Having taken over the kitchen at his father’s beloved ocakbasi Mangal II, 26-year-old Sertaç Dirik is making a name for himself in London’s food scene with his inventive fusion of British ingredients and traditional Turkish techniques. He made it a mission with his brother Ferhat to rescue the restaurant, which has been a fixture on Kingsland Road for nearly three decades, when it ran into difficulties during the pandemic. When Mangal II reopened after lockdown, it was completely transformed.
Using culinary knowledge learned from his time cooking in Copenhagen, Sertaç has refined the menu into a playful assortment of ingredient-led dishes – like smokey cull yaw koftes, fermented red pepper sarma and velvety tahini-and-apple tart – while the drinks offering now centres on trendy natural wines and locally brewed beers. It’s a much more polished experience than Mangal II used to be, but when you step through the restaurant door, your nostrils are still blasted with that delicious charcoal smokiness.
This year, Mangal II was placed at No 35 in the National Restaurant Awards, and Sertaç has earned a reputation in the city that makes any foodie’s ears prick up. He might have recently picked up the Observer Food Monthly’s Young Chef of the Year Award, but he’s not letting it go to his head: he’s cautious and eager to become an even better chef.
When I was a teenager, working in my dad’s restaurant was a punishment. I’d do something wrong – like being caught smoking or drinking a beer – then be sentenced to a couple of months working there on Friday nights instead of seeing my friends, so my initial relationship with it was actually quite negative.
It helped me appreciate the joys of hard work and graft. I was getting to be part of these conversations that a 15- or 16-year-old wouldn’t usually be exposed to. I’d be downstairs helping put plates together, and realising that someone had actually paid for a plate of food that I’d made was a cool feeling.
I went to Leeds to study graphics at university, but I very quickly realised it wasn't for me. I really wanted to focus my energy into one thing, and I realised that cooking was something I could really grow the most in.
When I was 22, I moved to Copenhagen. I did an internship at Noma’s Sister restaurant 108 and realised that I actually didn’t know anything, I didn’t even know how to hold a knife!
I was surrounded by people my age who were infinitely better than me. It gave me a bit of a chip on my shoulder, and the motivation to get good fast. It was very intense and difficult. I was only meant to be there for three months but I ended up staying in Copenhagen for two years.
My brother Ferhat persuaded me to come home during the pandemic. Straight away we set out fixing up the kitchen, reducing the menu, gradually testing out new dishes and making little changes day by day. Two and a half years later, it still tastes and smells Turkish, but it’s unrecognisable from what it used to be.
My dad was a revered chef in his time. I feel quite lucky, because he’s a very classically trained Turkish chef, and growing up around him was how I learned the rules of Turkish cooking.
It’s important that if you set out to represent a cuisine or a style of cooking, that you know the rules. How to treat certain vegetables, how to make certain dishes, knowing every element that a dish needs. Only once you know this can you start to play and adjust.
It’s incredible to see how differently and creatively people express themselves using the same ingredients.
Dad takes a back seat these days but he still loves it. He’ll come in and taste the dishes, or I’ll call him and get his opinion on the new ideas I’m working on.
My brother and I complement each other. We are quite good at separating the restaurant from our own personal relationship. He takes care of the front of house and the wine programme, while I’m in charge of the food.
Sometimes we agree, sometimes we disagree. But that’s just the reality of running a business. Ultimately we both have a common desire to make the restaurant better.
I’ve watched ‘Boiling Point’ and ‘The Bear’ recently. They’re both quite accurate depictions of the stress and anguish that is common in restaurant life. We’re getting better at having conversations about it as an industry, and hopefully that sparks some positive change.
The London restaurant scene is one of the best in the world. I think that’s because there’s a really healthy sense of competition that keeps us ahead of the game. We all have access to the same amazing produce, and it’s incredible to see how differently and creatively people express themselves using the same ingredients. It really forces you to get better and to learn to put your own stamp on things.
Running the restaurant has been a way of finding identity for me. It’s not necessarily Turkish, it’s not necessarily English, it’s its own thing entirely, and I find that very comforting.
Winning the Young Chef of the Year award was a total shock. My whole family was overwhelmed and I still don’t have the words to describe it. We’ve worked so hard and so long without really stopping, and little things like this make you want to keep trucking on.
Mangal II, 4 Stoke Newington Rd, N16 8BH.