A meyhane on the harbour

somer-sivrioglu

With his new venture, Anason, restaurateur Somer Sivrioglu hopes to bring the convivial seaside dining of the Bosphorus to his adopted home of Sydney, writes Tracey Hordern

“While both are harbourside cities, sharing a comparable climate, there are so many other similarities,” explains restaurateur, Somer Sivrioglu. “Both Istanbul and Sydney have a shared vibrancy and a culture of waterfront dining, a love of seafood, plus both cities are considered the cultural and food capitals of their countries.”

Sivrioglu, who has worked in the hospitality industry for more than 30 years, is best known for the much-loved Efendy restuarant, which has operated in the inner-Sydney suburb of Balmain for almost a decade. In a relatively short period, Sivrioglu has become Australia’s go-to man for all things Turkish: he has contributed to food-centric television shows, led cultural tours to Turkey and lectured on Turkish food at the Culinary Institute of America. More recently, he co-authored the authoritative cookbook Anatolia, which features 150 exotic Turkish recipes.

Sivrioglu’s latest venture, Anason, has only reinforced his reputation as the nation’s leading expert on Turkish cuisine. Located on The Streets of Barangaroo—Sydney’s newest precinct—Anason pays homage to the complexity and history of what Somer Sivrioglu prefers to call “Anatolian” food, presenting a selection of mezes and charcoal dishes from all around Anatolia, the heartland of Turkey.

With two restaurants offering two interpretations of Turkish food, just don’t ask Somer Sivrioglu which of his two restaurants should you decide to dine in if you had to choose. “It’s like asking me which of my children I like more. But I will say this: come to Anason for lunch and come to Efendy for dinner.

“Efendy is a traditional Turkish restaurant offering a selection of mezes and charcoal dishes from all around Anatolia,” he says, “whereas Anason is a modern meze-and-wine bar with vegetarian and seafood-driven cold and hot mezes inspired by the meyhanes along the Bosphorus.”

Like many talented chefs, Sivrioglu learnt to appreciate the nuances of preparing food in his mother’s kitchen—only this particular kitchen was in his family’s restaurant in Istanbul. “I started cooking with her and I soon realised how much I love the atmosphere of a commercial kitchen.”

Sivrioglu came to Sydney in 1995 to study for an MBA in Sydney. “I was always very interested in the corporate side of things, the practicality of operating a successful business, while all the time I always knew I would go back to food eventually and apply that knowledge,” explains Sivrioglu.

“I was incredibly fortunate when I started working in Australia to have had the opportunity to work with John Szangolies, from the Urban Purveyor Group (UPG). I have so much respect for John as he has such a deep understanding about all aspects of the hospitality industry here in Australia.

“From the moment my guests walk through the door, they’re not a customer, they’re my guest. It’s like I’m welcoming them into my home.”Somer Sivrioglu

“With his help and others’, I worked my way up on the management ladder, while at the same time learning so much about the business of operating restaurants. But eventually, I reached a point where there was little room for me to grow, so I knew it was time for me to go out on my own.

“While I could see there were many great ethnic restaurants here in Sydney, I did not see any Turkish restaurants that truly represented Turkey—the Turkey that I know and love and the country that has such a vibrant culture of celebrating life with food and eating out.”

Marrying his love of Turkish food with his business qualifications, Sivrioglu opened Efendy nine years ago—although he admits it took some time to establish its own authentic place within the Sydney dining scene.

“I made that common mistake that many immigrants make,” he says. “I fell into the trap of wanting to fit in at all costs. This doesn’t just happen for chefs. I believe many immigrants fall prey to wanting to fit in, because naturally we all want to become a part of our newly adopted homes—but that can be at the cost of being authentic.

Sivrioglu continues: “Looking back, many of my early menu items revolved around replicating what was popular at the time and then trying to give that dish a Turkish twist. It took some time for me to really settle into what it was I was trying to achieve—and that was to deliver something that was truly unique, something no-one else in Sydney was doing.

“A turning point for me was meeting Musa Dagdeviren, when he was visiting Australia for an international food festival. He’s an amazing Turkish chef who has helped put regional Turkish food back on the map. Musa also imparted a deeply valued belief in the joys of traditional Turkish food, plus he showed me how I could really create authentic Turkish food using Australian produce.”

For Sivrioglu, the realisation that he could use local produce to create Turkish dishes was a paradigm shift. “I’ve also come to realise how fortunate I was in deciding to come to Australia. The produce here is amazing if you know what to look for and where to look for it, plus the cultural freedom to express yourself, however that is, it can’t be overstated.

“If there is one thing that I would suggest to anyone looking to establish a business of any type, it is to be authentic. Find your own voice and find a way to be unique in a market that is flooded by people copying others. If you are true to yourself, you will always stand out in the market.”

Sivrioglu has continued to express his uniqueness by opening his second restaurant, Anason, meaning ‘anise’ which is the main ingredient in the aniseed drink that best accompanies Turkish food. “I was blessed to have a great team, some of them have been with me since I opened Efendy, nine years ago. It was a group decision to push ourselves and our culinary culture to a new level by opening Anason at Barangaroo.”

efendyAnason draws inspiration from its waterfront location at Barangaroo, promising to deliver the rich culture, colour, vibrancy and hospitality of his home city to Sydney diners. “Growing up in Istanbul, I wanted to be near to the water, so my new restaurant at Barangaroo will be influenced by the sea,” he says.

“It is also slightly more casual because I want a really vibrant atmosphere. From the moment my guests walk through the door, they’re not a customer, they’re my guest. It’s like I’m welcoming them into my home. I want to transport them to Turkey, to what a happening restaurant or bar in Istanbul would look like today.”

Already garnering excellent reviews from both critics and diners, Sivrioglu describes the only real challenges since opening Anason as being those of logistics and travel. “But the advantages far outweigh the challenges. I know for me that finding my own voice and deciding what makes my restaurants unique has been vital.”

Sivrioglu strongly believes that every restaurateur should make their uniqueness their manifesto. “In such a competitive industry, you can’t afford to just copy what’s popular at the time; you need to find that gap in the market, where no-one else is.

“I also believe that many chefs need to have a reality check. This is a business; cooking beautiful food is only part of it. You really do need to have strong business acumen to survive. You also need to keep a strict eye on your margins, as this is a fickle business and the margins are getting smaller every day.

“It’s also invaluable to know every aspect of your business. For instance, just the other day my bar manager was called away to deal with an urgent family matter. I could jump into that role as I’ve worked that part of the business. I wasn’t born with a fully operational restaurant— I’ve worked my way through all the facets of the business; I’ve been a waiter, a manager, a chef and a kitchen hand.

“That doesn’t mean I’m a better barman, but it does mean I can step into the role if I need to. Just being a good chef or manager does not necessarily make a great restaurant. For instance, I’ve also studied marketing and I’ve managed accounts, which means I’m on top of the commercial side of my business.”

While there has been considerable recognition and success, for Sivrioglu, such acknowledgements— while gratifying—are not what he strived for. “For me, the most important reward is the community I have built up around myself. Turkish food does that; it fosters community. People bring their children and babies with them, people gather here as much for the sense of community as they do for the food. I like to think I have created my very own Turkish village here in Australia.”

So if Sivrioglu could host his five ultimate guests to dine at one of his restaurants, who would he invite and what would he serve? “I would prepare the best meze table for them from all around Turkey like bonito lakerda from Black Sea, topik, feta from Edirne, melon from Kirkagac and liver from Edirne with a bottle of finest Raki from Tekirdag.

“I would keep the guest list to Turkish-speaking, whether they are dead or alive, to prevent the language and cultural barriers,” laughs Sivrioglu. “On my list would be Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey. Also Nazim Hikmet, my favourite poet, and Selahattin Pinar, my favourite classical Turkish music composer.

“I would also want my grandma, Akife Malkoc, to come as she has never seen me cooking, and my wife Asli, as I need one person alive that I can talk to after the event. Also, I owe her a lifetime of favours for putting up with me and my work!”

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