In profile: Chef Ebru Baybara Demir

After dedicating a quarter of a century to social issuesin Turkey, Ebru Baybara Demir has been named the 2023 recipient of the Basque Culinary World Prize awarded to chefs for making a difference beyond the kitchen. She tells Tina Nielsen about the journey so far

Congratulations on being named the winner of the Basque Culinary World Prize (BCWP). How much of a difference will it make to your projects?

I am filled with happiness and a sense of peace for being honored with this award. Ever since I can remember, I have devoted myself to make meaningful contributions to my beloved country.

This award carries a significance that extends far beyond any of my individual accomplishments. It represents the collective happiness and pride of my nation. I aim to utilize the prize money to provide support and maintenance to ensure the sustainability of our soup kitchen.

Tell us about where you come from?

I was born as the third daughter in my family in Mardin, a traditional Anatolian city. Unfortunately, back then, girls were not given the same value as boys in Anatolian households, so, my father moved the family to Istanbul. He wanted to raise his daughters to be educated and self-assured. Despite growing up in Istanbul, my upbringing was steeped in the traditions and culture of Mardin, thanks to my family.

Who inspired you to cook?

My mother used to cook delicious meals. She was exceptionally creative in the kitchen. I loved accompanying her to the bazaars, even at a young age. She taught me how to select the finest bell peppers, eggplants, and tomatoes. While my mother loved experimenting with dishes beyond our local cuisine, I was the only one who delighted in her culinary experiments. My culinary skills were passed down from my grandmother to my mother, and from my mother to me. Everything I know about food and my ability to cook are a culmination of the traditions I learned while cooking alongside my mother.

How did you start cooking and what were your early experiences?

It is now 25 years since I started bringing tourist groups to Mardin to share the city’s ancient culture. The tourists were not satisfied with the city’s only hotel and restaurant, so I hosted them in my home where the women of my family prepared traditional meals for them. The tourist group enjoyed this traditional welcome and food that reflected Mardin’s traditions and local values. I went on to organize five more homes and we started to host tourist groups in these homes.

Women started to earn their own income from their cooking talent. As demand increased, more local women opened their doors to visitors. Eventually, 21 women in the region supported our efforts. During this process, I started to enter the kitchen – that I already loved – more frequently and cook.

I started my journey by mastering local flavors and recipes.

And this adventure evolved into another dimension with the opening of Cercis Murat Konağı (Cercis Murat Mansion), my life, my labor, my everything. It represents my personal contribution to Mardin, but it also represents many women whose lives have been transformed alongside mine. It’s difficult to put into words the experience of turning cooking into an activity where the women of Mardin can find employment, and earn an income.

How would you describe the role of food in life and society?

Cooking is about more than stirring a pot or choosing quality ingredients. It encompasses a vast ecosystem, ranging from the necessary soil conditions for cultivating exceptional produce to the farmers, who need to earn a sustainable income, to continue producing high-quality goods.

Through our projects, we prepare nourishing meals while contributing to local development, encouraging social integration and supporting the preservation of biodiversity. We rely on traditional Anatolian methods and we reach out to disadvantaged groups to help them integrate into society in their own way. Food is prepared at weddings, condolences and celebrations. This food is prepared with the collaboration of many hands. This unity is my inspiration and motivation to consider food as a source of power in social change.

Can you describe the region you come from and why you wanted to focus on this place? 

Mardin is a city of 800,000 residents, located 33 km (20 miles) from the Syrian border. Due to its location it has had to struggle with many economic, social and political difficulties. Unemployment has consistently emerged as the primary concern within a city heavily reliant on agriculture and animal husbandry. Diminishing natural resources, escalating costs of agricultural inputs, economic hardship, and the recent Syrian civil war have all contributed to a decline in agricultural productivity, posing barriers to market accessibility for local products.

When I returned at the end of the 1990s, it had no tourism facilities except for a three-star hotel and a small restaurant. Since 2011, I have been trying to be a part of the solution, carrying out projects for the education and employment of disadvantaged local people and refugees. I see it as a necessity for refugees, especially women, to have sustainable livelihoods both for themselves and for the economy of the region. Our goal was to provide support to Mardin in various areas such as tourism, women’s empowerment, and agricultural technologies, and I believe we have made significant progress in these endeavors.

What have been the biggest challenges in your career?

When I started, I wanted to initiate a change in Mardin, and the change scared people. There were a few people, who united against the ideas and courage of a young woman. I chose to stay and fight against this mentality. If you want to do a job in a place with poor education and low income levels, achieving success is more important than explaining.

The first five years in Mardin were difficult in every respect. When you succeed and involve people in this success, the situation changes. At first, I was alone, but as I succeeded and shared, the whole city stood by my side.

When did you open your first restaurant and what was that experience like?

When I opened Cercis Murat Konağı it was a groundbreaking event in a society where women couldn’t leave their homes without permission from their husbands. However, women drew strength from each other and supported each other with their achievements in the kitchen. As the success of Cercis Murat Konağı started to contribute to the transformation of Mardin into a tourism city, women began to work outside their homes and started earning their own incomes.

What drove you to launch humanitarian projects?

Although my childhood and school years were spent in Istanbul, I grew up in a family from Mardin that adhered to their traditions. Exactly 23 years after my father left his roots and migrated from Mardin to educate his three daughters, my roots pulled me back to Mardin and my life story started again here.

After the 2011 Syrian War, Mardin was one of the cities that opened its doors to Syrian refugees. The cracks in the already fragile economy of the region deepened with the wave of Syrian refugees. Unemployment is the manifestation of economic fragility.

When the unemployment of Syrian refugees was added to the unemployment of local people, Mardin’s economy was in a very difficult situation, and as always, women and girls were the most affected. We tried to support them with the Harran Gastronomy School, where Syrian women can become experts in cooking and share socially with women in Turkey.

In February 2023, following the earthquake (centered in Kahramanmaraş), we established our Gönül Mutfağı soup kitchen. All the humanitarian projects we have introduced have naturally evolved from one another.

How did you mobilize when the earthquake struck Syria and Turkey earlier this year?

I was in Istanbul on the day of the earthquake and I immediately hit the road once I knew my family was OK. At first we set up our soup kitchens in Osmaniye, then Kahramanmaraş and Hatay, but later focused on Hatay because there was a great need there.

Over time, we expanded our capacity in this region. We established Gönül Mutfağı to meet the needs of earthquake victims for hot meals and food in the city of Iskenderun in Hatay province.

Since February we have been providing 120,000 meals daily. We continue to prepare 10,000 breakfasts per day for kindergarten and elementary school children, and provide two meals per day for a total of 38,000 people across Hatay. More than 2,000 volunteers have worked at Gönül Mutfağı and distributed over 12 million meals.

Volunteers come to Gönül Mutfağı from all over Turkey and are a part of this culture of cooperation at every point of need, from preparation to cooking, from transportation to package organizations encourage their employees to volunteer at Gönül Mutfağı and send them to work in the kitchen in groups.

How do you see the future role of humanitarian aid and gastronomy?

The world is increasingly recognizing the importance of gastronomy and its relevance in addressing the challenges we face today. This prestigious award (BCWP) will provide Turkey with a platform to raise its voice in this global arena.

As a result, the projects we undertake – such as combating the effects of climate change on soil, empowering women through employment, utilizing biodegradable waste, promoting social solidarity, and fostering regional development through social gastronomy – will serve as exemplary models not only within our country but also worldwide.

What are your future plans for your projects and your career?

Our first goal is to transform Gönül Mutfağı into a sustainable structure that can produce its own resources, and to use the prize money for this purpose. It is important for us to establish a structure that promotes the sustainability of the kitchen and encourages the local community to live in Hatay.

In addition to the meals prepared in the kitchen, we aim to continue supplying breakfast plates to schools in the region. We would like to pursue our project in schools across Hatay for the next academic year.

We will also be opening Zamarot 1890, which will be the first restaurant in Turkey to integrate a social cooperative in gastronomy. Zamarot 1890 is a sixth-sense restaurant (see box) and aiming to be a zero-waste pioneer within the region as well as the country. Zamarot 1890 will serve as a school for students studying gastronomy in the region. It will become a place where they can both generate income and receive education.

Tina Nielsen

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