The Lovely Kebabçı of Eltham: Atlantic BBQ Grill
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.
Nestled between Harrison Ingram Property Management and a 24-hour locksmith called Terry’s All Locks in Eltham in Southern London, a 40-minute train ride from London Bridge, stands Atlantic BBQ Grill. It is a small take-out joint with an all Turkish staff and a menu that centers döner kebab with additions of fish and chips, pies and fried chicken. It is similar to many döner joints around London. Crowds of hungry people stop by late at night, looking for a remedy for their slight intoxication, or for a cheap meal. The customer demographic is mixed with Brits, Turks and other ethnicities. The most popular menu item is their döner kebab made from seasoned and grilled lamb served in either pita bread with lettuce and sauces or over rice which one of the guys, Ömer Sorgucu, prepares while making sure I am watching. He cuts thin pieces of meat acting like he is holding a samurai knife, and throws it to the opened up pita with the precision of a NBA star. The döner meat lands on the cushion of lettuce, tomato and sauce. The place has a couple of tables, however most people order to-go and you can see the food courier constantly coming in and out of the place, carrying bags of food — especially at night. The environment is friendly, with the staff joking around and chatting. If there are Turkish customers around, banter turns into serious conversation about politics — be it Brexit or the Kurdish problem in Turkey since many of the people that work at Atlantic BBQ Grill are Kurdish.
Yasin Bilici works at Atlantic BBQ Grill and came to London when he was 18-years old. His father, whom he barely saw, had been in the food business back in Turkey and when they arrived, continued making what they knew best: food.
“Lets just say that our life became food,” Bilici said as we sat inside Atlantic BBQ Grill.
He grew up in Turkey with food all around him; he laughed when I asked whether food was an important part of his life. Before working at Atlantic BBQ Grill, Bilici rented a food joint for two years but had to give it up because it was far from where he lived. He lived in Plymouth for two years but moved to London in 2015 because he knew more people there.
He lives with his wife and three kids, the oldest is 4-years old and wants to be a doctor. He says that balancing home and work is very difficult.
“ I can’t spend a lot of time at home — only once a week,” he said. “One day is just shopping for food and taking care of the children. My wife, thankfully, takes care of the home and I just come and go almost like it is a hotel.”
He goes back to Turkey with his family at least once a year, twice if they can afford it. When he first arrived, he did not really realize what he was leaving behind. He was young and excited about being in a new country.
“You are 18, you are enthusiastic and young in a new country with a new life,” he said. “What you leave behind does not interest you because you become interested in the potentials of your future. Longing, after a while, helps you understand certain things.”
That being said, he is happy to live in London, a statement that surprises his co-workers who all would love to go back to their villages that they had to leave behind. While he does not fully clarify his reasons, he mentions that he enjoys the diverse friend group he has and the possibility of creating a better life for his kids.
“Of course there is history, my brothers, my sisters, my relatives are all there,” Bilici said. “But as the Turkish saying goes, the important thing is not where you are born but where you are full and satisfied.”
When he first arrived in London as a teenager, he started going to school. This lasted for a week because his father did not let him quit work to pursue his education. He would come home at 6 a.m. and start working again at 2:30 p.m. which proved to be extremely difficult and he ended up quitting — he regretted this decision because he really wanted to be a police officer or study international business. This further gives him the incentive to give his three kids better opportunities because he realized that, when abroad, Turkish people immediately went into the food business.
“Whoever comes to this country, immediately went into the food business and those who could not develop themselves learn to cook and teach their children to cook,” he said. “We are underdeveloped in this sense. I am a kebabçı so my son should be a kebabçı as well. Why should that be the case? Let him go to school and do whatever he wants to do.”