x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Talking Turkey with the master of Ottoman cuisine

Mehmet Gok, the executive chef at the Four Seasons Istanbul, looks forward to February's Gourmet Abu Dhabi festival

There has been something of a food explosion in the capital since last February's Gourmet Abu Dhabi festival. The slew of hotels that opened in time for the Formula One Grand Prix, together with their many restaurants, have dramatically boosted the capital's culinary scene. It seems fitting, then, that much of the action at the second Gourmet Abu Dhabi festival should be centred on Yas Island itself. February's Gourmet Abu Dhabi, however, is to be bigger and better than its predecessor. The festival will run not for 10 days, as it did last February, but for 15. A coterie of chefs from 13 countries are being flown in, boasting 22 Michelin stars between them. "I have never heard of a gourmet event taking place with 22 Michelin stars," exclaims one of the stars on next year's line-up, Mehmet Gok, the executive chef at the Four Seasons Istanbul.

Gok was the chef representative at this week's press conference held to reveal the first festival details, but he will be in exalted company come February. Among those also appearing will be Alain Passard, the owner of the three-starred Michelin restaurant L'Arpège in Paris; one of Britain's leading Indian chefs, Vineet Bhatia (two stars); the two-starred Andrea Berton from Italy (a former protégé of the Italian master Gualtiero Marchesi) and Germany's two-starred Heinz Winkler, the youngest chef ever to receive three Michelin stars.

"I gained at least 10lb last year," joked Peter Knipp at this week's press conference. Knipp is a German chef who is now the driving force behind the festival, along with the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority. Features on the timetable include a chocolate and pastry workshop, featuring pastry whizzes such as Valrhona's Frédéric Bau, plus Vincent Bourdin and Pierre Hermé. Knipp says of the latter: "He's the rock star of the pastry industry and famous for his macaroons."

The Canadian celebrity chef Bob Blumer will also be in town, hosting both a "surreal" masterclass and a dinner. "He'll put something that looks like a cupcake in front of you, but really it's a tenderloin of beef," warns Knipp. There will be a foie gras dinner, presented by the German chef Dieter Kaufmann, a gourmet barbecue, specially prepared dinners at hotels across the city and, rounding it all off, will be the hotly contested Gourmet Abu Dhabi Star Awards - back this year with an extra pastry award and 10 categories in total.

So, does Gok feel the heat of competition from all these events? "It's not competition," he replies lightly. "All the chefs are working together, we are all professional and I respect them all. As long as I have time, I will go and try their food." Gok will be offering Ottoman cuisine in the Yas Hotel's Atayeb restaurant, and although he remains coy about his menu, he will be carrying one or two special ingredients here with him. Turkish chilli for one. And a peculiar sounding dried, salted yoghurt for another. "You take the yoghurt," explains Gok, "and then you have a cheesecloth in which you hang the yoghurt to take out all the water from it. You then have a ball, which you cover with salt and leave for drying. Then you can keep the yoghurt in a cloth for a couple of years, no problem."

And what to make with this culinary delicacy? "There's this dish which is very traditional, like a short pasta with butter and walnuts," says Gok, who, having grown up in the Turkish agricultural province of Amasya, is a passionate advocate of simple, seasonal food. "You grate this yoghurt all over it so you have that sour taste and then you have the creamy and crunchy taste from the butter and walnuts. Simple, but it works."

Gok is the only Turkish executive chef in Istanbul, a fact that seems odd given the strength of cuisine in the country. After all, the nation is famous for its meat and seafood, its produce, cheeses, nuts and sweet pastries. "There are lots of young, talented chefs but they don't like to travel. They love to stay at home," he says. "But if you don't travel, you don't know what's happening around the world, you don't know trends." It's an international outlook that explains why he is so excited about participating at Gourmet Abu Dhabi. "Today, if you want to eat in Charlie Trotter, you have to go to Chicago. If you want Michelin-starred Italian food, you're best off going to Italy," he explains. "But if you come to Abu Dhabi, in days you can explore the world's gourmets and eat wherever you want. It's going to be amazing."

Public voting for the Gourmet Abu Dhabi Awards can be completed online until the end of this month at www.gourmet abudhabi.ae.