By HUSNIYE GUNGOR
Turkey has a very rich cuisine, with each region’s taste different from the other. However, it has a very long way to go before it becomes a globally-recognized culinary destination like Italy or Spain due to the lack of an overarching gastronomy policy integrated with the tourism industry. Still, there is hope with people like Gokmen Sozen, who has been working on developing of the industry since 1999. Beginning with gastronomy publishing in early years of his career to branded culinary events for sector professionals, he considers himself the Don Quixote of Turkish cuisine.
Sozen is on a mission to spread Turkey’s gastronomy culture around the world and combine Turkish cuisine with global trends. For the past 7 years, he has been building bridges between global gastronomy and Turkish gastronomy with the International Gastromasa Conference, one of the top five gastronomy organizations in the world. In Turkey, he is now organizing the 4th annual International GastroAntep Festival, which will be held in mid-September. As a content organizer, he added FSUMMIT, which was held in June in Antalya for the first time, to his global brand portfolio, which also includes the International Meze Festival, International Local Chef Competition and many other events.
FSUMMIT, finally held in June after being postponed four times due to COVID-19 restrictions, brought together some of the major global players in gastronomy tourism. The event showcased the wide range of participants in the fine food sector, from some of the biggest NGOs in tourism to top executives from the biggest international hotel chains. Sozen credits the success of the gathering to the craving for such events after such long pandemic restrictions, but one cannot discount the impact of the reputation he has built as a leader in gastronomy.
Born into a family of photographers, Sozen’s interest in gastronomy dates back to his role as a food photographer at an advertising agency. He also worked for tourism and gastronomy journals. His contacts with world-class chefs started there. Working for a fair company before starting his own business increased his organizational skills. Sozen has been running Sozen Group, his own company, for the last 15 years, but he has been in the sector for 25 years. He is still a publisher with Food in Life.
“I know all the dynamics of this sector,” he says, “I fed off the connections I made even in the early years of my career by travelling to all the hotels, from Mengen, Bolu to the Aegean and Antalya for my job.”
Sozen organized the Ottoman Cuisine contest in 2006, where chefs from the biggest hotels in Turkey were taken to Amasya – known as the ‘city of princes’ due to its historical reputation as the city that raised and prepared princes for the role of sultan. He organized gastronomy tours for HoReCa and gastronomy professionals. Local Chef, another event brand by Sozen, supported local products. Hotels reshaped their menus with products supplied only from Turkey during the event.
The power of the festival
Then followed the city festivals. His most famous is GastroAntep, which he has been organizing for six years. The event has become one of the best known gastronomy festivals in the world, with the help of Gaziantep Mayor Fatma Sahin, according to Sozen.
GastroRize is the latest, which was held for the first time this year in July. “Black sea fish, tea and Rize’s local cuisine needed attention,” he notes.
Food Fest Antalya will be held in Antalya at the beginning of September. The fourth International Meze Festival will also be organized in October by Akra Hotels in Antalya, with Sozen’s content management and he says they will start a new event in Antakya called ‘Tolerance Table.’
Another event, Gastromasa, best defined as economic gastronomy, was first organized in 2014 as an event only for Turkey even though attended by international chefs. “The first year it was more like a business event, in which the CEO of Kayalar, the industrial kitchen equipment manufacturer, was among the speakers. But there were also star chefs from around the world.”
Then he went to Spain, where he is well-known, “because I was bringing very well-known creative Spanish chefs to Turkey for this event,” he sys. “The base there is mostly chef restaurants.” He met Ferran Adria, the Spanish rock star chef, and “a door was opened for me in Spain where I suddenly found myself on the inside.”
Sozen travelled around the world and this helped him to shift the idea of Gastromasa into a global brand where the majority of speakers are world star chefs. He is now in talks with gastronomy professionals in Ukraine as well as Tblisi and about to open an office in London this month, which will further raise Gastromasa’s global profile.
Supporting gastronomy students
The event also supports tourism. Around 100 attendees travel around Turkey with a group of media representatives. The right place for this event in Turkey is Istanbul, according to Sozen, as it is the country’s most important gastronomy destination with luxury brands and fine dining restaurants. “The audience is also in Istanbul, which also is Turkey’s financial hub . The target is to organize Gastromasa both in Istanbul and around the world. The event is a promotional opportunity for Turkish gastronomy as it creates a bridge between world star chefs and local,” he says.
Sozen was not able to make the event happen due to pandemic restrictions but it will be organized this year on November 6 in Istanbul. “This year’s theme will be design, so those who will be invited will not only have to be well-known names, they also have to be competent in their areas,” he adds.
Sozen also has a social responsibility approach to the events he organizes. He invites students from state universities for free. He also finds internship opportunities for nearly 100 students a year with the help of Gastromasa.
For the first time this year he held another event, called Farm Network, in May with a focus on boutique farming, which he thinks will increase globally. Boutique farmers, international brands, market chains, chefs and e-commerce companies gathered together in Gaziantep for this year’s event.
Gastronomy can double tourism income
Though Sozen believes Turkey has the potential to double its tourism income through gastronomy, he believes the industry has a “long way to go. It will not be like Italian cuisine from today to tomorrow,” he says. “Creating gastronomy tourism is not possible where culture lacks.” Turkey may have places like Gobeklitepe, historically similar to Granada of Spain, but it can’t open fine dining restaurants there due to lack of culture.
“Turkish eating and drinking habits consist of brasseries and traditional restaurants. But the money is in experimental and fine dining restaurants. People in Turkey only dine for special occasions like wedding anniversaries or birthdays. Gastronomy has to become a hobby,” he adds. There is a wider story behind it, he thinks, affecting agriculture, the industrial kitchen sector, food companies and employment, i.e. the economy in general.
Eating culture needs to be thought about at schools and Turkey has to raise children who are integrated with the world’s cuisine, according to Sozen. Gastronomy and tourism schools should be redesigned and graduates need to be sent abroad for internships with government support, he thinks. “Southeast Turkey, including Northern Mesopotamia, is an incredible destination with a strong story. If this historical base is supported by gourmet restaurants, the potential will be incredible,” he says, stressing that we need the right waiter, right hosting facilities, right restaurants and right drinks for that. “If we start from today, it will take at least 10 years to develop.”
Istanbul needs a gastronomy festival
In the meantime, he will continue to play the part of Don Quixote. In a decade, he sees himself doing gastronomy documentary photography. One of Sozen’s dreams is to open a culinary center in Istanbul, where new products can be developed. “There are six of them in the world, to which we made visits,” he says, adding that they have plans to build one.
Sozen says his efforts can be defined as gastronomy communication. He describes himself as a good content maker. None of his events are alike, all differ in content, a feature he wants to retain. That is why he does not want to take on more city festivals. But Istanbul, the gastronomy and finance center of Turkey, should have one big gastronomy festival, he says. The Istanbul Chamber of Trade and Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality need to take steps for this and commission gastronomy professionals for it to happen.
But GastroAntep, scheduled to take place from September 16-19, has a special place for him. He made a 38-minute documentary linking Gaziantep to Spain through Istanbul, which he hopes will be screened at one of the culinary centers in the world. For the time being, the “feeling that he is building a bridge with the world in his profession is enough” for him. “I believe in the future,” he says. “It is not easy to be Don Quixote if you don’t.”
BODRUM IS TURNING TOP LUXURY CONCEPT
“Antalya hotels have started to include restaurant chains within their structures, separate from their all-inclusive offers. Bodrum, in the Aegean region, has one of the best luxury concepts. Hotels there have star restaurants. Last year, Novikov and this year Sacarin, owned by the White Rabbit Group, have already entered Bodrum Yalikavak. Nobu will open in the Ritz Carlton and Lucca, Sunset, Papermoon also has arrived in Bodrum. We will organize a luxury concept Chef Chat in Bodrum in May 2022. Starting in 2022, Istanbul hotels will also open important restaurants, such as pop-up restaurant, where an important chef comes and operates the restaurant for a three-month period. Because they are listed in global gastronomy guides, it is important that these people are coming to the Turkish market.”
‘MICHELIN STAR RESTAURANTS SUPPLY FROM GAZIANTEP’
Three Michelin star restaurants in San Sebastian in Spain, including Arzak, are using Turkish products like sumac in their menus. “This is the result of GastroAntep, where their chefs first met and tried it,” Gokmen Sozen says. “Another Spanish city, Cordoba, buys copper cups and cookers from Gaziantep, to be used for their Andalusian cuisine. Restaurants from Southern Spain buy pepper. Pistachio also began to enter the recipes. The world does not know our pistachio. The world’s best chocolate makers are using Iranian pistachios. We need to market these to gourmet restaurants. We managed to enter some restaurants’ menus but these all need sustainability. I think the Turkish Exporters Assembly should establish a gourmet department to market these products abroad.”
WHO IS GOKMEN SOZEN
Gokmen Sozen, the Editorial Director of FoodinLife Gastronomy publications, has been in the media sector since 1993 and started his career working at media channels such as Cine 5 and Star TV. After launching projects in the HoReCa sector in 1999, Sozen founded FoodinLife magazine in 2007, which today follows all the updates in the gastronomy sector.
Organizing important competitions in the gastronomy sector such as Local Chef, Osmanli Mutfagi, Pastry of Istanbul and Chefs of the Future, Sozen also publishes a professional sector directory for gourmets and the HoReCa industry. He has organized and hosted world-renowned chefs at the 1st, 2nd and 3rd International Gastromasa Gastronomy Conferences.
Gokmen Sozen also provides special food and beverage consulting to companies and organizes events. In addition to this, he has a tasting kitchen and holds gastronomy tours in Turkey and the world with his project, Gastroway. Sozen has also been a food photographer for many years and is successfully continuing his career in the gastronomy sector with brands such as Foodinlife, Patisserie by Foodinlife, Coffee Business, Gastroway and Food and Woman. Additionally, he has published Turkey’s first global gastronomy magazine, FoodinLife World under the SOZEN brand.