food,” he explains. “The way they approach food is so different form other cultures. So simple yet so diverse and also so complicated.”
These influences are evident in his cooking, whether at Barbun, a back-to-basics seafood restaurant he runs in the quaint Aegean town of Alaçati, or at Alancha, which offers a more avant-garde culinary experience at a restaurant just along the coast in Çesme.
The popularity of Alancha in particular, with its 20-course tasting menu, has propelled Demirasal to stardom in Turkey, and after two years of requests, he finally opened an Istanbul branch of Alancha this March. What does a typical dish look like? There isn’t one, nor is there a gastronomic box that you could put the food into. He has purposefully mashed together cuisines from Asia to the Balkans into what he calls the Great Migration Menu.
One cross-country example: a typical Greek salad, but grilled the Turkish way (Demirasal likes to grill everything, without exception) and presented on a plate with the flag of Greece. This is a man for whom food should know no borders. He doesn’t talk about Turkey, but about Anatolia, which loosely refers to the expansive Asian bulk of the country.
“You cannot simplify Turkish food into one region. Anatolia as a region is multinational and multiple civilizations have passed through it. We have the Phoenician influence, Mesopotamia, the Ancient Greeks, the Ottomans, Moroccans, Cretans. So it’s not about being Turkish. It’s about being on the land of Anatolia.”
He may be a chef that doesn’t enjoy cooking, but he certainly has a vision. And it’s one that may well turn out to make his restaurant one of the top 50 in the world.
9 Şehit Mehmet Sokak, Maçka, tel. 90.212.261.3535, alancha.com
– Venetia Rainey