I've been traveling to Gaziantep, a town in the southeast of Turkey near the Syrian border, for 7 years now. I visit 2-3 times a year because we have our factory there, really a workshop - where we make Sabahs with a team of 30 or so craftspeople.
I travel to Gaziantep to source leathers, to solve issues, to work on new designs, and to connect with our makers. I'd usually be there right now in January -- reviewing our Spring & Summer collections and getting things moving for 2021. Alas, this year is different and I'm managing our long to do list remotely with WhatsApp and email, and trying to establish that same rapport with weekly calls on FaceTime.
Handling all that work digitally, it's cost effective, it's efficient and there's no jet lag. But something is sorely missing: the food. But really it's the connection & love that food has created over the years between me and my Turkish counterparts. Something that bridges the divide of language, culture, and the inevitable business disagreements. That creates love & warmth and makes business partners feel like family members; difficult negotiations feel like dinner conversations.
There's no taste, there's no smell and there's no hospitality transmitted via video chat. I miss that more than I realized I would.
So let me tell you a bit about food & Gaziantep...
Gaziantep is a culinary capital of Turkey, known for its incredible spices, grilled meats, fresh produce, pistachios, baklava and so much more. If you polled a group of Turks, I imagine at least half would agree that Gaziantep has the best food in Turkey. If you'd visit - it is apparent and it is everywhere. The people of Gaziantep take their food very, very seriously.
Our craftsmen are no exception. Every morning, when I arrive to the workshop -- the first question from Orhan, my partner there, "What do you want to eat today?"
There's a standard menu of Gaziantep's greatest hits from which I choose. For breakfast, it might be katmer, a decadent pistachio and clotted cream filled phyllo dough pastry; or, in the savory -- a very spicy lamb soup known as Beyran, a surprisingly great way to jump start the day. Post breakfast, it's time to chat business and drink tea. Lots of it. And then of course, discuss what's for lunch.
Lunch is almost, always kebab -- any number of ways. Such as Urfa or Adana Kebab -- ground lamb perfectly spiced, skewered and grilled, then served on a freshly baked pita bread, covered in fresh cilantro, onion, tomatoes, sprinkled with the Antep trio of spices: aleppo pepper, red pepper and sumac. And then there's my all-time favorite lahmacun - a dish that spans the Middle East - a thin crusted flatbread topped with minced meat, tomatoes, peppers and spices and quickly baked at high temperature to be crisp yet still doughy. I can usually eat 3 or 4 of them, but then I need a nap. Lunch is always washed down with Ayran -- a salty, frothy, tangy yogurt drink served ice cold. It's delicious. They say it aids in digestion. It just makes me more sleepy.
All this food, contrasted with the need to work, makes me quite thankful for the jet fuel known as Turkish coffee that I consume after lunch. There's a system in the bazaars of Turkey where every shop has a direct line to the nearest tea stall. Buzz twice, give them the count of teas and coffees, and a few minutes later, a young man arrives with an ornate tray of piping hot Turkish coffees and teas. Tokens are exchanged for the teas because the system works on prepaid tokens. The original UberEats.
At this point, I'm stuffed and buzzed on caffeine, but it's finally time to get down to real work. We'll review our latest batch of leather just in from the tannery, check on the status of new sample colors that we've put into production, troubleshoot any issues we're having during production, and then I'll always take the time to sit with each and every craftsman and see how he's doing, talk family, work, life. And snap a group selfie. They're fun to look back on over the years.
And then at some point, around 5PM, Orhan finds me in the workshop, laughing and snapping selfies, and the discussion turns serious: "What's for dinner?"
There are generally two options -- a BBQ dinner at Orhan's country house, which means grilled meats and vegetables on an open flame; or dinner at his home in the city where his wife, Filiz, prepares the most lovely home cooked food. She aims to be healthier, which, after a few days of eating Antep's greatest hits -- I usually appreciate. A fresh salad, stewed veggies served with homemade yogurt, expertly prepared rice, and, of course, her famous homemade rice pudding -- that always blows me away.
Food is really a vehicle for showing love and expressing culture & identity in Turkey, like in so many places. I'm always moved by the fact, no matter how long the trip, or for how many years I've been visiting, Orhan treats me to every single one of my meals while I'm in town. Even if he isn't there eating with me, I swear he finds a way to pay for it. And there's no debating that. They call it Turkish hospitality. I certainly feel the hospitality and the love when I'm in town... lots of it.
I miss that part of our business, more than I imagined I would.
The Sabah Dealer