If you’re attuned to Turkish flavours and a fan of SBS Food, chances are you’ve come across the smiling face – and tantalising recipes – of Somer Sivrioglu. Since opening his restaurant Efendy 10 years ago, the Turkish chef has been enchanting diners and home cooks with the recipes of his homeland. Somer schooled us in kebabs on Food Safari Fire, taught how to make muhammara in Feast magazine, and shared his Antep-style pistachio baklava on the original Destination Flavour. While his passion for Turkish cuisine remains as radiant as ever, a few things have changed... including the baklava.
First up, Somer is now the proud parent of restaurant number two: Anason. Perched along the Barangaroo banks of Darling Harbour, this restaurant carries the spirit of Istanbul’s meyhenes. The menu moves away from Efendy’s charcoal feasts and breakfast banquets, deep-diving into modern Anatolian fare. Designed for sharing, the mostly meze menu celebrates seafood, spices and vegetables. It’s authentically Turkish, albeit with a few sophisticated twists.
“In Istanbul, we eat exactly like this,” Somer says, referring to Anason’s menu of charcoal octopus, spicy camel sujuk (sausage) and dried eggplant dolma. “[It’s] small meze: lots of olive oil, seafood and, you know, drinking rakı or wine.”
While Australia's perception of ‘Turkish cuisine’ has come a long way since food court falafel and late-night kebabs, Somer believes Istanbul eats are still relatively unknown. His passion to share this style of food is what convinced him to open up Anason in the first place. That and the restaurant’s waterfront views.
“It was not planned to be honest,” he says of setting up shop. “I was very busy writing the book [2015’s Anatolia] when I had a call at the restaurant Efendy. This lady said, ‘I called a few times and you never answered, there’s a proposition I want to make for you. I want you to open up a city thing.’"
While his initial reaction was no, thank you – “I like doing my own thing” – Somer ended up scouting the proposed site. Luckily for Sydney’s dining scene, a feeling of familiarity bowled him over.
“I said, ‘This is like home,’” Somer recalls. “It’s the Bosphorus, you know – the ferries passing b; a beautiful, gentle breeze; the sun was setting. It was a perfect moment and I work with that; I work a lot with my emotions.”
Judging by the success of his cheffing career, Somer’s emotions make pretty good calls. It was, after all, his desire to work with “warm hands” instead of “cold figures” that spurred a career change from the corporate food and beverage industry to a commercial kitchen more than 10 years ago.
“I had a really long unpaid, unappreciated, unofficial apprenticeship in Turkey.”
Unlike many sea-changers, though, Somer’s switch was driven by more than just passion. Aside from understanding the business of restaurants – his former employer, Urban Purveyor Group, oversees the likes of Sydney's Saké – Somer had hands-on experience in cooking for customers.
“I had a really long unpaid, unappreciated, unofficial apprenticeship in Turkey,” Somer laughs.
“My mum had a number of restaurants in Istanbul and in Bodrum, and I worked with her. She was a notoriously classical chef. She would go through staff so quickly and I was always her fallback chef.”
His mum’s kitchen was clearly a great training ground, as Somer has grown into one of the country’s top Turkish chefs, raising the culinary profile of his homeland, and inspiring many to experience the real-thing in person.
“As a chef I feel like I have another obligation, apart from just cooking great food,” Somer says. “It is taking people from their usual day-to-day; taking people on a journey. For me, the way that I judge myself is if people sit down in here and for a couple of hours they say, ‘This is exactly what we had in Turkey.’”
Of course, not everyone’s fussed on feeling at home – or on holidays – when dining at a restaurant.
“Sometimes we get criticised by the reviewers saying, ‘Your staff are so friendly,’” Somer admits. “That's how we are in Turkey – it’s is a service culture. People will be almost feeding you if you don't finish the food on your plate. It’s... almost overbearingly hospitable.”
To end on a sweet note, let’s go back to the baklava – a Turkish sweet Somer now refuses to make.
“I used to do it, and I used to do a half-decent job of it,” he admits.
“Then I went to this baklava house in Gaziantep and worked there for two days. [I realised] there's no way I can even come close to what they do. These guys... are doing this job for like 30, 40 years sometimes, and they still don't call themselves masters!”
While Somer and his chefs steer clear of making baklava, the syrupy dessert is still on the menu at Anason. Air-freighted in five kilogram packets, the pastry is delivered twice weekly from that same baklava house in Gaziantep. And like a cherry on the top after a meal of meze and rakı, one bite of the sweet treat will take you straight to Turkey.
Have we got your attention and your tastebuds? it's all about Turkish cuisine on this week's episode of The Chefs' Line airing weeknights at 6pm. Check out the program page for episode guides, cuisine lowdowns, recipes and more.