Back again. Today I have your guide to Volume 5, Episode 2 of Chef’s Table, which follows chef and food anthropologist Musa Dağdeviren and his quest to preserve traditional Turkish cuisine. If you’ve been following along, great. If not, feel free to check out my guide to the previous episode about Mexican chef Cristina Martinez (and then come back for more!).
This episode of Chef’s Table, in my opinion, was one of the most interesting ones yet! For one, the subject of the episode, Musa Dağdeviren, spoke mostly in Turkish, a language which I adore. He also has a quest which I greatly admire. Let’s dig in.
Musa was born in Nizip, a city in southeastern Turkey. As the youngest child in his family, he spent a lot of time with his mother. She told him that he saw things differently than his siblings — and taught him how to prepare traditional recipes. From a young age, he also worked in his uncle’s bakery. Back then, bakeries were a pillar of Turkish food culture in Nizip. People rich enough to buy meat would bring their meat to the bakeries to be cooked.
When Musa was twelve, the government he had lived under was overthrown by a military coup. Nizip became polarized. Amid the chaos, Musa took the time to learn about the history of Turkey and to learn about the various political factions that had come into the light in his city.
Working in his uncle’s bakery full-time, Musa learned that bakery employees were unable to receive health insurance — and decided to work towards unionizing the bakeries. He led a forty-day strike that resulted in the city government bowing to the bakers’ demands. But Musa found his life under threat and fled Nizip for Istanbul, Turkey’s capital. There, he began working in a restaurant. Hired as a baking assistant, he found himself interested in all aspects of cooking and realized that he wanted to become a chef. After helping revolutionize military cooking techniques during his time in the Turkish military, he returned to Istanbul to found a small restaurant, Ciya Kebab. His hope was to boost the perceived cultural value of Turkish cuisine.
Not long after opening his restaurant, he met his future wife, Zeynap, who would prove a vital help in his restaurant practice. But Musa found himself affected again by a problematic Turkish attitude — a tendency to view some dishes as “Armenian,” others as “Greek,” others as “Jewish,” others as “Kurdish,” and so on and so forth. No one seemed to recognize the value of Turkish cuisine as a varied whole. So Musa returned to Nizip, hoping to steep himself once again in the food culture of his childhood.
Instead, he found that foods he’d enjoyed as a child had all but died out. His mother’s “greasy dumplings” were nowhere to be found. He realized that unless someone intervened, the food culture of Turkey would slowly become extinct. With his wife’s help, he set out on an expedition to document the traditional foods of around forty villages across Turkey, with the goal of writing a cookbook.
Back in Istanbul, Zeynap suggested Musa open a second restaurant, from which he could work towards his goal. At Ciya Sofrasi, he began to cook up regional Turkish fare. The response blew everyone away. People began to flock to the restaurant to enjoy the foods of their cultures and childhoods. Musa’s business boomed. He started a school to instruct students on the elements of traditional Turkish cooking. And he finished his cookbook, which contains 550 traditional Turkish recipes.
I find Musa’s quest to preserve traditional Turkish cuisine worthy of praise. What you eat is an integral part of your culture, perhaps the most integral. And when food culture is lost, culture as a whole suffers, for food is as intimate an aspect of culture as language. Musa is a man who recognizes this.
I hope you’ve enjoyed my coverage of this Chef’s Table episode. Meanwhile, read more about Musa and his mission in this article from The New Yorker.