Last week I sat down with Kantin’s chef and owner Şemsa Denizsel over Turkish coffee to discuss Turkish cuisine and the state of food in Istanbul. She generously shared an hour of her time with me, introduced me to her staff and showed me her kitchen (a bustling affair with nearly 20 people at work). Kantin recently celebrated its 9-year anniversary and expanded its facilities to include a ground floor takeaway place beneath its second-floor restaurant. Since its inception in 2000, Kantin has been serving simple, honest, homemade food in Nişantaşı, Istanbul’s poshest neighborhood where one comes more to see and be seen than to be seen eating. How, then, has Şemsa managed to find such success in a district?
K: Tell me a bit about Kantin’s philosophy:
S: When it comes to food, I think simple is better. Of course it is very nice to have a fancy meal in a beautiful restaurant but a chef cannot begin to prepare complicated meals unless he or she has mastered the art of simplicity. That is what I do here. Simple food that is everyday food. People come to eat here because they know that what I make employs only the best seasonal ingredients. Do you see eggplant on my menu? No. Of course you can find eggplant now in all the markets but they are coming from greenhouses, many are probably genetically engineered and have no taste. My food must be fresh and it must taste good. If it doesn’t, I will not be satisfied nor will my patrons.”
K: Is this philosophy of serving seasonal produce gaining momentum?
S: To a very small extent, yes. But, you are bound to find tomatoes and eggplant on most menus in the city, regardless of season. This is not good because these products are not healthy if they are available year-round. When they are in season, they taste so good. I have recently found a tomato grower who sells at the Bomonti organic market. His tomatoes have the best taste and in August many of my dishes used them. I hope to use his products again in the summer but until then, there will be no tomatoes on my menu.
K: In the US and Italy eating organic is an upper middle class phenomenon, particularly in American where “organic” tends to carry a hefty price tag. Is this the case in Turkey as well?
S: No. Here the movement is a small one, but growing, and people from every class and region are involved. 2 years ago Carlo Petrini came to Istanbul to establish the first Slow Food Consortium in Turkey. Now we have 20 chapters across the country.
K: In Italy today, immigrant cultures are scapegoats for diluting the nation and regional cuisine. In Lucca, new ethnic food restaurants have been banned in order to “protect” regional cuisine. Have immigrant cultures in Turkey been blamed for changing the food culture, as well?
S: No, not really. I think the single biggest threat to Istanbul cuisine is Istanbullus forgetting their roots. They want to eat lots of different kinds of food, not always their own. This is ok as long as you remember your roots. Here, we have influences from many ethnicities and classes and if you forget that you lose tradition. Jewish, Armenian, the upper class, the middle class and the masses all played a part in making Istanbul’s cuisine. We must protect the food of everyday Istanbullus as though it were the food of the sultans. Even the peasant food here was refined.
K: Historically tea and coffee were instruments of hospitality and generosity in the home. How has this changed and how has café culture evolved?
S: Meeting for a coffee is a new thing but morning coffee is a centuries old tradition. Housewives would invite their neighbors over for morning coffee and gossip. It was a social instrument. Now you meet outside the home for a coffee, you may even go to a café with your laptop to work. It is unfortunate but the original tradition has been seriously diluted.
K: I see Starbucks, Caffe Nero and other chains on every corner. Are they the culprits here?
S: No, Starbucks and other chains come after the café culture started changing. Now they are everywhere and not much different than McDonalds. You can go there and be social or not social. There is no hospitality involved.
To combat this, Şemsa’s Kantin has been outfitted to resemble a home. Since she spends long hours there six days a week, it has become an extension of her home, with fresh, seasonal comfort food and a constantly changing menu that keeps loyal customers coming back for more.
Akkavak Sokak 30