Ep 1 – Istanbul's hidden secrets
I met some amazing people who, like Ataturk, unveiled Istanbul for me and let me see her real beauty. From the Ottoman past to the ultra sheik modern Turkish cuisine, Istanbul had me captivated. I wish I had more time there.
My last day there was a rare day off – no early start, no cameraman and no cooking. Just me on my own, taking in the city and doing the things that made me feel normal and human again. I went for a for a walk though Istiklal Avenue and found an authentic barber shop, where, for only a few bucks, I could get a shave with a cut-throat razor on my head and face.
Then I was off to have the best Turkish coffee I have ever tasted. This place was a real gem. Mandabatmaz has been making this liquid gold since 1967 and has perfected the art. Sitting alone in a alleyway watching the world go by with a cup or three of this stuff was heaven. Next? A feed in an alley of whatever smelt good. Then drinking Arak at Munferit until I couldn't stand – the perfect way to end my Istanbul romance.
Ep 2 – Lone pine
Growing up, I remember Dad being a huge history buff. He loved ancient history, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, French and Phoenicians. I could hear my dad's voice in my head giving me a play-by-play of all the historical sites I saw throughout my trip. Being Maltese, Dad has a really in-depth knowledge of modern warfare. World War I and WWII were drummed into us as kids; stories from my grandparents of Malta’s contribution to the war and the sacrifices of my ancestors.
As a kid, I remember going with my father to the Anzac Day march in Melbourne to pay our respects to the fallen. We’d stand on the roof of the old train station platform, on the corner of Flinders Street and St Kilda Road (where Federation Square is today). Dad would point out the regiments that had served in Malta. I remember all the stories that were told to us about Gallipoli and how many Australian and Turkish lives were lost.
Nothing could prepare me for experiencing Gallipoli first-hand. I was overcome with a deep sense of empathy when I arrived at the site where thousands of Australians had died. I didn’t arrive by land; I arrived in a little dinghy. When I closed my eyes and listened to the wind, felt the cold on my face from the sea spray, and embraced the feeling in the air, there was an undeniable presence all around me. It was eerie. I felt an instant connection to Turkey, to the sacrifice on both sides. I will always be proud to be an Aussie, but, at that point, I was also moved by the will and love the Turks had for their motherland.
Reading the words of Ataturk on the plaque erected at Lone Pine, I had a new level of admiration and respect to the people of Turkey. It opened my eyes and cracked open my heart.
Ep 3 – Rock star karaoke bus
If more restaurant people actually took the time to think about what industry they worked in and what the primary significance of their role was, they would soon realise that it is very simple. We work in the hospitality industry. Our job is to be hospitable. Full stop.
I always thought we have that pretty much sewn up at [my restaurant], Maha. We constantly nurture our staff so they treat all of our customers with the same love and generosity of spirit my mother or mother-in-law would show if you visited their house for a meal.
I wish I could have taken my whole team with me to Alacati to meet Hasan and his family. Wow. What hospitality! To open his family home and share Bayram with me was an experience I will always hold deep in my heart. It helped me to connect more intimately with the people around me. It gave me a real insight into Turkish family life and helped me present and deliver a more genuine view on what I was seeing.
After the meal was eaten and the cameras packed away, beers were opened and it was downtime! We had a chance to let our hair down after a long few days in the bus, so we hit the town. Actually, we just went out for dinner. A cracker dinner though, sitting on the edge of the Aegean coast enjoying great food and hot weather.
After a few bottles or raki (that stuff goes down easy over ice), we decided to see what else we could do, so we piled into the bus and went out in search of a good time. All of a sudden, Queen popped up on the playlist in the bus and our ever-reliable cameraman and fun aficionado, Nick, jumps up on the seats and turns the night into ‘rock-star karaoke bus’. More bottles of raki, more classic hits and more slurred lyrics. We never actually made it anywhere, but it was one of the best nights of the trip and just what we needed after a few massive days of trekking and getting as many scenes in the can as we could.
Lucky we had the next day off, because there was no way I was going to be able to string a sentence together on camera, let alone prep another cured fish dish first thing in the morning. Not with how my head was feeling.
Ep 4 – Bodrum versus Istanbul
I know everyone says that Bodrum is the place to be when you go to Turkey, but for me it just wasn’t that cool.
It has nothing on Istanbul and I much preferred the beach and the scenery in Assos. The things that Bodrum had that were outstanding were the food at the Komodor and that breathtaking yacht, the Regina.
I could have spent several months on the Regina, my family and friends, its full crew and an endless list of ports to visit from Turkey all the way to the Caribbean. What a life some people live. Unfortunately, I’m just a cook and will never live that life, but it's always nice to dream and see how the other half lives.
Ep 5 – Fethiye is no Kuta
Something that didn’t make it into Episode 5 was when we spent the day at Aisha's house in the hills. She prepared a breathtaking array of local dishes that really showed off the bountiful countryside and how diverse Turkeys produce really is.
Wild morel mushrooms, game, preserved fruits and nuts, and some of the best tasting tomatoes I’ve ever had. All dishes were prepared very simply, with love and respect for the quality of the ingredients and the people who give so much to produce it.
Everywhere you look in Turkey, there is something that can take your breath away, an abundance of history, both recent and ancient. Stunning scenery, food and excitement around every corner.
You can’t say you've seen Fethiye unless you've explored what is off the beaten path. Like all good things, a little effort is needed to experience something truly rewarding. Nothing good comes easy.
Ep 6 – Manti (it's not the size that counts)
When I arrived in the Anatolian plains, I knew I was going to see some amazing scenery. I have heard about Cappadocia from so many people and how it’s a must-do when visiting Turkey.
I get a little excited about stuff like that. I have to admit, I do like the finer things in life. So being told that we were staying in the best hotel in Cappadocia that was carved out of the ancient caves had me rapt.
Something I wasn’t expecting was the amazing food. Manti is one of my favourite Turkish foods, but I never knew it had so many different styles based on location. I thought there were only two - boiled and served with yoghurt, or fried like mini dim sims and served with yogurt and spices. (Side note - I have fried them and served them with soy sauce and chilli late at night with a few beers after work... a guilty sin, I know, but bloody tasty.)
I was thrilled to learn that Kayseri was said to be the home of manti. The style that they cook here was something new to me. I think you can tell by watching the episode that I really enjoyed my time with these ladies. I love opportunities like that, when I get to go into people’s homes and cook a dish that they’ve been cooking for as long as they’ve been alive. Those ladies where true masters. They make them so small that you can fit 40 pieces on every spoon! I must have eaten three bowls. The first I sucked down like I hadn’t eaten in a month, then I remembered how long and how hard those little buggers where to make. It didn’t really slow me down, but it definitely made it taste better, if that was even possible.
Episode 7 – Passion, love and baklava
During the filming of this episode, I found myself in a Christian monastery that dates back thousands of years, overlooking the holy land. Not long after, I visited a home on the edge of the Turkish border, belonging to a family who can trace their heritage back to the prophet Mohammed. I also spent the day with a living god who has a world following and is revered as the world’s best Turkish baklava maker, İmam Çağdaş.
Now, I don’t want to start yet another rift in the Middle East, but during my travels, I've experienced some amazing cooks and food experiences. I have eaten baklava in all forms in Lebanon, Maltese baklava-style sweets, Persian-style baklava, but I have to say that my favourite is the Turkish baklava made by the hands of the great man himself in Gaziantep.
What truly made this experience so special was being able to meet the family and see first-hand the love, passion and craftsmanship that is put into every tray of baklava.
There are so many little details that I had no idea about. The big one was the kaymak that's used in the base of the baklava. I always wondered what gave it that rich creamy texture. They even weighed it to make sure that every tray was perfect.
What's more, the pistachios are hand picked, sorted and graded to make sure that only the very best are used. A blend of cow’s and sheep’s milk ghee is draped over the baklava, giving it yet another level of richness and complexity.
The cooking process over three stages involves baking, browning the bottom, and then finishing with hot sugar. And it’s all handled with love and respect for the previous step. Every hand that has worked on the baklava is a master and at the top of their game. I think you can tell I was in awe of this place.
It was a spiritual food moment. The thick, warm air in the pastry room was covered with a cloud of the finest grade flour. No air-conditioning or ventilation can be used, as it may affect the quality of the pastry to the thick sticky sugar in the next room.
All the people I visited in that episode really moved me. Their warmth, generosity and hospitality touched my soul. In an area so close to conflict, with genocide only a few kilometres away in Syria and unspeakable acts of inhumanity also near, all I could feel was happiness and content. I really enjoyed my time in this part of Turkey. The food was top notch, but above all, the people and their passion for their craft was really moving.
Episode 8 – One dish, one flavour, all day, every day
I don’t want to sound like a big sook, but I hate waking up at 4am in the freezing cold to head down to a stinky harbour to go fishing. So when I was told that's precisely what we were doing, I have to say my hopes and attitude towards this neck of the woods wasn’t so positive. But it’s amazing how quickly things can change.
That little village in the Trabzon mountains, where I met the bloke who made sütlaç (rice pudding), was so off the beaten track it wasn’t funny. If it weren’t for his amazing dish, there would be no reason on earth to ever go there. I've eaten rice puddings all over the Middle East and, up to this point, most of them have been fairly similar. Good, but not great; tasty, but nothing to write home about.
That’s where this one differed. Simple as hell: rice, milk, sugar and a dash of salt – that’s it. This is something parts of the world have that we just don’t have back home. Small simple places that are dedicated to producing just one thing. Not ice-cream with a million flavours, or a burger shop that has 10 variations on the menu – one dish, one flavour, all day, every day. Done that way forever, using the best four ingredients on earth.
Believe me, this is the pinnacle of rice puddings and until I’m proven otherwise, I’ll put my name to it!
Episode 9 – Would the real Turkey please stand up?
Before this journey, when I thought of Turkish food I thought of dips, vine leaves, fresh seafood, kebabs and specialties, such as trahana and manti. The vision that came to mind was the beautiful Aegean coastline, busy breathtaking Istanbul and the mighty Bosporus. I never really envisaged rolling green hills, tea fields, hazelnut farms, waterfalls and a style of cooking that would really catch me by surprise.
I had a unique experience, spending time with Georgian people who have made Turkey their home. They haven’t just relocated and adapted; they've brought their own very special gifts to Turkey, become one with their surroundings and enhanced their amazing new home. The most exciting cooking, I believe, comes from when cultures collide. This is the case here in the hills above the Black Sea.
Even though the food and people I met were so lovely and welcoming, I wouldn’t really recommend this place for your next family holiday. It’s kind of like the wild west of Turkey – rough, untamed and a bit backwards. I’m sure there are things people love about the Black Sea and, to them, it’s the best place on earth. But, for me, it’s the kind of place I’m happy to have been and seen, but also quite happy to never return to. There's beautiful scenery, food and people, but that’s where my love of the Black Sea stops.
A special shout-out to Selin and Cansin, they shared their amazing family, culture, home and traditions with me. I was exposed to experiences during my journey of Turkey that tourists just don’t see. I felt I had a chance to see the real Turkey, and for this I am eternally grateful. I know the whole crew felt the same. We were on the road for long periods of time. We spent more hours together than people should. We screamed, yelled, cried and laughed, but, above all, bonded and experienced so many firsts that the friendships I have built with all the people I travelled with will stay with me forever.
I had a blast.
Episode 10 – Thank you
Returning to Istanbul for the end of Spice Journey was a bittersweet visit. In a way, I was glad we were at the end. I was tired from the road and couldn't wait for that first night in my own bed. I’d been away from my family, my life and my team at Maha for way too long. The trip also reignited my passion for Turkish cuisine. I’d gained a bellyful of inspiration, and couldn’t wait to get back in the kitchen and start making changes to the restaurant.
But, on the other hand, I didn’t want to leave. I’d fallen for Istanbul, big time. I was intrigued by her secrets and captivated by all I’d yet to discover. I’ve said to countless people since my return that, if for some reason I had to ever start over again, relocating to Istanbul would be at the top of my list, right next to NYC.
There is something alluring about Istanbul; she has a presence and sweeps you away with romance. The soul in this city is undeniable. I can’t wait to return with my wife, Maha, so we can both be swept away and devoured by all that Istanbul still hides. I’ve met some really cool people in the city – Tuba, Cansen, Ferit, Memhet, Selin, Eda and Saleh, and so many more. Even though I know we’re worlds away, I believe these people are now friends and can’t wait to see them again. People are the pulse and the passion of a city, and Istanbul has so many amazing people that call her home.
The best thing about this journey was the chance to share it with all of our amazing, loyal viewers. You saw what I saw; there was never pressure to fake it if I didn’t feel it. When I love something, I am in love with it. If I eat something that touches my soul, I am moved by it. When I connect with someone, I am impacted by them – whether it’s a chef in a high-end restaurant; a housewife with a simple, yet refined repertoire of classics; a person in a village; someone in a cafe; or a crew member giving their all for a three-month slog to get this show completed. I feel I’ve grown from these encounters, and I carry a little part of each person with me. I still have a lot to learn, though, a hell of a lot to see, and hopefully a lot to share. I’m hungry to get back on the road. There is still so much desire to explore the regions, food and cultures that ignite my passion for cooking.
Thank you to everyone who has helped make this series possible: the amazing team at SBS, Essential Media, our crew on the road and partners in Turkey. Thank you to all the people who gave up so much time to share their homes, places of work and lives with us. They are the real stars of the show, and the people I am inspired by. Thank you to my kick-ass team at Maha who hold the fort while I’m gone, put up with all of my crazy ideas, and work with me every day to achieve our united goal of producing the best restaurant for all of our loyal customers.
Thank you to my family, who give so much so that I am free to travel. To my wife, Maha, who holds down our home single-handedly with two crazy little kids and a husband on the other side of the world for months on end, without your support and love, I am nothing.
Above all, thank you to all of our viewers who take the time out of their day to support and watch our show. Without you there is no #SpiceJourney. Thank you for writing in, getting involved online, live tweeting, commenting on Facebook and for the hundreds of emails I’ve received telling me how much you loved our show. Thank you for being such an integral part of the journey. I really do hope you have enjoyed what we delivered.