From living out of a car in New York to heading a team of some of the finest chefs in Istanbul at one of the city’s choicest restaurants in the upscale Nişantaşı neighborhood, Ali Gürbüz has never let anything get in the way of his passion for food. His journey to the top of Istanbul’s culinary scene has been anything but smooth, but if you didn’t notice the numerous scars running up his hands and arms, that history would be hard to glean from his demeanor alone. The first thing that strikes you about Ali is his room-dominating smile. Wide, contagious, and nearly always alight, it indicates the kind of uncannily relentless spirit that has helped land the inventive chef where he is today.
“My mother and friends told me all the time that I was good in the kitchen when I was young. But the story starts when I tried to play guitar and other things. I understood that I really didn’t want these things for my life. I studied economics at Sakarya University. During my second year, I started an internship at a pastry shop called Cadde Cafe, and I worked there for three years.”
As he recounts his history, Ali goes to a certain length to make it clear that there is nothing glamorous to being a chef, it simply involves persistence and dedication, both of which he has traded in for years.
“I worked for six months doing things with dough, then I started working on the hotline in the kitchen, working with kebabs and things. I experimented all the time. No sleeping (laughs). Just work. I took my first vacation eight years after I started working in the kitchen. Three years later, I started studying at MSA (the Istanbul Culinary Arts Academy). I studied for one year, and I did an internship in Istanbul at the Radisson hotel in Ortaköy. After four years there, I went to the USA.”
Ali’s cousin works in the restaurant business as well, and had been applying for jobs in the United States for over a decade before anyone accepted him. When they finally did, he called on Ali to join him.
“Finally someone sponsored him. He needed someone to help, so, of course I went, too. We went to work in Louisiana, at a restaurant called Amphorae. I was 22 years old. We were there for a year, and then the restaurant shut down.”
Without any direction and with nothing to his name in a foreign country, Ali found himself in a tough situation. He was lucky enough to regain contact with an old friend that helped him out in a big way, however, and who helped shape the rest of his culinary path.
“I didn’t have any money, I didn’t have anything,” he says, speaking of even this difficult episode with a grin. “I had a 1998 Ford Windstar, that’s it. I was living in that car. So, I called a friend from university who was living in New York and working at a restaurant, and he told me to come and visit him. I went there, and I was sitting at the bar of the restaurant my friend worked in. It was the day that I decided to return to Turkey. But his manager came to me and said, “You’re a cook, right?” I said, “Yes.” And he told me, “Ok, be here Monday.” It was like magic.”
This connection would prove to be fortuitous. Not only was Ali working in perhaps the most diverse and skilled city in the world, he now had access to some of the world’s best culinary talent as well.
“When I showed up Monday, it was amazing, because I started working with Dennis Franke, who was working with Alain Ducasse. And he was great, he had no ego, he just worked hard. They did Russian and French cuisine at the restaurant where I worked, a place called Mari Vanna. I just learned as much as I could. Dennis taught me to respect all your ingredients. He never wrote any title or name on his jacket, he just worked hard. He was maybe the best cook I’ve ever seen in my life.”
Those chefs had a significant influence on Ali. In the New York kitchen, as always, he kept his head about him and trained hard. But for a man with a heart of gold, the experience was never merely vocational.
The biggest thing I learned in New York was to respect all people. It’s very mixed there. My roommate was Indian, the other cook is Russian, the chef is French, you know, everybody is different. But everybody walks the same way.
This disposition is perhaps why Ali is so easy to work with. His coworkers, all of whom have followed him through at least three restaurant changes in Istanbul in recent years, work with and around the man and each other with a hive-mind mentality. And along with lessons in humanity and an increase in technical skill, his time in New York also allowed him insight into what it means to be committed to something you love, and the cost at which that sometimes comes.
“I also learned about my limits in New York. One day, I broke my hand, and I worked about six months with a bad hand in the kitchen. My boss told me it’s ok to stay home, but I didn’t want to. I never missed a day.”
Young chefs are always asking what they should do, and I tell them this: have passion, learn as much as you can, and don’t talk so much.
These days, Ali is doing his best to steer Turkish tastes into uncharted territory. Currently writing a book on Ottoman cuisine, he delights in bringing old, Anatolian-based recipes into the future in truly unique and surprising recipes.
“In my opinion, in this part of the world, there’s fantastic cuisine. But we Turks always look to Europe or the USA for inspiration. Why? We always look past our own culture. Turkey is the bridge. On one side people speak Greek, the other side speaks Arabic. 1000 kilometers, it’s like a small version of the USA. We are starting to understand this. Turks are strange. They are such giving people, they can give you money, anything. But when they come together, something happens, and they don’t share ideas with each other.”
The key to changing that, according to Ali, is to start low.
“I want to cook for everyone. Not just luxury. If you want to change the food mentality, you need to start at the bottom.”
As in any art form, the final product will always be a reflection of the person doing the creating, something Ali happily recognizes.
“Chefs can always follow a recipe, but the important thing is inside them. For example, Kadir,” he says, pointing to one of his co-chefs, “Kadir comes from Siirt, near Syria. He is amazing with spices! Any chef can make any recipe, but the last detail is yours.”
You can find Ali and his team at Moro in Nişantaşı from Monday to Saturday after 5:00 PM.