A Cosmopolitan Restaurant for New Yorkers: Pera Midtown
This article is one of the six profiles I have written about Turkish restaurant owners in New York and London. All of these articles came together for my senior thesis which looked at how food eaten in a particular culture is influenced by nationality, geography and politics. Food grounds people in a culture, and in a foreign country that is one of the few ways you can feel closer to home. I also made a short documentary that you can watch here.
A block away from the ruckus of Bryant Park is Pera Midtown, a Mediterranean Brasserie owned by Burak Karaçam and a menu created by executive chefs Sezai Çelikbaş and Jason Avery. The restaurant is elegantly decorated with low hanging lights, a fully stocked bar and a mix of high and low seating options. The large windows allow daylight to enter the otherwise warmly-lit restaurant and customers to look onto the busy foot and car traffic of Madison Avenue. There is an open kitchen in the back of the restaurant where you can see the grilling station, the cooks’ mise en place and dishes like grape leaf wrapped Mediterranean branzino, Pera’s signature fresh lamb “Adana” and Corfu-style linguine leaving the kitchen and being placed in front of eager and hungry guests. While I was waiting for Karaçam and Çelikbaş, I saw two businessmen grab a drink together — it was 12 p.m. It did seem like a place for business lunches, not only because of its location but also because of its design, price-range and menu. A mix of Greek, French and Turkish songs were playing, reminding me of fancy restaurants in Istanbul. Pera Midtown, I found, was extremely different from Pera Soho, their second location, which they describe as their “adventurous, younger and bubbly sister.” Pera Soho on Thompson street has an outdoor dining area adorned with fairy lights and a giant mural of a Turkish tram.
Karaçam, a tall and confident man who was wearing a, seemingly, freshly pressed light blue shirt and dark pants for our interview, was born in Istanbul. He studied at Duke and earned an MBA at Harvard. He worked at Lehman Brothers Inc. for five years before opening Pera Midtown. Çelikbaş was born in Adana which I could tell immediately because he looked like my family members from my father’s side; darker skin, dark features, thick eyebrows and a passion for talking about skewered dishes. He developed the menu and helped with the opening of Köşebaşı, a famous kebab and Turkish restaurant that has many branches not only around Turkey but also in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar and Azerbaijan. The food served in Köşebaşı is defined by the restaurant as “ the traditional food from Adana and Tarsus brought to present day with modern twists.” I know that for Köşebaşı, the “modern twist” is the tweaking of traditional recipes and serving them in simple ways. The menu at Pera Midtown also stands by these ideals, bringing flavors from Turkey, Greece, Italy and France together.
The two officially met in the 1990s. Karaçam frequented Çelikbaş’s restaurant, Köşebaşı, but even before that Karaçam’s father was Çelikbaş’s father’s loyal customer. “In a way the relationship was passed on from our fathers to us,” Karaçam said.
Pera is inspired by a very special neighbourhood of the same name in Taksim that has always been one of the most cosmopolitan areas of Istanbul. Now also called Beyoğlu, Pera has always been the location for foreigners to live and for consulates ( such as the Italian, Russian, Swedish and Dutch) to open. Many of Istanbul’s competitive and famous high schools; Galatasaray Highschool, Deutsche Schule Istanbul, Lycée Sainte Pulchérie, Liceo Italiano di Istanbul, Beyoğlu Anatolian High School and Zografeion Lyceum are in this area. It is the heart of art, culture and nightlife. All that to say, Pera has always been a place where people from different cultures, religions and countries came together. For their restaurant that combines different culinary practices, flavors and recipes, Karaçam and Çelikbaş could not have chosen a better name.
“Pera’s story is one of unity and acceptance in regards to food in culture,” Karaçam said. “ Pera is a place where Muslims and non-Muslims lived and socialized under the Ottoman Empire. It is where food, laughter, sadness, everything was shared.”
Karaçam had already been living in America for a long time when he contacted Çelikbaş about the possibility of opening up a restaurant. “It was going to be Adana-Istanbul, Istanbul-New York for me,” Çelikbaş said laughing. “Of course it was an enticing offer to be in New York. To be in America.”
And so Çelikbaş came to New York in 2005 to do some research on what New Yorkers eat, how they eat and how, as restaurant owners, they could supply Turkish ingredients. They signed the contract for the midtown location and started construction. Çelikbaş, in the meantime, was building a team in Turkey and teaching them English.
“Before the restaurant was ready, we had three-four months,” Çelikbaş said. “We took English classes with the team in New York. We developed our language skills and got to know the area. And when the restaurant was ready, we said Bismillah and started.”
Both agree that working with cooks like a baker, a mezze adept, a butcher and a kebab master from Turkey was vital in the beginning to be able to instill the culinary traditions in foreign chefs. So they created an environment of cultural teaching by putting things into practice.
“You can tell things in theory, but it does not matter if they cannot replicate it in practice,” Çelikbaş said. “Now that team of Turkish chefs are gone, the people they taught are here. We bring people in, explain the traditions and why things are done in specific ways so they can live through it.” Both Çelikbaş and Karaçam want the cooks to know Turkish culinary culture so they can internalize it — at the end of the day, you can cook meat in different ways and get good results, but it matters for the duo, for the restaurant’s integrity and for the cuisine they are working with that it be done a certain way. Right now, Turkish cooks do not make up the majority in the Pera kitchen.
“For us, it does not matter if the people working in the kitchen are Turkish, Greek, Egyptian if they can do the work as shown and properly,” Karaçam said. “The majority of the clientele is not Turkish, so we do not have a specific need for Turkish personnel. However, with the nature of the work, we are an establishment that attracts Turkish people looking for work.”
The goal was never to open a traditional Turkish restaurant for Karaçam and Çelikbaş. “There are Turkish dishes on the menu and non-Turkish dishes,” Karaçam told me after I asked him what region the menu was based on — at this point I knew better than to ask whether they made Turkish food exclusively. “Generally, our inspiration comes from East Mediterranean cuisine,” he said.
Karaçam said that he had similar concerns many Turkish restaurant owners have when opening up a restaurant in a foreign country; if they position the restaurant as a kebab restaurant how would people approach the food? What would they feel about the pricing? What would the guest eat and drink with the kebab? Would they spend time at the bar? A kebab restaurant has a certain connotation of being a more casual and traditional restaurant — not always considered sophisticated and elevated cuisine — therefore branding the restaurant in that way would immediately change the clientele and put a pressure on Karaçam and Çelikbaş to make the food relatively more affordable. This would not be feasible since they use fresh and high quality ingredients that are already harder to source in New York than in Turkey. To relieve themselves from some pressure, they decided to brand themselves as an eastern mediterranean-focused, New York restaurant.
“We wanted it to be cosmopolitan. When you look at the interior design, I can see, like the olive green shades of the Aegean or the orange of the Mediterranean, but these are very subtle things,” Karaçam pointed out. “ We didn’t buy the traditional copper crockery or decorate the place with hanging evil eyes and such. Think of it like this, if you were to go to a reputable Turkish restaurant in one of the big cities in Turkey like Izmir, Ankara or Istanbul, that appeals to the business world for lunch and dinner, this level of Turkishness would be what you would get.”
Karaçam rightfully pointed out that, many of the Turkish restaurants in Turkey do not have ethnic, traditional decorations. “For some reason, when you leave Turkey, we get this urge to have this extreme ethnic look to restaurants. We just wanted to balance that out.”
I asked Karaçam why he thought this was a common trend, especially in big cities like New York and London. While he told me he could not generalize, he thought the need to recreate this idealistic environment in Turkey would be playing into it, a way to relive memories made in the homeland. For the Pera Midtown duo, however, this was never the intention. “We were never like ‘come here and reminisce about your days in Turkey.’ For us, it was always something more like ‘we brought you the food from Turkey through a modern lens,’” said Karaçam.
When developing the menu, Çelikbaş and Karaçam first focused on what they knew worked. They selected some dishes from Turkey, from Köşebaşı and from the repertoire of Çelikbaş such as Adana kebab, ribs, pide, mezzes. After, they discussed what they would serve here with some tweaks. After seeing the chicken consumption in New York they decided to make Adana Kebab from chicken in addition to the lamb or beef version. One of their concerns was using lamb, since some people do not like the smell or strong taste of it. However after serving it and gauging customer reactions, they decided to keep lamb.
“We were also timid about using chicken thighs for our chicken skewers. People warned us against it, telling us that Americans would not eat dark meat so we should switch to chicken breast. However, we decided to take the risk and now the chicken-thigh skewers are one of our most popular dishes.”
They import some of their ingredients from Turkish companies. However, because of strict laws regarding the import of meat, they source their meat from high quality meat suppliers around the United States. They also found that many of the ingredients they require such as Turkish tomato paste, Turkish spices, Turkish cheese, are easy to find in New York. When I asked them if they were going to make more traditional dishes that were not very common like tripe soup, kelle paça or kokoreç, they looked at each other and smiled.
“These dishes are not our forte. We do not want to serve dishes that we have not perfected. Also, our current staff is not trained in these cooking methods. I also don’t think, with the clientele we have, this is a risk worth taking because there are so many other dishes to try before we go there.”
Additionally, they already have a very extensive lunch and dinner menu. This requires intricate financial planning, therefore to add dishes that require additional ingredients, they need to make sure that they can make a profit. “But you mentioned kokoreç, last summer we made a version of kokoreç by using monkfish. We used the typical spices used in kokoreç-making and marinated it. This way it was an ode to kokoreç without diving head-first.”
The story of the monkfish kokoreç is a great synopsis of what Turkish restaurant owners, and I, are trying to refer to when talking about modernizing Turkish cuisine. By modernity, they mean a sort of newness, perhaps using a daring new ingredient that was not a part of Turkish culinary consciousness. It is those additions or alterations that lead many restaurant owners to call their take on Turkish food modern. Kokoreç, a dish commonly found in the Balkans and Asia Minor combined with the monkfish, a fish that can be found in Mediterranean waters come together and create a dish that is new and out of the realm of traditional Turkish cooking. And that, for us Turks, is modernity.