If Master Chef Gençay Üçok gets his way—and you suspect it’s just a matter of time before he will—the fast food war will be won one kofte kebap (meatball) at a time.
Fast food war? Yes, much as you find cuisine-pride inspired anger at McDonald’s in Paris, Chef Gençay Üçok is a kindred spirit in Istanbul. This is not coincidental. Both France and Turkey have cuisines with historic roots and ever rising standards of perfection. Like many cities around the globe, they now also have too many McDonalds, Burger Kings and pizza chains for the liking of gourmet chefs such as Chef Gençay Üçok and their patrons.
If it weren’t for overzealous Turkish censors, you may had heard of Chef Gençay Üçok’s war against fast food on the world wide web. His website – www.(unprintable obscenity)fastfood.com has been blocked in Turkey for several years now, because of the offending curse word in the URL.
Gençay recounts, “I started that website with one aim—to tell people to make their own food and not eat fast food. What happened was that in the ‘60’s wave of migration to Istanbul there were cultural changes that shifted how people thought of food. So many movies in the ‘80’s showed a very poor migrant to Istanbul—always too skinny and carrying a canteen (lunch box) with his food. For my generation a canteen was coded as the poor guy’s thing.”
Though he lost that battle on the web, Chef Gençay did not consider it as a strategic surrender to fast food chains. Like many of the world’s best chefs, Chef Gençay Üçok has a deep appreciation of local street food and had been hankering to put his touch on a food stall. Next September his Beyaz Izgara (White Grill --- not far from the Beyazit tram stop and steps from the historic Grand Bazaar) will open and give Chef Gençay another volley at growing fast food chain hegemony in his city.
There are only three entrée menu items at Beyaz Izgara—sausage, kofte (meatballs) and chicken. In all three, clearly the hand of a master chef is at work.
The meatballs are almost springy in your mouth with juice exploding with each bite. Chef Gençay explains that this is because the meat is not ground—as it would be in fast food hamburgers- but rather finely minced so that the meat is able to hold its juices while being cooked. With the meatballs comes a traditional bean salad.
Having sampled more than forty restaurants in Istanbul—at all price points—and chicken dishes at many of them—it’s still an easy choice to say that Beyaz Izgara’s chicken was the tastiest and most juicy chicken dish sampled. Chef Gençay reports that his uses a simple marinade made from sunflower oil, onion juice, paprika paste and non-MSG soy sauce. Perhaps it is the grill heat and timing that made the difference—but different and exceptional it certainly is.
American palates might not be used to the saltiness of the traditional sausage entrée, but this is likely to be a favorite among Turkish patrons.
There is a traditional yogurt drink, Ayran, and also a fresh zesty real lemonade to choose between.
While we were enjoying this food stall sneak preview with Chef Gençay Üçok a middle aged Istanbulli woman walked by who immediately recognized the chef and became visibly excited as he told her that he’d be opening this food stall in September. All aflutter and wide-eyed she left with an extra lilt in her step, making one imagine that she couldn’t wait to get home to tell her friends.
If you find yourself in Istanbul you will likely become one of the 400,000/day in winter or 250,000/day in summer who visit Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar. You’ll find Beyaz Izgara steps away, officially open for lunch starting in September.
Opening in September, 2014
Kiliçcilar Sokak No. 14
Photos: Peter Kachergis