«No Farmer, No Food, No Future» an interview with chef Gürs

“We all know that without farmers, breeders and fishers there would be no food and no future”. Chef at Istanbul’s Mikla restaurant and advocate of the New Anatolian Cuisine, Mehmet Gürs has always been attentive to the needs of his region and has long been involved in promoting the respect and safeguard of the marine ecosystem.

One of his first activities was to support Slow Food IstanbulDon’t Let the Lüfer Go Extinct!” campaign, launched to protect a local fish that was under serious threat of extinction due to the indiscriminate fishing of undersized fish.

This year Gürs is supporting the Greenpeace initiative, “How Big is Yours,” which calls for the introduction of a law that dictates a minimum size to fish that can be caught. In June, a national meeting with the Ministry for Agriculture will be held to discuss the issue. At this meeting, Slow Food Istanbul and the community of fishers and cooks supporting the campaign are hoping for a change in the regulation that currently allowing lüfer as small as 14 cm to be caught

Your background is very interesting: you have been raised by a Turkish architect father and a Finnish-Swedish mother, having «Turkish feasts for Islamic holidays; herring and pig’s trotters for Scandinavian Christmas». You come from two completely different cultures. Do you think this has been a great opportunity for you?
Yes definitely it has been and still is a great thing!!

Has it been hard to find a balance between the two cultures?
I am still struggling :)) but all for the best. Sometimes I feel like a lunatic with a double personality. They aren’t exactly two cultures that are close to each other… One is very “cool and calm” the other very “rich and vibrant”. I love both. It brings many dimensions to my life. To be honest I am quite used to it as this has been the only “reality” I know.

How can you make «fusion without confusion?» Both in private life and at work?
At home I am the luckiest man as I have two angels that keep me energized, positive, sane and together. Think of a compass that always shows the right way… very much like the ancient Nordic “Vegvisir”… Asena my wife, Bora our son and I somehow manage to fuse into something great… at least for us 🙂 There I am crystal clear. No confusion what so ever.
At work we are not doing so bad either… I’ve got a great staff. We understand each other well and have an open communication. They are used to many of my “unconventional” ideas and we are not afraid of failure so even if some of the things we do seems crazy in the beginning we very often give it a try. We are a rooted team with many years of “communal experience” that I constantly try to inject new talent into. My scandinavian roots will always be present in everything I do but my Anatolian Mediterranean “present” is shaping the future more and more.

You are considered the best exponent of New Anatolian Cuisine. Can you describe what your idea of New Anatolian Cuisine is?
Thank you for your kind comment… I believe the term “New Anatolian Cuisine” was first mentioned during my presentation at Identita Golose ‘11. It is not something that I brought to the table but I think it was Gabriele Zanatta that came up with the term. I have to thank him for it… it was about time! No one, including myself had the guts to bring it out of the closet…

The idea is very simple… This is what I have written on my wall:

– Dare to look at traditional habits, products and techniques with a new and fresh perspective.
– Preserve the traditionally “Natural Kitchen” of Anatolia while being forward thinking.
– Be aware of the deeply rooted cuisine and the multitude of cultural layers.
– Adapt the past blend of “l’occident & l’orient” to the present.
– Strive to create great flavors while considering the contemporary diet.
– Support the farmers and truly embrace the saying: “No Farmer, No Food, No Future”.
– Keep The New Anatolian Kitchen void of National, Religious or Ethnic barriers.
– Embrace the cultural differences that make the area special and express the “Rich & Vibrant” character of the region in your cooking.
– Make use of the products that strive in their particular region and those that have been produced respecting the land, sea and also the workers.
– Support the producers that do a good and honest job. Share the information with others.

Do you think that in order to preserve traditional cuisine, having an innovative approach is fundamental? If yes, is there a boundary that should not be crossed in order not to risk losing the nature of ancient regional cuisines?
No I don’t think it is fundamental at all. However I think it is and will be a very important part of it. But without “purists”, researchers, historians and the preservation of traditions the innovations will be useless and without roots. Think of it very much like a person… I believe in complete independence and individual freedom but without family ties and also a certain connection with your surroundings, life can become somewhat empty. Most of us like to have some building blocks to base the present and future on…
I don’t believe in “Red Lines” except when it comes to the “universal rights and wrongs” so it is hard for me to answer the question of “boundaries”. Any person should be able to go completely “nuts” with creativity and new ideas without having to think about any cultural boundaries or political horseshit. In order not to lose the great and beautiful ancient traditions in regional cuisines and also other fields such as art, music and dance, I strongly believe that governments, foundations and other civil organizations very much like Slow Food are essential. It is very hard for the traditions to withstand the “economics of advancement”… they need a certain level of support. And as we all know, all that is needed is a tiny fraction of funds and energy spent on military and other somewhat useless organizations.
But I also think it is very important not to be afraid that we are going to lose the past. Culture is a constant evolving and living thing. Fear cannot bring anything good to anyone, anywhere, period. Sometimes the lifespan of a tradition, word or idea might be over and there is nothing anyone can do about it. Very much like life itself… Many things will only survive in history books and that is ok. The grain itself should be protected and preserved but the way it is consumed will most probably go through a constant evolution.

I read that you employ a former chef who has a Ph.D. in food cultures to travel looking for rare or disappearing ingredients to relay them to your kitchen (such as honey from bees in an isolated Caucasus village, «tiny olives from an Orthodox Christian village near the Syrian border that you serve at Mikla over crushed ice», « Sheep’s-milk tulum cheese that has been aged for four years, so strong it knocks your socks off»).
Now, Mikla restaurant sources food from more than 250 small producers in Turkey, Armenia, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Greece and Bulgaria.
Can you tell us why you made this choice?

You tell me :)) If I only knew…
Not all of the 250 producers are small, some are larger but also producing great products with integrity. Over the years living in Istanbul and traveling extensively in the area (I prefer to call it the area, I don’t like and don’t care about national boundaries) I have come across so many amazing products that are so under appreciated that it hurts. There are so many pure and tasty products that it is almost a sin not to use and promote them. Coming back to your specific question of why I made the choice… To start with, these products make our cuisine exponentially better. But the real benefit is that if I get these products and their producers “out”, and if other chefs in the area start using them extensively the products and most importantly their keepers will survive. We all know that without the farmer there is no food and no future.

Have you discovered any new products recently?

We always find new things but the winter is usually the “dormant” season. The spring is coming and Tangör (the agricultural engineer who became a chef, who became a graduate of UNISG, who became a PhD in Anthropology) is getting ready to hit the road again. This spring and summer we want to concentrate on the Taurus mountain range and also Thrace. We will probably also visit some of the closer Greek islands.

Let’s talk a bit about the success of the GreenPeace campaign, “How Big is Yours”, that you support. Why did you feel the need to take part in this initiative? Have you obtained a positive response from the Turkish Government?

The answer is very simple… Any sane somewhat intelligent person with a conscience realizes that if we sit around and stuff our faces like we have. We will destroy ourselves. Anyone that does not see this is an imbecile. Plain and simple!! It may sound harsh but considering that we have almost out fished the oceans we better start changing our habits, and quickly! Without small fish there is no big fish!! Without big fish there is no ocean! Without a healthy ocean there is no living planet… I must add that I don’t say that we should stop eating fish or other seafood but there is a balance that we have to be aware of and also respect… don’t eat certain species, and DON’T eat “baby fish”, it is the same as being a pedophile… It is true that I am active, I try to do as much as I possibly can. When Bora asks me what happened I don’t want to be fumbling my thumbs and look up in the air like an idiot who did nothing…
The campaign has been quite successful and we got over 300.000 supporters in a very short time. We have had some positive responses and promises from the government… hopefully they won’t be “politicians promises”. They have promised to review the fishing regulations but we will continue to campaign until we get a result.

I read that you are very active in Istanbul and you support many other initiatives aside from GreenPeace. Can you tell me some of the activities you are involved in?

It is true that I am quite active but I prefer to be quiet about most… this fish thing I couldn’t resist… I had to speak out… sometimes I feel like I want to scream out until I have no more air in my lungs.

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