Chef Tom – Istanbul Part 1

Editor’s Note – Before his new column, here’s a lovely note from Chef Tom concerning our fallen brother, Frank Gutch Jr.

I didn’t know Frank. I do know Bob and have for a very long time. The loss of a loved one is always so painful, such a sobering interruption and (the thing that pisses me off the most), so fucking final. When my friends are in pain, I feel it too. It was wonderful reading all of the generous thoughts and heartfelt tributes about this most remarkable man.

Having been on the planet now for more than a few decades, I have often pondered on that age-old axiom of “finding your purpose in life.” Took a few years but I finally made peace with that terrible notion, where what I have isn’t nearly as good as what I COULD have if I ever found my purpose. The peace I found was in considering the question, ”What if my purpose in life isn’t some grand accomplishment that impacts millions, but rather something as seemingly simple, even benign, as a smile at someone across the aisle in the bus?” My smile might be just the thing this person needed to see at that moment in order to make a wise choice that would set a thousand wheels in motion, making a significant difference in the lives of many, most I would never know about.

Frank’s generosity of spirit, being the intrepid miner of rare gems when it came to finding obscure, but beautiful  music, giving those gems a good polish, and bringing them into light for everyone to enjoy…..that talent alone likely transformed hundreds of lives for the better.

Most excellent work and life well-lived. RIP Mr. Gutch.

…and now, here’s Chef Tom’s latest….

October 12, 2015

Istanbul, Pt. 1

During September and October of 2015, I took myself on a long journey (six weeks) to Europe. I called it Chef Tom’s Big Adventure. This was pure (well-deserved) indulgence and I went after places I really wanted to see like Paris, Barcelona, and San Sebastian. A major piece of the adventure was also paying a long visit to Istanbul. Istanbul represented the exotic, it was legend, it dripped ancient history, and I didn’t think I would ever have the opportunity to see it again. It was both a “what the hell” moment, as well as a “oh my god, yes!” moment, so I went for it.

Make yourself a cup of tea and join me on a virtual visit to this venerable city. This is Part One, next week is Part Two.

From my blog:

Dreams of Istanbul

In about three months I will be wandering the historied streets of Istanbul.  Smack dab in the middle between Europe, Asia and Africa, Turkey, particularly Istanbul, has served as the crossroads for much of the world’s cultures, for millennia.  Location, location.  Can you imagine living in a city of eleven million people steeped in the rich, diverse, exotic customs from three of our largest continents?

As a tireless foodie and an insatiably curious cook, I’ve been studying the city’s food culture and I have to say, it is humbling. Truly. I feel like a child finding out how an adult relates to food.

For one, no one eats alone.  Sharing is considered essential. Should you find yourself at a table by yourself, you’ll share with the folks sitting next to you and they’ll tear off a hunk of lamb and some bread and share with you. Speaking of bread, it is considered sacred. No one throws away bread.  At worst they’ll sit leftover pieces on a wall or windowsill for someone to grab.  In fact, they have a saying that translates to “Bread never gets dirty.”

No such thing as a fast meal, either. No grab and go. They honor the experience of dining together as an act of communion; as a time of heartfelt connection. Mealtime is a time to savor the richness, the privilege, the gift of being able to nourish oneself and each other.

Connecting on such a level alone would be considered a peak experience by most Americans who already, and quite naturally, long for such deep connection. They would consider themselves lucky or blessed to achieve such a moment. Usually these moments occur, if at all, during a holiday, but as a day to day practice? 

So very grown up.

Over the next few weeks, I will post more tasty bits as I find them, like the giant culinary convention they have in a nearby town each year, how the best chefs from Turkey all hail from the city of Bolu and that the ancient village of Gaziantep, near the Syrian border, is considered the Lyon (culinary center) of Turkey. 

Chef Tom’s Next Culinary Adventure might very well be Istanbul.

Made it!

Hagia Sophia

Istanbul is beautiful, exotic, ancient and terrible. The sites are extraordinary, the history mind-boggling. The Hagia Sofia was originally a church built over a pagan temple in 325 A.D. when Istanbul was known as Constantinople. Rebuilt in the 6th Century it served as a cathedral for a millennium, then was repurposed as a mosque in 1453. You can see traces of its history in the fading mosaics and structure within, like a mashup of multiple religions. There is an ancient aqueduct running through the city that dates back to the 4th century.

The food was earthy, deeply flavored and fresh (much of what I ate was cooked right in front of me).

Istanbul is also a very aggressive culture. You not only have to be sure of foot (the streets, stairs and pathways are often in disrepair) but strong in resolve (you will be pushed and pulled by locals trying to sell anything and everything and they’re not always polite about it).

The huge mosques are as impressive and awesome as you can imagine. In order for me to just be able to relate to this ancient and exotic city, I had to call it the Paris of the Middle East. Hardly fits, but it gave me some needed context.

 Bosporus Sea, Spice Market and Rustem Pasa Mosque

To compare Paris with Istanbul is pretty silly actually, but I will try. If Paris was a beautiful, mature woman with style, wisdom and grace, Istanbul would be her much older, more eccentric auntie. Still elegant and mysterious, but way more worldly wise (she has developed some serious skills to survive), and quite a bit more faded and gray. You can see the deep lines in her ancient face from having lived a long, magical life.

I wanted to experience being in a place long enough to go from feeling like a tourist in a rush, to feeling more like a local, or to have become so familiar with the place I could actually give directions to harried tourists. I was there for nearly three weeks!

One of my favorite parts of the Big Adventure was engaging my fan base back home in voting. They would vote where I would go and what I would do, and even what I should eat. People ended up being able to vote for a good half dozen mini-adventures. In Istanbul they had to choose between two different food items for my lunch. I figured out early on to make choosing difficult, too, to play up each choice as exciting and compelling, so that it would be tough.

From my blog:

Time to eat!

Balik Ekmek is a fish sandwich that EVERYONE says is a must-have when in Istanbul.  For most of a century, fishermen brought their catch from the Bosporus and the Sea of Marmara to Istanbul’s Galata Bridge over the Golden Horn, to sell.  

A few enterprising boatmen had an idea: why not cook the fish right on the boat and offer it for sale freshly cooked?  They built grills and fryers right in their boats, built fires in them, grilled fish fillets, stuffed them in half a loaf of bread, and handed the fish sandwiches from the boat to thousands of hungry but thrifty locals every day.

The ornate boats pictured above are the most popular place to get Balik Ekmek. There are also a lot of street vendors with homemade grills and long queues, so my choices are many.

You can keep the bread, but I want the fish!


Dönor Kebap is the ultimate classic Turkish dish. It’s like the Schwerma sandwiches we’re familiar with at home.  Delectably thin slices of savory meat cut off of a turning, slow-roasting cone of layered lamb, beef or chicken (often a combination). Sometimes wrapped in pita, sometimes rolled in Aram bread. Added falafel, vegetables and sauces differ with every cook.

Dönor shops have proliferated in the city. Unfortunately, many are considered fast food because they use prefabricated dönor “loaves.” Kinda like a big Turkish spam. Yag.

In my research there have only been a small number of döner kebap chefs who have received rave reviews. One of the better chefs does something remarkable.  He layers fresh tomatoes, onions and peppers in between the succulent lamb and beef filets (see photo below). His shop is just over the Galata Bridge and up the hill a few blocks, close to the same neighborhood as the ornate boats selling balik ekmek.


Both choices are outstanding, so I will love you no matter what you vote!  

I’m hungry. Please vote.

Next week: The Vote is In!


Chef Tom is currently Resident Chef for a small tech firm in San Francisco. He also teaches cooking classes, caters small parties and leads overseas culinary tours. His specialty for the last twelve years has been cooking for people with food allergies and sensitivities. His motto is “Food should give you pleasure, not pressure.”

Check him out at

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