This weekend all the rooms reservations were cancelled at our countryside hotel. From fully booked with a waiting list we went to a quiet weekend mode. Besides the big Sunday breakfast that is always crowded it was – probably the first time this year – a weekend leisurely spend with the family. And very special guests. My friend and Le Cordon Bleu graduate Elena brought her teacher chef Gilles who is launching Le Cordon Bleu program in Istanbul. It was the weekend of conversations – about food, over food and while making it. Mom was turning one Turkish specialty after another, Elena was baking French pastry, chef Gilles was getting intensive introduction to Turkish food and culture and I.. I was a like phone whose lamentably squeaking dying battery started cheerful blinking once put to charge.
It started with Elena. No, it started with my hometown in Russia actually – that kind of a God-forgotten place you give up on too early. Only to find out how the connections created back there can lead to meeting the people that stimulate, inspire and help you grow. I got to know Elena from the living in London daughter of my dad’s customer. We met with her a year ago in Moscow: she was considering giving up her corporate lawyer career to pursue studies at Le Cordon Bleu and become a chef. I was possibly the closest link to the culinary world she could trace back then. Plus I had a record of abandoning the corporate life for the gastronomy. We spent half a day talking and eating: she looked a bit lost but determined to find out her whereabouts.
We did not keep in touch so well throughout the year. She was busy working on her 9 month Grand Diploma at Le Cordon Bleu in London while I was running my culinary venture in Istanbul and helping my family at our countryside restaurant. But then she wrote a week ago and asked if she could come to help us. This was there my cries for help on this blog and her desire to get some real kitchen experience after the school have found each other. She arrived on Wednesday. And immediately mentioned that her favorite London teachers are also here to set up the Le Cordon Bleu in Istanbul.
On Thursday on the way from Istanbul to Sapanca we were already sneak-peeking into the brand-new facilities of the school and meeting chef Gilles, head of the Le Cordon Bleu programs in Istanbul. Immediately infected with Gilles’ overflowing enthusiasm we invited him to spend a weekend with us in Sapanca.
Mother was thrilled. On Friday we went down to the farmers market for 2 hours and when we were back 6 pots were on the stove and near it. Besides her regular starters she stuffed quince (ayva) and turnip (şalgam) with seasoned minced meat, she made a hot yoghurt soup with collard greens and home-made noodles. Next morning on top of her regular breakfast fare (read outstanding feast for many) she added su böreği – pasta-like dough with eggs rolled very thin, layered, seasoned with melted butter and ricotta (lor peyniri) and baked. Then was the soup of cow head (paça), bean stew with homemade pickles and pilaf, aşure pudding and eventually – eggplant poaches (bohça) with lamb stew inside. Mom was definitely inspired by the very presence of Gilles, by their conversations I was translating, by his compliments that her food resembled cookery of his mother, born and grew up in North Africa – clearly sharing culinary grounds with the Egypt where my mother’s family is originating.
Chef Gilles’ enthusiasm was very stimulating. He was willing to endlessly observe my mom or listen to me. He said, “It’s one of the things you do being a chef. When you travel you become a humble student of a local cuisine“. And he added, “I have met the right people. Eventually. After two weeks in Turkey and being taken to a range of places I have started loosing hope about Turkish food“. In the morning when anne was going to make su böreği he was the first to come to the kitchen. When I entered he was next to the stove: after seeing me doing that last night he had put the Turkish double teapot to boil and now was looking for the tea leaves’ storage place. He would come to the kitchen and ask, “What can I do?” He’d peel eggs sharing his theory of why some eggs peel easier, he’d unload the tray of dishes from a dishwasher or he’d chop garlic into a paste showing first-rate knife skills.
And we talked and talked endlessly about things way beyond Turkish food: about leadership and managing people at the kitchen, about Le Cordon Bleu, London, Istanbul, about our backgrounds, about the business prospects and future plans. Chef Gilles has changed my understanding of what good cooking schools or Le Cordon Bleu for that matter were about. They do offer an opportunity to learn from the best – brilliant chefs with decades of experiences in premier establishment who do have a lot to pass. They also teach “culinary arts” instead of mere cooking. Because creativity is ground on the strong understanding of the technique. Not simply following the recipe or the home-grown gut instincts common for many (however talented!) home cooks. But knowing the underlying principles behind the cooking.
I mentioned to Elena a chocolate lace I saw somewhere – a complete extravaganza to me – and she exclaimed, “Ah, it’s the easiest thing to do“. And ventured into the explanation of chocolate tempering – a particular process of heating and cooling down chocolate in a few iterations that results in the texture just right for making the lace. 9 months ago she had no idea whether she can cook and yesterday she turned “Swan lake” dessert with two swan-styled éclairs filled with crème pâtissière and covered with shiny ganache-like chocolate glaze. Which we served to our late night VIP guests: an hour later we both saw the polished plates with no single drop and crumble returned to the dishwasher station.
Talking with chef Gilles, watching Elena working on her pastry, seeing our inspired mom equaled to me rediscovering my purpose of being here. Not in simply helping my mom run her the kitchen. But in bringing in a new perspective and new ambitions. To make people like that come to us. To learn from their experiences and skills. To spread the word of Turkish food we cook with knowledge and love. To grow. To share. To recharge the batteries that go flat now and then.