Food

Homage to Anatolia

Gone are the days of having to hop on a plane to Turkey—or a tube to Green Lanes—for authentic and flavoursome Anatolian fare: Hus Vedat is bringing it to Baker Street, along with inventive raki-based cocktails and an impressive wine list, in a modern take on a Turkish meyhane. The Journal pays a visit

Words: Emily Jupp
Portraits: Patricia Niven

Constantinople. 1500AD. The city is a melting pot of immigrants who have travelled to the capital from all over the great Ottoman Empire, which stretches from the Balkans to Egypt and from Georgia to the Adriatic. The capital has a population of around 700,000, surpassed only by Beijing in size. It’s a cosmopolitan, open-minded place. They come from Russia, from Greece, from Palestine. Gypsies and Christians and Jews mix with the Muslim population. Their skills help build the temples, the art, the bath houses. And their food came here with them. Dumplings from Budapest, pastries from Algeria, cheese from Europe, grains from Egypt. The scent of cooking wafts up between the houses, a symphony of herbs and spices and different cultures intermingling.

The Sultan is a huge foodie. The Topkapi palace kitchens are in 10 domed chambers and from the outside, you can see the massive chimneys puffing out smoke, sweetened with herbs and rich spices. Each of the imperial kitchens is dedicated to a different speciality, such as pastry-making, or pickling. This is no small operation; hundreds of chefs cater to thousands of people every day. The chefs have their own dormitories, a mosque, and a hammam, but they do not live completely apart from the rest of their city—in fact, it is part of their job to wander the streets, visiting the homes and the less permanent gecekondular that lay on the outskirts of town, sniffing out new recipes like truffle hounds. If a chef smells something cooking that he thinks will please the Sultan, he will knock on the door and demand the recipe.

It’s surprising then, given that there is all that history and culinary knowledge—records of which can be found in the palace archives in modern Istanbul—that today, Turkish cuisine in London (unless you go to Green Lanes, where excellent pide and ocakbası grills abound) is so often boiled down to a poorly-advised late-night takeaway, or the pre-made hummus we take to picnics.

Hus Vedat is the chef that wants to change that. He has been making regular pilgrimages to Istanbul for a few years now, to taste what the city has to offer. He has even read the ancient recipes of the Ottoman palaces, which he says are “interesting, really cool and fun”—and he’s adapted those centuries-old recipes at his new restaurant, Yosma, which opened on Baker Street in September last year.  

Kunefe

Yosma is the Turkish word for ‘coquette’—a flirty, vivacious woman. Vedat and his backers, Levent Büyükug˘ur and Sanjay Nandi, founders of Good Food Society, decided they wanted an unconventional, fun vibe. The interior is designed by Afroditi Krassa, who’s worked on the interiors for Dishoom and Heston Blumenthal’s The Perfectionists’ Café. It’s modern, with white metro tiles and dark grey grouting. The walls are covered with trippy black and white prints, by psychedelic pop culture artist Neal Fox, depicting images of swarthy men fishing over Istanbul’s Galata Bridge, a belly dancer, and an octopus drinking strong Turkish coffee. The sign outside reads: “Skinny people are easier to kidnap. Stay safe; eat kunefe”—the sweet, flaky, gooey dessert made with cheese, honey and shredded filo pastry that has become a staple of the menu.

“What I wanted to do was explore the depth of Anatolian cuisine. I don’t have a chicken shawarma kebab on my menu because I think they are great in Green Lanes, and it’s kind of one-dimensional.  I wanted to look outside the box.

“Istanbul is the melting pot of Turkey,” explains Vedat as we sit at a corner table laden with a glittering selection of meze, “so it’s similar to London, in the sense it has so many different cultures and ethnic minorities. The manti come from travellers from the east—from Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.” He points to some dainty dumplings, smothered in strained yoghurt, speckled with ginger, pomegranate, parsley, mint and sumac. He makes them with braised lamb’s neck, rather than the traditional lamb mince, so they’re extra tender and flavourful. “People don’t realise that dumplings are a Turkish dish, because it’s not very common here, but it’s big in Istanbul. They have restaurants that just serve manti. When we opened, they were a smash. It became the Instagram dish of that month, it was everywhere!”

Vedat is enthusiastic about Anatolian cuisine for two main reasons. One is, as a kid, his family would spend weekends firing up a barbecue and cooking meat spiced with Anatolian flavours. “Having barbecues on a Sunday was a huge thing in my family. It was a social time,” he says. The other reason is that he believes no one else in London is championing the rich and varied cuisine that you find in the best ‘meyhane’, or traditional restaurants, of Istanbul.

“I have worked with a lot of different foods—French, Italian, Peruvian, modern British—so when the chance came for me to ask: what is my way of cooking? What is my cuisine? It was natural that I started exploring my own culinary roots. And the more I looked into it, the more interested I became.”

Barbecue

Vedat started his training straight after university at a hotel in Trinidad and Tobago, followed by a stint working in a cruise ship kitchen. He then “came up the ranks” under Nigel Frost at the Hilton London Metropole. “He’s a legend,” Vedat says of Frost. “He promoted me twice. I see him sometimes and he says, ‘wow you’ve done well’ and I say, ‘thanks chef’—I still call him chef. If I was working an early shift, I begged to work the late shift too. I just worked lots of different sections to see what they were doing. I was well into it and I wanted to absorb and absorb and absorb.” 

Vedat’s first head chef job was at an Italian restaurant in Spain. He came back to London in 2011 and opened the Caxton Grill at St Ermin’s Hotel, where he made his name. He was one of only a handful of chefs at the time to use the now-popular Josper grill for his barbecued meats.

He went on to Barbecoa, working with Jamie Oliver until 2015 before spending six months with Martin Morales at his Peruvian restaurant, Ceviche. Then he met Büyükuğur and Nandi in Turkey, who said they were interested in setting up a Turkish restaurant in London. Within six months, they opened Yosma.

The response has been hugely supportive, says Vedat—the 150 covers are filled most evenings. His Turkish breakfast has also been a hit with locals, who drop in before work or linger on weekends to devour the sucuklu yumurta: baked eggs with spicy beef sausage, yoghurt and chilli butter, mopped up with mounds of toasted freekeh bread.

“But there is a tiny percentage of people who want to kill me!” he laughs. They are mostly Turkish customers, he says, who see his restaurant as a violation of British-Turkish tradition. “It’s because I’m going leftfield—there are no fez hats around or turquoise tiles. My response is, why isn’t it Turkish? Why can’t this be Turkish? This is the first time a chef has put a real twist on Turkish cuisine in the UK. I am getting attention in Istanbul as well—some of the chefs have come over and been like, ‘what are you doing?’ The way I see it, this is the only way for the cuisine to evolve.”

The drinks list is pretty interesting, too. It was designed by Matt Whiley (aka Talented Mr Fox, the co-founder of Peg + Patriot and Worship Street Whistling Shop) and includes several raki-based cocktails and Turkish wines.

A waiter comes and pours my raki out at the table and as the water is added, it goes from clear to a milky shade. Then he gives me a raki cocktail called ‘ya sonda’ which doesn’t taste of the characteristic aniseed tang of raki at all. It’s made with fennel pollen, olive, prosecco and raki.

“I think it was the hardest assignment Matt’s ever done, because it is really hard to balance the flavours of raki and make it yummy. That was our welcoming drink when we opened. It’s approachable, isn’t it?” he says, watching me closely as I sip it. 

Levrek Marine

Next, he points to a glistening fish dish called çiroz, meaning mackerel. It’s air-dried and comes with a few slivers of apple, a lick of pickled shallots and a sprinkle of dill. It’s light and fresh. I say it tastes more like a Nordic dish and he laughs, pointing out that 500 years ago, we all used to cure fish in much the same way.

“Back in the day we didn’t have fridges, everyone was curing, pickling, salting, drying as a way of preserving their bounty—and Anatolian food is no different,” he says. “There’s a narrowing where the Bosphorus hits the sea, where a lot of people used to fish, and they used to catch loads of mackerel—so much that they didn’t know what to do with it, so they cured it and air-dried it.”

Vedat’s got a bit of a Jamie Oliver attitude. He grew up in north London and his parents were butchers, so he spent mornings at Smithfield market—an upbringing that’s quite different from that of Jamie, who worked shifts in the family pub in Essex, but there’s something Oliver-esque about his bish, bash, bosh style, which lets the ingredients speak for themselves.

“Jamie is a great family man and very passionate. He’s got a conscience and wants to change things for the better. He is inspiring,” he nods. When Vedat explains his dishes to me, like his former employer, it’s clear he wants to demystify the process. He enjoys sharing knowledge and says he would love a chance to work with children’s’ charities in the future.

Vedat lives in north London with his wife, who is also a chef. They have twin boys, aged nine, who went through a phase of eating chicken nuggets—“and then I showed them what was inside them,” he says. “It shocked them. I said, ‘See, that’s what goes in them’ and they were like, ‘Er, we don’t want them anymore.’ I think it is about educating them. Some kids don’t like broccoli or whatever, but mine do—well, I’ve had to bribe them.

I say to them ‘describe the flavours’ and then it becomes interesting for them and they say, ‘Ooh, let me try something else’—and then you’ve got them.”

He’s applying a similar process at Yosma, keeping some flavours we’re familiar with on the menu, like hellim (halloumi), borek and lamb chops, alongside more experimental dishes, like manti and a delicious bresaola-type spiced beef called pastirma.

“We haven’t yet scratched the surface of what gives the Ottoman cuisine longevity,” he says. “We want to start working with British ingredients and the seasons. And as people start to trust us and become more adventurous, we can push the boundaries even further.”