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Istanbul’s Newest Tastemaker

Whether she’s teaching her butcher-shop customers how to cook steak or divulging Istanbul’s best places to eat, Defne Koryürek is the ultimate food insider. Here she shares the ingredient-centric recipes she loves.

Defne Koryürek might just be the world’s most glamorous butcher-shop owner. It’s a sunny Saturday in Istanbul, and the 40-year-old defne—in a chic minidress by Machka, one of her favorite Turkish designers—is giving me a tour of Dükkan, the butcher shop she runs with her business partner, Emre Mermer. Since it opened four years ago, Dükkan has become the local go-to source for dry-aged steaks. It also supplies veal and sausage to many of the city’s most prestigious restaurants, including the one at the Four Seasons Hotel Istanbul at Sultanahmet and the trendy Ulus 29 and Kantin. Dükkan’s meat is also the focus at Dükkan steak house, which Defne and Emre opened last fall two storefronts away from the butcher shop.

Defne has lots of other projects at the moment—in addition to the butcher shop and steak house, she also writes a food blog and heads up Istanbul’s Slow Food chapter—but she has been pushing Turkish cuisine forward for more than a decade. She spent three years in the 1990s as a caterer in New York City, where she delivered Mediterranean comfort food like beef-and-lamb köfte to homesick expats and created recipes like one she named Eggs alla Kortun, poached eggs on toasted bread with sizzling feta and olives. When Defne returned to Istanbul, she opened a restaurant called Refika in the gritty (but now gentrified) neighborhood of Tunel. There, she used fresh ingredients for Turkish dishes like a warm lentil salad with roasted red peppers and garlicky sausages.

“I still remember the first meal I had at Refika: a chicken stew with pears,” says Semsa Denizsel, the chef at Kantin. “It was very clear that Defne was doing something new and different. At the time in Istanbul, there was the food you ate at home and the food you had in restaurants, which was often European, rarely Turkish. Defne’s food was delicate and refined, but at heart, it was good Turkish home cooking.” Refika (which is now closed) sparked a sort of Alice Waters–esque movement toward using the very best ingredients to elevate simple Turkish dishes. As a result, many local chefs consider Defne a mentor and mother figure.

Now, with Dükkan, Defne is helping locals understand how to properly grill steak. “People in Turkey tend to overcook meat, so we would have clients come back to the shop and say the steaks were too dry,” she explains. “We had to show them how to do it.” Opening the steak house was a natural next step.

As she walks from the butcher shop to the steak house, Defne points out the extreme contrasts in the scruffy neighborhood, Küçükarmutlu: Nearby are tiny crooked houses, with Istanbul’s stock exchange building looming behind them (stockbrokers often come to Dükkan for lunch). “When we first opened, the headlines were, ‘Society Butchers in a Shantytown,’ ” she says. “But we like the low rent.”

An enormous glass case of dry-aged steaks stands just inside the door of the steak house. The waiters ask diners to select their meal from the display—like choosing a lobster from a tank. “The conversation usually becomes a little lesson about meat cuts and dry aging,” Defne says, walking past several packed communal tables to reach her husband, Vasif Kortun, who’s sitting in the back of the room under a large mirror decorated with a butcher’s diagram of a cow. Vasif, one of Europe’s most respected contemporary-art curators, is the founder and director of Istanbul’s avant-garde Platform Garanti Contemporary Art Center. He is also co-curating this year’s Taipei Biennial and collaborating with the Nobel Prize–winning Turkish author Orhan Pamuk on an installation based on Pamuk’s much anticipated new novel, Museum of Innocence.

In between bites of fennel-and-apple sausages, smashed potatoes and a T-bone steak dripping in its own juices, Defne and Vasif talk about food, art and Istanbul. Vasif describes the growth of the city’s contemporary-art scene: Two new modern-art museums—Santralistanbul and Istanbul Modern—have opened in the past four years. Defne mentions some of her favorite Istanbul restaurants, including Kantin, which has a chalkboard menu of Turkish dishes that changes daily and might include cinnamon-spiced rice pilaf with mussels and calamari. And she raves about Changa, a fashionable restaurant that she recommends for its modern reinterpretations of Turkish dishes, like pan-fried beef tongue with mustard sauce.

“It’s definitely an exciting time for food here—the city is in an experimental adolescent stage,” Defne says. “But we still need more markets, a good culinary school and more risk takers.” With Defne helping to nurture other risk takers, Istanbul is ready to grow up.

Gisela Williams is F&W’s European correspondent.

Published May 2008
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