The world haute cuisine is based on a triangulation of values. Creativity and Technique alternate in keeping up with innovations and pushing the frontiers of the "known", and Tradition is always the cornerstone and backbone of any world cuisine that lead them. It's the way this trinity is set in the work of a cook that determines the abilities. Like most of the creative work, in fact, cooking can be easily learned even by those who during their youth, did anything else and, to be honest, there may be advantages for those who, asa self-taught, have entered a new profession.
There are many possibilities that this changes all the rules in the game, if you don’t have effective milestones unless Creativity/Art/Tradition to base on. Just look at the most famous self-taught names of the culinary scene, from Adria to Aizpitarte. Each one of them is unique in their kind, each one of them is the author of a revolution that changed in different ways the concept of haute cuisine. This is a necessary prelude then when you are talking about Kemal Demirasal. He, who until a few years ago was a professional surfer. A native of Alaçati, a Turkish small city of the Aegean Sea opposite the island of Chios, Kemal has long been one of the best acrobatic windsurfer in Europe.
As an adult, he decided to leave his career as a surfer to become a chef. Alancha was in fact created in 2007 as a small bistro of fish right in Alaçati, proposing a menu depending on the daily catch. The dream of Kemal, young and full of talent, did not stop there. For 7 years he has continued to pave the way to create a larger project that needed a bigger stage to touch a sensitive audience and not to continue to serve customers of Alaçati with the kitchen that he had always proposed in his restaurant, although it was clear that his purposes were different.
Kemal searched for long for a place in Istanbul where he could set up a team to cook the cuisine of Anatolia on a larger scale and to deploy all his potential. Even the decision to give a clear message and create a break between the existing Alancha and what he had in mind, is quite meaningful about the humility of this chef and his skills. After more than one-year research he eventually entered the ground floor of a building under construction in the neighborhood of Besiktas. An empty place, with a lot of space but with walls without plastering.
But it was only in such a place that the Alancha "international" chapter could be born. Starting from scratch and restructuring the restaurant to build upon a project that could last for years and that could have the importance the new Anatolian kitchen needed. Back home in Izmir, Kemal called his childhood friend Gürcan, architect in his own studio, Cacti Architecture, and began to design the spaces of the new Alancha. Maybe even too much ambitious in the beginning: 3 kitchens, 2 restaurants, 1 laboratory and 1 cocktail bar. While tasting his own dishes Kemal realizes that, projected over the next 10 years, this restaurant will be one of the most interesting places in which to come regularly.
Because the new Anatolian cuisine is true to its past, it is enriched with preservation methods that extract concentrates flavors that explode in the mouth in the purity of their Mediterranean halfway with the richness of Asian spices. In laboratory of Alancha, in more than 200 glass jars they are stored products and spices from all over Anatolia. As if the Adriàs wanted to open a Taller in central Istanbul. Kemal used this kitchen to make the most of the mise en place and to study the dishes that will be part of the menu in the gourmet restaurant, which is the pride of Alancha in Istanbul. Yes it is true, there are new machines, such as the rotary evaporator, but Kemal is in this respect severe and true to his words, “we use it mainly for the extracts we use in cocktails, Anatolia kitchen never saw a rotovapor, nor will nevere see it. Our basis is to cook over the fire, and we must focus on this.”
Said and done, the kitchen of the third floor, the one in which they prepare the dishes for the gourmet restaurant, has a long grid, where coal is not only means of cooking, but its a real ingredient. Constant and never excessive, the taste of burnt wood and the hints of smoked flavour make the dishes seductive.
The dishes which Kemal begins the path with in the Alancha give immediately an ideas about the placement of the restaurant. The hummus is intense and is enriched with strips of smoked and crispy meat: "We take it right in the Grand Bazaar. It is not true that there are only places for tourists, for me it is important to have continuous contact with the craftsmen of this area, there are things that they do much better than us and they deserve appreciation"; The mussels are served raw and with crunchy cereals, just like they are sold in stalls throughout the city. Just close your eyes and be guided by the palate to perfectly understand that the restaurant is in Turkey and that its mission is to distill the rich, fat and strong flavours of a whole nation to build instead a delicate tasting menu, in a climax and that redifines the geography of entire regions in the macrocosm that is Anatolia, from the Mediterranean to its borders with Iran.
The techniques of preparation of the ingredients and the cooking accurately follow traditions. For example there are the sweetbreads and the liver. The sweetbreads, or uykuluk in turkish, is cut into small chunks and caramelized on the coals; The liver, called ciger, is rather thinly sliced, cooked in 2 minutes and served immediately, still boiling hot. You must eat it in a few seconds, before it cools and hardens. It raises spontaneous questions to Kemal "But why don’t you serve both the sweetbreads and the liver in their whole, escaloped, full of their juice?" - Direct as magnificent is the answer - "That's not the way to serve liver and sweetbreads in Turkey, a customer has got a certain expectation, and apart from this, the work we do here is entirely on the tradition and tries to decode the Anatolian cuisine for all tastes.
It is in this that Alancha goes beyond its limits and becomes a “one to watch” restaurant. Another example of absolute mastery and technique is the octopus. An absolute perfection in the dinner I had in this corner of Europe, with a straight view on the Asian continent. "In Izmir, where I grew up, there is a strong Greek influence, there octopuses are caught and after being beaten on the rocks are dried in the sun. Well, this sort of hanging to maturate enriches the octopus in iodine besides leaving it to dry for it to concentrate its flavors. We have spent months to develop a way to reproduce the same effect here. We put the octopus in the oven for about 4 hours to make it dry after having worked for half an hour to soften its flesh." The octopus, served with a very concentrated tomato reduction is perfect. A simple and pure synthesis of the Mediterranean, the sauce drags it from the Aegean coast high and low in Anatolia.
Kemal sensitivity is devoted not only to meat and marine products, but also to vegetables that he foresightly uses to extract their strong flavours. The dolmar, the rice traditionally wrapped in a vine leaf, is instead wrapped in a sheet of turnip. Rice, usually overcooked and too dark, it is al dente. How can we then give the starch-like flavour released from the overcooked rice that characterizes dolmar? Just placing the roll on a cooking juice made right with the overcooked rice which remains the flavour of but not the texture.
The tasting menu ends with a shish kebab with lamb and pistachios, served with a pepper and grilled tomato. For one last time the question to ask Kemal is licit "Fantastic Shish, but why the tomato and the pepper so simply laid next to skewer" - "Because the original Turkish shish kebabs is this. I refuse to dismantle the tomato and the pepper. This dish has been served like this for centuries, millennia, who am I to contradict such a tradition? My role is to take the Anatolia kitchen and ship it towards the best way in which this can be expressed."
In front of such humility, we can only congratulate the talent of a young man who is indeed a self-taught, but above all he understood what cooking is: the triangulation of Creativity and Technique that often are grounded by the beauty of Tradition.