Despite his youth, or perhaps because of it, he has drive and passion.
He has a goal: he wants to put Turkish food on the map.
And now he has a place to reach his goal: Ottoman Taverna in Washington, DC.
Super Chef recently sat down with Chef Erkek to discuss his plans and try a few dishes of what he calls New Anatolian style Turkish food.
Super Chef: Where are you from and how did you get started in culinary?
Ilhan Erkek: I grew up in Istanbul. My mother was a great cook. Lots of people say that, but my friends used to call up and request the dishes they wanted to eat. It was ridiculous! I still love her cooking. I used to make baklava and dolma with her. I learned all the recipes for holidays, bayrams. For me, food was about smell. When I took my American wife to Turkey, I asked her to close her eyes and smell the fruits and vegetables. You would call these organic and pay a lot for them, but for us, it’s just normal.
Super Chef: Did you go to culinary school?
Ilhan Erkek: I went to a technical high school. I started out wanting to be a bartender, and then they opened up a culinary program and I tried that out. During high school I worked for Thierry Marais, the French chef at The Ritz-Carlton in Istanbul. I wanted to know everything – the front of the house, the kitchen. The high school guaranteed me a job after I graduated, but I started to work during school. I used to go to school and then work a shift at the Ritz, and then I decided to learn pastry, so I volunteered to work another shift just to learn croissants and French bread. My father was upset with me. He said people would think we needed money, but I just wanted to know about everything. I slept on the bus going home.
Super Chef: Are there celebrity chefs in Turkey?
Ilhan Erkek: Yes, Aydin Demir, who was the chef de cuisine when I was working in the kitchen, and Cihan Cetinkaya. When the Ritz restaurant opened there were 20,000 applicants for jobs at the hotel, only 40 cooks were hired. I was so lucky to do my apprenticeship there. I got thirty years of experience condensed into 15 years. That’s why even at 32 I know a lot more than my years.
Super Chef: Did you learn Turkish dishes at the restaurant?
Ilhan Erkek: The menu was half Turkish and half international. But during Ramadan we made a lot of dishes I had learned from my mother. The chefs knew the stories and origins behind each dish. How it had been served in the Ottoman court, where it came from.
Super Chef: How did you meet
Hakan Ilhan, the restaurateur and owner of this restaurant?
Ilhan Erkek: He and I shared the same headhunter. I was working for the Ritz in Naples, Florida, on my way to being a corporate chef. I came to escape the draft in Turkey and learn English. Hakan wanted someone with restaurant experience, who spoke English. I had to convince him that, even though I had hotel experience, I could do the job. I was executive chef at Tryst Gastro Lounge in St. Petersburg that served international and French fine food, and then switched to bar food. I made smoked bacon in house, which is very rare for a Muslim Turk. I don’t eat pork at home, but if I go out and a chef sends me scallops in bacon, I eat it. I learned how to make prosciutto, salami, break down a pig. An animal is an animal to me. I ended up going back to the Ritz when I started a family for the security.
Super Chef: So, when did you get to Washington DC.?
Ilhan Erkek: We started talking in September, and I came up to the city in November 2015 and cooked a meal for twenty people with thirty different dishes. He invited all his people including Roberto Donna. Hakan was worried that I was too young and too long at hotels. But I start with a high bar on day one. I started by taking over Hakan’s restaurant Alba Osteria next door first while Ottoman Taverna was being built. Since I didn’t speak English when I got to America, I learned to train by showing how to do things, not saying.
Super Chef: Is it difficult to get all the Turkish ingredients you need?
Ilhan Erkek: I use Turkish suppliers in New York and found a Halal butcher locally for meat. I don’t buy any commercial meat, it doesn’t taste right. I make bread from Turkish flour, otherwise it doesn’t come out right.
Super Chef: What is Ottoman Taverna to you?
Ilhan Erkek: I am making New Anatolian Style. We do everything traditionally, but up-to-date with the very best ingredients. If you walk into this restaurant, you wouldn’t know it was Turkish until you see the bar. We didn’t overdo it with carpets everywhere. I insisted on the best, like the ocak basi (grill) with the copper hood and the copper pots hanging over the wood-burning oven. I had the ocak basi made especially for the restaurant in Istanbul. I present the food in a refined, clean way. I use modern plates, kebobs on fine china, and modern utensils, not old fashioned. We use only the best ingredients. We make our doner in house. It’s all about presenting the food well. I look at the Greek experience in America. At first, they had Greek diners. Americans didn’t know real Greek food. Then a few chefs opened up fine dining restaurants. I think Turkish food has gone through the same cycle. It is time for Americans to learn about fine dining Turkish food.
Super Chef: What’s difficult for you here?
Ilhan Erkek: Training is a challenge. I am working with a largely Latino crew. They have learned what sumac is, what hamsi are (anchovy). I am tough, but I want everything done right. If we do it all right, you will see the finest Turkish restaurant anywhere.
Super Chef: What are your plans once the restaurant opens on May 2? Will you be catering?
Ilhan Erkek: Yes, I plan to cater. I hope to cater for senators. People don’t know Turks. We were a big empire. We were never conquered. Yes, I am proud. I want to show off our culture, to show our hospitality on a daily basis. It is part of us.
Super Chef: What is your favorite thing to cook?
Ilhan Erkek: Eggplant! Turkish brides learn a hundred ways to prepare eggplant. I love that.
Super Chef: What is your goal?
Ilhan Erkek: I want to be a well-known Turkish chef. I want a well-known Turkish restaurant I took a big risk coming here, and yet I feel confident with Hakan. This is my dream. If I had created this restaurant myself, I couldn’t do it better.
Super Chef: Who is your favorite non-Turkish celebrity chef?
Ilhan Erkek: Marco Pierre White. I read his autobiography and I was really impressed.
Ottoman Taverna opens officially for dinner on May 2. Lunch service will start at the end of May. Click here for article on tasting at Ottoman Taverna.