How Michelin's arrival in Istanbul is a blessing and a curse
Every chef’s dream is to earn a globally-known and prestigious Michelin star rating. Since Istanbul is increasingly praised for its culinary scene, it’s no surprise that Turkey recently made headlines after over 50 restaurants in the city achieved recognition, with five eateries earning six Michelin stars in total.
Over the years, Istanbul has become a melting pot of Armenian, Roum, Circassian, Jewish, Russian, and Balkan cuisines, earning it a comfortable spot as the 38th top destination in the little red book.
As well as the Michelin star wins, 10 Turkish establishments also received a Bib Gourmand award, which is given to restaurants that serve what Michelin deems to be good value and good quality food.
The high ratings could not have come at a better time and it's hoped they will boost both catering and tourism sectors that have suffered a massive blow as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.
In 2021 alone, an average of three restaurants a day shut down permanently in Istanbul.
“I was not expecting this, I am very excited... it is very difficult to do this job in this country today, this is great motivation,” said the first female chef to get a Michelin star in Turkey, Zaynep Pinar Tasdemir, at the ceremony.
Stars and surprises
For Defne Tuysuzoglu, the Turkey director of Le Cordon Bleu, an internationally-renowned cookery course, the arrival of the Michelin guide in Turkey brings many benefits.
“It is important for us to see the guide arrive in Turkey, this puts Istanbul and Turkish cuisine on the map. Tourists travelling to foreign destinations do consult this booklet to pick and choose their restaurants. This will generate an increase in revenue, sure,” she told Middle East Eye
"But it will also lift industry standards more widely. Chefs and restaurateurs now have a new-found goal, which is getting in the guide,” she added.
Already, interest in the newly-rated restaurants is growing. For example, Turk, which now has two Michelin stars, currently has a six-month waiting list for a table.
Bib Gourmand holder Chef Deniz Sahin says she is experiencing a similar surge of interest and did not even have time to recover from the shock of getting awarded before her phone began ringing and ringing as people clamoured for reservations at her small restaurant, which specialises in regional and seasonal dishes.
“I am in a marathon. I swear I did not realise I would witness the effect of the award the next morning. I got the biggest surprise the night of the awards and then the impact of it at the restaurant the next morning. My customers have been multiplied by three,” she told MEE.
For others, such as the selection awardee Sofyali 9, the surge in interest may not be quite as extreme, but any increase in bookings is still very welcome as so many restaurants took a huge hit during the pandemic.
“For me, Michelin means fine dining and I never thought we could make the selection,” Didem Colakoglu Hosgor, the co-owner, of the restaurant told Middle East Eye.
She says she could not believe it when she heard their restaurant’s name called out in the livestreamed celebration, and burst into tears.
“There are five restaurants from our neighbourhood that have been recognised by Michelin. This alone will make the pandemic-scarred sector rise from its ashes. I really wish our Turkish customers would come back to Beyoglu.”
Many believe the high ratings will be an inspiration to other establishments.
“People who want the Michelin star or who want to get a spot on the list will analyse what we have done here, and use this as an example to raise their standards and elevate their cuisine,” chef Fatih Tutak told MEE.
Keeping up with the pressure
While chefs in Turkey are enjoying the star ratings, there’s no denying that Michelin standards are hard to maintain.
The rigorous reviewing process and criteria have pushed many chefs to the brink, with some finding it difficult to keep their place.
Didem Hosgor, the owner of Sofyali 9, says that the scarcity of manpower is further adding to the challenge of keeping up standards.
“When the pandemic hit, people working in the back of the house and front of the house had to move out of Istanbul and back with their families. Today, with the rent prices soaring and the price hikes it is difficult for them to come back to Istanbul,” she explained.
“We have lost precious labour. We cannot find personnel. I have had to wash the dishes for the last three days because my dishwasher was out of order and I could not find anyone to hire,” she added.
Chef Deniz Sahin says she was caught off guard and a bit short-handed the morning after the awards.
“Although I have a core team, It is difficult to find skilled labour for auxiliary jobs, like dishwashers or waiters. People come and go, there is a big turnover,” she says.
As well as manpower, another growing concern is the increasing cost of produce. The price of many ingredients now changes on an almost weekly basis due to inflation, leaving many restaurants forced to reevaluate the prices on the menu.
But despite these challenges, many chefs are determined to keep pursuing their dreams.
The Michelin star ratings have inspired new chefs to press on with their ambitions and open highly acclaimed eateries.
Omer Farukhan Yalcin, a third-year university student, is just one example of a chef who sees the new ratings as an opportunity to better himself and make his mark in the culinary industry.
'I no longer feel like I need to leave the country because I can achieve my dream here, In my own country'
- Omer Farukhan Yalcin, student and chef
The young chef keeps track of global food trends and is a regular at fine dining restaurants.
Now his dream of fronting a Michelin-starred restaurant seems more attainable, he says.
“I no longer feel like I need to leave the country because I can achieve my dream here, in my own country.”
This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.