Gastronomes know him as the man who worked with Michelin-starred Chef Alfons Schuhbeck before opening his own fine-dining restaurant among the kebab shops in Sirkeci. Average Turks recognize him as the TV chef who promotes regional ingredients on CNN Türk. A few months ago, he made national headlines when he flew to New York to receive the BID International Quality Summit Award 2016 for his work at Can Oba Restaurant.
So how did Can Oba achieve all this with a hole-in-the-wall restaurant in Sirkeci?
Oba is someone doesn’t hesitate to issue a challenge, yet who can be incredibly modest at times. “When I was a kid, I couldn’t even break an egg,” he says as he recounts his early years in the business: while working at a bar in Germany, one day Oba finds himself in the kitchen, assisting the chef – who, upon noticing Oba’s talent, recommends that he train under Schuhbeck. Train he does, for eight years, before going on to work at various restaurants in the U.S. and Latin America. Upon his return to Turkey, Oba opens a restaurant on a side street in Sirkeci, surrounded by kebab shops… And the rest, as they say, is history: the restaurant becomes so successful with both Turkish and international gourmets that it’s nearly impossible to reserve a table in its first year, thus cementing Can Oba as one of the most recognized chefs in Turkey.
Oba is quite candid about his success. “This restaurant is the most important thing to happen in recent years in the world of gastronomy – doing fine-dining in a place like this takes guts,” he says as he invites us into his one-and-a-half-square-meter kitchen. “I built this place working 06.00 to 02.00 everyday, carrying groceries on the bus all over Istanbul. And I got the restaurant into the Michelin Guide.” Oba is proud to have accomplished all this as an unknown chef. “You refinance your home, get out a loan, you struggle to survive as you serve Adana, Urfa kebap in one half of the restaurant and do fine-dining in the other half… I’ve made 140 main courses, 30-35 soups, and just as many warm appetizers and desserts under these circumstances. The fact that this restaurant is still standing here is a miracle.”
THOUGHTS ON THE INDUSTRY
In the past, Oba has said his aim with the restaurant is to “challenge people,” and he still holds that rather defiant view. “In Istanbul, eating and drinking establishments have become places to socialize,” he says. “People confuse their purpose: are you there to eat or to make an appearance? Are you there to serve people or to make a profit? Here, restaurants are much like the soccer players we import: when they first arrive they’re met with all this excitement and hoisted up on fans’ shoulders. Six months later, they close down the same way those players leave – quietly.” According to Oba, one of the main reasons for this is that tend to back franchises instead of talented chefs.
Oba also believes we’re not doing a good job of promoting Turkish cuisine internationally. His dream is to open a Michelin-starred Turkish restaurant in New York, but he’s a bit skeptical when it comes to sponsorships: “They try to set goals for you, when this should be more of a passion project: with all that pressure, you eventually get stressed out and you can’t work.” And while he’s on the subject, he can’t help but criticize the industry. “They’ll try to pass off a tour guide as a chef, or they’ll spend millions of dollars sponsoring Kobe Bryant, but when we want to go abroad to do a TV show, they’re nowhere to be found. Then we have the nerve to ask ourselves why Turkish cuisine isn’t all that well known.” And just like that, you see his confidence return as he says something that brings to mind his reputation as somewhat of a Don Quixote: “I’m a bit of an idealist,” he admits. “Even in this tiny restaurant, I give a 20% discount to students so they can taste some of these recipes, too. The sponsors can go on funding the people who do nothing but pour chocolate over wafers – I’m not giving up.”
À LA CARTE DESSERTS
Oba’s latest feat is Can Oba Dessert & Champagne, Turkey’s first à la carte dessert-and-drinks restaurant set in Kanyon Shopping Mall. “It’s meant to provoke those who got by feeding people tons of muhallebi or kazandibi without bettering themselves,” he says.
Oba is already halfway through working on his next project. “I’m tired of being served the same triangular cheeses, eggplant purees, shrimp stews and fried calamari everywhere I go,” he says as he informs us that he’s developed almost 20 new meze recipes. After that, he wants to work on developing recipes for game meat. “Once that’s done, I’ll just grab my jacket and walk out,” he says with full confidence. Another one of his future ambitions is to give five-star hotels a run for their money by establishing an independent rating institute for hotels and restaurants. Then there’s the as-yet-unfulfilled dream of studying underwater archeology… “I couldn’t [study] back when I was younger ’cause I didn’t score high enough on the college entrance exam, but I still might,” he says, then humbly adds: “at a private university, of course – I wouldn’t want to deprive a young person of his or her right to study.”
--Can Oba Restaurant, Hocapaşa Sokak 10, Sirkeci.
--Can Oba Dessert & Champagne, Kanyon Shopping Mall, G floor.