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The quest for au naturel

The quest for au naturel

Olivier Chaleil, who’s been the Executive Chef at Çırağan Palace Kempinski since 2009, took on an impressive and ambitious goal last year: he wanted to make most of the foods in Çırağan’s kitchen organic by the end of 2010. Helping him along in this “green” quest is Gülçin Erdeniz Kenar, the owner and founder of Nora Fine Foods, the company that provides Çırağan with certified-organic foods. Gizem Ünsalan chats with this fearless duo about their revolutionary efforts in Turkey’s budding organic food scene

Chef Olivier, were you able to meet your goal of having 80% of the foods at Çırağan organic by the end of 2010?
Olivier Chaleil: Yes, it is done! We are talking vegetables, fruits and dried goods, because most of the meat cannot be organic, and the fish, of course not.
Gülçin Erdeniz Kenar: And chicken.
Olivier Chaleil: The chicken is organic. Famous chicken. Very famous. Like gold.

Chef Olivier, what led you to pick Nora Fine Foods as your supplier?
O.C.: At the beginning, when I came, I picked as many people as possible who could sell organic items. Of course, now organic is very fashionable around the world; everybody wants to be organic, but not everybody can be organic. So, in the end, when we scratched [the surface] a little bit, we saw that most people were faking. For the company Nora, they have a very strict [policy] where everything is so [that] you can trace it, and the chemicals and pesticides within these fruits and vegetables are zero. And that’s what we need.

Why is it important to you personally?
O.C.: To me? Because I want to live up to 150 years old. [He laughs].

That’s a great answer.
O.C.: I don’t think I will make it. No, I think it’s a reaction to the bad food we have on our tables, and nobody cares about it. Even a big country like America, you see they are filling their people with junk. Kids are eating junk. And even the governments don’t care because it’s a question of money. Actually, it’s all a question of money, you know.

Things like fish that you can’t get organically; what are some of the things you do to make sure they’re as fresh as possible?
O.C.: Fresh is very simple. You cannot get better than [Turkey] in terms of fresh fish. With this one, I’m okay. Now, what is lying down at the bottom of the ocean... See, even if you use farm fish, or if you use fresh fish, we don’t know how much mercury is in it.

You’ve lived and worked in many countries around the world. How would you rate Istanbul in terms of “green”liness?
O.C.: Istanbul has a lot of work to do, you know. And first it has to be in the interest of the people, and I can see for example here, in the hotel, our Chief Engineer is so green it’s incredible. But he is one in millions. And I wish everybody could be like that.
To answer the question straight, there isn’t much done in Istanbul, yet. But, of course it will happen. It will happen, for sure, like everywhere. You know all the countries are calling themselves super “green.” Take Canada as an example, where I lived for a long time. Again, if you scratch [the surface] a little bit and you go north of Canada, the ways they are digging and trying to find petrol and everything, they are completely destroying the whole nature. But in front, they try to be very “green.” I think it’s a question of education; it has to start in school with teachers and the kids when they are very young, and afterwards it will spread.

This is a question for both of you. What would you say are the easiest foods to find organic in Turkey?
G.E.K.: It’s very difficult. Because real organic is very difficult in Turkey. There is no easy way to find organic in Turkey because all the farms are [far] away from Istanbul. We have a very huge logistical problem, first of all. Then trust is another matter that we should discuss in Turkey, in general. Of course, it’s not only limited to the organic business, but it’s a general question.
O.C.: But it’s not only for Turkey, I think. Organic is also not easy to make.
G.E.K.: Yes, it’s very, very difficult to produce. Because you don’t use any protective material, any protective chemicals; you cannot change the climate, and the international regulations are very strict, actually. We want to make 100% organic. If you want to apply all the international regulations, then [it] is much more difficult.
For instance, for a chicken to be organic, you need 4 square metres for one chicken [to run around] in an open area, and in the closed area, in 1 square metre, you can only put 10 chickens. So, you need huge areas; and all the grains and feed that you give them has to be organic. And there is only one supplier in Turkey who can provide organic wheat; he is in Gaziantep [in Southeast Turkey]. Then, the wheat in Turkey is much more expensive than the wheat, barley and basic materials used in feed in Eastern countries like Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Iran. These countries have much cheaper wheat, but we cannot import them because there are also obstructions to import.
O.C.: To make it short, it’s easier to make bad food than good food. It’s much easier to raise chickens that never see the sun and are on top of each other their whole lives, than making organic chicken. Here, for example, and all over the world, you produce chicken and you don’t care about the chicken. But in France, the guy who’s going to grow his chicken - which he will leave 4 square metres per chicken - gives them the best corn. It’s like he cares about his chickens and he almost calls them by name. It’s weird, no? The same thing with the cows and the lambs. Then after that, he will kill them and sell them. It’s funny, yeah?
G.E.K.: In Anatolia, in the villages, it’s like this, as well. They love what they do. They talk to [their animals].
O.C.: They talk to them and then bam! It’s too bad. I don’t want to say [it’s about] education, it is; but it’s an understanding, also. Here’s a good example, when you sell me your salads, I keep them three days, four days in the fridge, and they are dead. Then a salad, non-organic, I put in my fridge and my family goes on vacation for one month, and [when we come back], the salad is beautiful. Perfect. Amazing, huh? It did not lose any weight, looking good and green...
G.E.K.: Scary.
O.C.: It is scary, it is very scary. If we knew the damage of all of this, I think people would change. But also, as I say, it’s money. Big money.
G.E.K.: But also, it’s the value that you give to your customers. Because we always say that people are what they eat. So, if you serve them valuable food, you praise them.
O.C.: Yeah, but as I say, the impact of organic as I see in Istanbul is... People don’t really mind.
G.E.K.: We are very backwards. Because of the untrustworthy people in the middle, let’s say, or the farmer who wants to get rich on organic.

Gülçin Hanım, could you tell us about the story of how Nora Fine Foods came to be?
G.E.K.: Nora Fine Foods was established 4 years ago. We had gone to Four Seasons to provide consulting for a product of ours. While we were in a meeting at the Four Seasons, there was a man at the table who wasn’t speaking at all. There were photos of nuts that looked like they were taken at the Malatya Bazaar, so I asked him, ‘What are these?’ He answered in English, saying something to the effect that ‘these are nuts, I’m searching for these,’ but he had an Italian accent. Having done my doctorate in Italy, I responded in Italian, which he loved. Turns out the person to whom we were speaking was Fabio Brambilla, the Executive Chef of the Four Seasons. The first thing he said was, ‘Turkey is a jam haven, yet there are no real jams here, nothing we could present to our guests—they are all gel-like, but we’re searching for real marmalade. Can you make that happen for us?’ And that request defined the character and formation of our company. We worked on this for 6 months, with various tastings and spreads, and eventually we found something that was in the consistency he wanted, with real fruit. Why do I say real fruit? Because, if you’ve noticed, there are no true ‘jams’ anymore. Many companies that make jams are actually fruit juice producers, not jam-makers. Later Chef Brambilla asked for more things, and we provided them for him. He referred us to the Hyatt, which referred us to Les Ottomans, and afterwards we met the Merchandising Director of Çırağan. We turned into a company that grew by reference and realized chefs’ requests.

What was the first thing Chef Olivier asked you to provide for his kitchen?
G.E.K.: As soon as Chef Olivier came here, the first question he asked me was, ‘is there no chicken in Turkey? Because they’re all very bad; if we can’t find a solution to this, we’ll have to take chicken off our menu.’ We began searching for a farmer. Eventually we found one that would carry out production similar [to the] quality we wanted. Of course, this first production wasn’t organic; it was rustic chicken. It was received very well in Çırağan; it was even the subject of Çırağan’s Chef’s Table, as well as several articles in newspapers and magazines. Later, we raised these chickens organically and gave them organic feed. We made this chicken Turkey’s first certified-organic chicken. However, since this is a boutique production, we began offering it only to our customers who could appreciate and use it; Hyatt Group began using this chicken, as did Lucca and several very boutique butchers. The thing about organic is, the bigger the scale of production, the further you get from organic. So, for it to be truly organic, it’s very important that it remain boutique. That’s why our business can’t grow suddenly. If a producer is telling you that he can cut 7,000 chickens in one week, you have to be sceptical about that.
When we began our farmer visits, Çırağan’s General Manager, Henri Blin, came with us for one of them. There, we understood better why Chef Olivier and Çırağan pay attention to this issue. ‘What I want to say to people by doing this, by promoting organic at Çırağan,’ Henri Blin said, ‘is that they should put something healthy in their stomachs for once in their lives.’ Because people’s life spans are determined by the things they eat. And everything we eat has a high concentration of chemicals. Amidst their daily struggle, people have forgotten to track this. Of course, the day in which we live necessitates this; people don’t have another option. So, we give them an alternative.

How often do you bring fresh fruits and vegetables to Çırağan?
G.E.K.: When we began bringing fresh fruits and vegetables to Çırağan, it meant that their whole routine had to be changed. Ordinarily, all hotels place their orders at night and receive their fresh produce by 10.00 the next morning. However, since the production happens in Aydın, it’s impossible for us to provide the hotel with daily produce. If we were to do that, it would run against the logic of organic production due to the carbon emissions from the vehicles. So we bring items here from Aydın two days, at the most three days a week.
There is actually another important topic that should be mentioned here: we’re Turkey’s first supplier that is certified-organic by Ecocert. This is very bittersweet, as consumers of organic food in Turkey don’t know how to search for this and that this is a requirement of the organic legislation. This includes big companies. The law states that not only producers, but also the companies that stock and carry these goods need to furnish these certificates, and there are very heavy fines involved here.
What’s fundamental here is that people are returning to their essence. It is not ‘organic’ chicken we’re after; it’s rustic chicken. What’s the concept of organic? It is the conversion of food and ingredients into natural, as they should be, via artificial means. This is actually a concept belonging entirely to our day. Right now, we’re exerting an enormous effort to return to how things used to be, and we’re taking on enormous costs to do this. Mankind is paying the cost of mistakes made in the past century. If he isn’t using organic, he pays in the long run with the diseases he will have, and if he is using organic, he is paying out of his pocket.

Tell us about the organic farming process.
G.E.K.: The human factor is important here. Our current major producer is not a conventional producer who’s just doing this to earn a marginal profit. He’s been producing organically for 12 years, and he’s one of the oldest producers in Turkey. This farmer does biodynamic farming. You see, Europe says to us, ‘when we’re buying a product from you, we’re not only going to look at the test results; we’re going to come and inspect your fields, as well. We’re going to take a look at which kinds of vehicles and tools you use there. Because, if you’re using heavy machinery that’s used in conventional farming, then you’re not on par with a farmer who’s truly doing biodynamic agriculture with a rake and [labour] in Israel or Spain; since I can’t have you compete, of course, I’m going to prefer his product over yours.’ And we learned this with time. When they first said this to us, we laughed; we asked them how they could know if a farmer says he’s using a rake or light machines. They said to us, ‘We’ll know immediately when we look at a field from every aspect.’ Indeed, you can see this even when you look at an empty field; it’s that easy.
These are very difficult things that require a lot of effort, so we happily provide complete transparency to our customers and their guests. Many fine dining restaurants and hotels in Istanbul use our major producer’s olive oils. These organic olive oils are in a whole different category. Going ‘green’ and organic to this extent requires a corporate decision. I know very well what the hotel goes through to make sure that close to 130 people working in the kitchen adapt to this system. This is a process, a very long one. We’re still at the beginning, but hopefully, if we continue with this desire and passion, we will arrive at a very successful point, and we’re already very successful. For 80% of a hotel’s food to be organic in Turkey is huge. Right now we’re doing something very ambitious.

As you touched upon before, there is a carbon footprint involved in bringing these items to Istanbul, but it’s also not feasible to grow them anywhere close to the city. As someone who’s knowledgeable on the topic, what kind of a solution do you think could be found in the future to this dilemma?
G.E.K.: Maybe something could be done in the future if the number of true organic producers increases and, instead of double-crossing one another, they can cooperate. Actually, in the United States and France, there is such a practice; people form organic cooperatives that work successfully, and instead of grouping these under an association, they could be an independent institution that does not report to any authority. They could have a storage facility here, a very large one, and a single vehicle could go out on the road, collecting items from each one individually before bringing them to Istanbul.
However, we’re too far behind to do this; these are things that are done around the world, yet, I’m very sorry to say this, cooperating also doesn’t fit with the character of Turks. Everyone sees everyone else as a competitor and, sadly, no one makes progress. What we currently do to lower our carbon footprint is to only bring items twice a week. And you can’t go into the fields daily anyway, since that will harm the field in the long run.

Some say that Turkey is the 3rd largest organic producer in the world.
G.E.K.: This pertains to nuts and grapes. In other products, we’re unfortunately very far behind. I’ll tell you this; Germany sends Dubai organic chicken, which comes out to 23 Euros per kilo due to the logistical costs. However, if we were to produce this in a real way here; if 100 producers did this and we sent chicken from Turkey all over the Middle East and Russia, we would make great money. And this would have an incredibly positive effect on the national economy. But, unfortunately, the government is not very encouraging on this subject; the support that the government lends to organic is close to non-existent. They hold organic in the same category as conventional; when you apply to the Department of Agriculture for production, you have the same status as any regular producer. Even in Iran, there are parts of the country devoted specifically to organic agriculture. In China, there are large sections of the country devoted to organic agriculture, and think about the image that China has... I wish there were many companies that were as devoted as we are.

You were previously a strategic management designer. How is it that you have acquired so much knowledge on the subject of organic agriculture in a span of four years?
G.E.K.: This is my job now, and I love doing it. First of all, you have to do research. We participate in organic fairs all over the world; we learn a lot from those. In the end, [getting informed] is about the value you give to what you do.
It’s very nice to be making a difference, to be able to stand alone in a market, with all of its difficulties. Today, I stand behind every product I sell. And I can feed every product I sell to my own children. Right now, [our company is] a goal for most companies; they see us as a competitor, and this is a wonderful thing. What we’re showing people is that organic isn’t ‘bad’— it is not rotten, and neither is it pricey. It is affordable, in the end; it should be affordable.
If we, together with Çırağan, can increase this consumption, it will be good for the system organic food will be something that the public can reach easily [at an affordable price]. In this sense, what we’re doing is actually a social mission.