Photographer Dave Hagerman is the picture-taking half of the visually-arresting and wonderfully-written EatingAsia blog. Lately, Dave and his partner, Robyn Eckhardt, have been spending a lot of time in Turkey and chronicling their travels in a drool-inducing Tumblr called EatingTurkey.
During his most recent stay in Turkey, Hagerman also managed to make it down to Gaziantep, a city near the Syria border famed for its kebabs and baklava, on assignment for Saveur magazine to shoot a story about the city's grill masters.
I recently sent Hagerman some questions about his impressions of the trip to Gaziantep and the the role of the city's ustas ("masters" in Turkish) in keeping the local culinary culture alive. Our exchange is below:
1. You've travelled and eaten your way through much of Turkey -- what stood out for you about Gaziantep and its food culture?
For starters the minute you walk out your door it smells like grilling meat. You know you are in kebab country and it is everywhere - street corners, shops - indoors and out. You might not think you are hungry for kebab morning, noon and night but somehow you just are.
Also, the ustas display a certain amount of precision as they prepare/cook their kebabs, as if to say ' people in other parts of Turkey might do it that way, but we Antepians do it this way' -- in other words, the right way. Ingredients are key, meat -- particularly lamb -- must be sourced from only the best suppliers. It is an obsession. People would say that if it is not going to be the best, then don't bother.
I think the view is that there is a reputation to uphold and they know that people will come fully prepared to let them know if they have failed to uphold that reputation, so these guys (the ustas) are walking a tightrope every day. There can be no slacking.
2. Your photos from Gaziantep focused on the role of the usta in local food making. How would you describe that role?
The usta is boss, manager, chef and star of the show all in one package. Each of the ustas that we worked with had his own vision and style that carried through to nearly all aspects of his business -- from Usta Halil passing out of lahmacun to school kids at lunch, to Sirvan's intensity and perfection, to Mr. Cagdas serving baklava laid on it's side rather than bottom-down, so that it was easy to pick up and eat with your fingers. But more than that I saw the ustas as shouldering a responsibility to their craft and to their customers. Almost as if they served a higher power.
3. One of the photos that stood out for me was of the usta who converted a baby carriage into a kebab carrying device. There was something both improvisational and playful about it -- did you see that reflected the the cooking there?
I didn't view this so much as playful as solving a real need to move his product from his home to his shop. He was proud of the innovation and saw it as clever and practical ('Can you believe someone was throwing out a perfectly good baby carriage?'). To me it goes to the usta's mastery of all things kebab, down to the most minute detail. It's not just grilled meat on a stick -- it is everything from the charcoal, to ingredients, to how the ingredients are handled and the vibe in the shop.
That particular usta does liver kebabs which is an art in itself. Each cube of liver and tail fat were cut preciously and carefully arranged for transport to the shop. It was like he was bringing his pride and joy to the shop just as a mother might parade her newborn around town. Then again, maybe that's not quite the right metaphor, given the fate of his kebabs.
4. There are many who refer to Gaziantep as the "Mecca" of Turkish cuisine. After your visit, would you agree?
Although I love food from many parts of Turkey, there is something very special about the intensity with which people approach food in Antep. You could see it on the faces of diners and in the serious and sincere way that the Ustas and their staffs approached their work. Ingredients are top notch.
Then again, I've been lucky enough to photograph, and taste the result of, a similar intensity elsewhere in Turkey, namely on/near the Aegean coast. It's a different style of cooking obviously, but the obsession with ingredients (seasonal, in this case) and preparation, the nod to tradition, the pride in doing it "right", can be found there as well.
5. Finally, is there any one spot that left a particularly lasting impression? If so, why?
Usta Halil's shop. He grew up sleeping in a butcher shop learning the trade and finally worked his way up to own his own shop. At lunchtime he hands out lahmacun to passing school kids which is I think a way of giving back for what he sees as the good fortune in his life. To see the genuine joy on his face as the kids came and went was great. His son works in the shop as well and Halil was clearly pleased that he would be passing it on to him at some point.
Oh, and the sheep milk kaymak on baklava at Sirvan's - that was also memorable, albeit in a different way.