There’s a shift going on in restaurant kitchens around the world. Female chefs – many of whom are heading up some of London’s best restaurants – are inspiring others to follow suit, breaking up the boy’s club dynamic. Esra Muslu is one of them.
Muslu first cut her teeth with world-leading chefs including a stint with Ottolenghi, heading Istanbul’s Soho House, running a successful Carousel residency, as well as opening four successful restaurants in Istanbul: Backyard, Auf, Kauf, and Unter.
She now brings her Istanbulite delicacies to London with her own new opening in Carnaby Street, London. We sat down to explore her story, her kitchen favourites and fondest food memories.
How did you first get into cooking?
When I was 18, I was staying at an English-Jewish lady’s room in Stanmore, London named Bettina Harris. She was an incredible cook and taught me all she knew. We would make traditional Jewish dishes like Matza crackers and chicken soup. I used to call it the witches soup because she used the whole carcass for the stock, feet and all. It was one of my favourites.
What are some of your childhood food memories?
My grandmother had a beautiful garden. She was all about gathering the whole family – as regularly as twice a week! We’d cook delicious food with her using ingredients she grew in her garden. She had vines and it was our duty to pick the leaves each Sunday morning throughout the summer. We would sit together and make the sarmas together. I’m so fond of them, that we have these stuffed vine leaves on our menu at Zahter.
Who most influenced your cooking?
I would say my grandmother! And of course the lady I was staying with in London when I moved over. I have always been lucky to have a strong female influence in the kitchen.
The food that makes you happiest and why?
A Turkish breakfast is a real feast, the best meal of the day. I can have it 7 days a week. It’s the best way to uplift your mood. Our breakfast favourites are Tahin Pekmez, lots of fresh cheeses; tulum, feta, dil peyniri and fresh bread baskets with simit and acma.
Favourite cooking gadget?
A zester. I use lime and lemon zest in almost all the dishes we cook, including the desserts. A microplane grater works a treat.
What’s the one ingredient you can’t live without?
Fresh herbs, good quality olive oil and lemon. Zahter is named after a wild thyme found in Southeast Turkey. When it is in seasons, many families buy it by the kilo and use it in many ways. I’ve always loved herbs, I will always use them in my cooking.
Where are the best places to shop for produce in London?
Street markets and local producers always grab my attention. I love going to Borough Market, especially at Christmas. There is so much to take in.
And in Istanbul?
There is a famous street market called Fatih Pazari where you can find local produce. Istanbul is such a melting pot of flavour, I love the food scene there. You can find amazing places to enjoy food on every corner, the options are also so broad and there’s a real sociable atmosphere in the air.
How does travel influence your cooking?
Seeing different cultures always influences my food. Not only the ingredients but also the cooking techniques, utensils, ways of serving. I wanted each of my restaurants to be and feel completely different. They are influenced from different places I’ve visited and I never want to serve the same thing time and again. I always hope this comes through in our menus.
Must-visit food cities include…
Barcelona and Istanbul. They are both Mediterranean but with different influences. In Barcelona, Can Paixano (La Xampanyeria) is one of the most romantic streets of Barcelona. You’ll find the most delicious food, stepping into another universe in this small but quite incredibly place. The perfect combination of fresh garlic, Spanish tomatoes and their perfectly choreographed dance of toasted bread needs nothing but extra virgin olive oil to finish. Go and try the pintxos, each bite a new experience. Do not get scared to order the whole menu. Ice cold bubbles of Cava is the only drink you are looking for under the amazing Mediterranean heat.
Where are your favourite places to dine in London?
Kiln is one of my favourite restaurants. Sitting at the counter and trying different regional Thai food is amazing. I’m happy it is close by to my restaurant.
And in Istanbul?
Karakoy lokantasi. It’s a real authentic, old-school restaurant with amazing Turkish food – a must visit in Istanbul.
What do you always avoid ordering on a menu?
I’m not much of a fussy eater so I’m open to everything!
By contrast, must-order items on a menu?
I try to order as much as I can on any menu, like I said, I am not a picky eater! A must order might have to be a negroni, I live close to Towpath Café in East London, and they do a great one. I also love seafood, so I will order the fish when I have the opportunity.
Why do you think it’s important to gather round the table to eat?
Eating is a social activity. The more you share your food, the more you enjoy the food. In Turkey what you eat in restaurants is different to what you eat at home and I wanted Zahter to be a mix of the two, as to me, both are important.
What is your go-to meal at home when you’re low on time?
Toasted bread, tomatoes, and olive oil. I like to keep it simple at home after a hands-on day in the kitchen. You can’t beat simple dishes with great produce.
Advice for women thinking about starting up a business in the food or restaurant industry?
Believe in yourself. Take a deep breath and take the first step.