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Chefs Kaan Sakarya and Derin Arıbaş usually spend their days preparing elegantly plated dishes like lamb tenderloin with warm cherry freekeh and purslane at Basta! Neo Bistro, the duo’s second joint venue in Istanbul’s Kadıköy neighborhood after their popular gourmet-wraps spot Basta! Street Food Bar. Both trained at French culinary institutes, they still refer to mise en place when talking about their prep cooking – even when that means setting things up inside a tent to make vats of soup to serve 700 people.

Since a pair of massive earthquakes struck a broad swath of southeastern Turkey on February 6, more than 200 chefs from across the country have headed to the disaster area as part of an ad hoc response called the Acil Gıda Kolektifi (Emergency Food Collective). Sakarya and Arıbaş were among those who volunteered their time and cooking skills to feed some of the million-plus people displaced from their homes. They gathered about half of Basta’s staff and some friends, hired a minibus, and made the 14-hour drive to İslahiye, a town in Gaziantep province that had been devastated by the quakes.

“Most of the buildings had severe damage; some people were sleeping in ‘tents’ that were just tarps propped up on some sticks,” Sakarya said after returning to Istanbul. The Basta group worked round-the-clock in shifts for almost a week in İslahiye, cooking three meals a day of simple, hearty fare like lentil soup or chickpeas with bulgur, and catching bits of sleep when they could in their minibus or one of the containers set up on-site.

Mass quantities of donated foodstuffs were transported to the region from Istanbul and other unaffected cities, but everyone wanted to contribute, even when they didn’t have very much themselves. “People would come bring us two tubs of their homemade yogurt, or a kilo of chickpeas that they’d parboiled,” Sakarya said.

One man drove down three times from Sivas, nearly 400 kilometers north, to bring food to their kitchen. “He would call and say, ‘I’m hitting the road, what do you need?’” Arıbaş said. “The solidarity between individuals was very touching.”

That solidarity took many forms within Istanbul’s restaurant world. Beyoğlu fine-dining establishment Yeni Lokanta closed for two days so its staff could cook in Antakya, one of the worst-hit cities, then donated all proceeds from the next day’s service at its restaurant to help the earthquake victims. Kadıköy meyhane Güneşin Sofrası converted its space into a depot for donations to be sent to the disaster zone. The owner of Doğacıyız, a Cihangir restaurant serving sumptuous Antakya-style breakfast, has spent weeks in his hometown coordinating the distribution of aid collected by a small army of volunteers in his Istanbul neighborhood.

Nearly 60 chefs, students, instructors and other volunteers worked each day for two weeks in the kitchens of Bahçeşehir University’s cooking school to produce 60,000 jarred portions of soups, stews and baby food to be trucked to Kahramanmaraş, Adıyaman and Hatay provinces in the earthquake zone. The well-known baklava shop Karaköy Güllüoğlu and kebab restaurant Develi, both with family roots in Gaziantep, opened up their kitchens to this effort as well.

Members of the global Turkish food community joined in wholeheartedly too. London-based Turkish author Özlem Warren is donating proceeds from sales of her acclaimed cookbook Özlem’s Turkish Table – which she calls “a love letter to southern Turkish cuisine especially and to my roots [in Antakya]” – to earthquake relief. MasterChef Turkey judge Somer Sivrioğlu hosted five sold-out “chef’s table” nights at his Sydney, Australia, restaurant Maydanoz to benefit Soil to Plate. Established by Mardin chef and social entrepreneur Ebru Baybara Demir, this cooperative has set up soup kitchens in six earthquake-hit provinces. Online orders of bulk ingredients produced by the cooperative can be designated for use in those emergency kitchens, supporting both disaster relief and small-scale local agriculture.

While feeding displaced people continues to be an urgent need, local food producers in the earthquake region are also in search of support, both in the short term and for the long haul if mass displacement is to be averted. Nearly a third of member cooperatives in the affected provinces sustained damage to their facilities, according to a statement by the Agricultural Credit Cooperatives of Turkey.

Calls for help have been circulating on social media, like one posted by a farmer in Adıyaman that Istanbul-based designer Yağmur Çoban saw online. “His house had been destroyed, his warehouse damaged and his figs were going to go bad,” she recalled. “Another video had a guy with a warehouse full of squash that he needed to sell.”

But with posts like this appearing and disappearing daily on Instagram Stories, it was hard to keep track of who still had products in stock and where, much less who could still access cargo services to ship to other locations. Çoban realized she had a tool to do something about it: the website of her company Local Makers, an online platform and shop in Istanbul’s Çukurcuma neighborhood for boutique manufacturers of housewares, gourmet foods, clothing and accessories, and other products.

The new Local Makers Solidarity Network is a searchable online index of local and boutique producers in the 11 provinces affected by the earthquakes, with details about what they have to offer, if they are actively selling and how to contact them. Producers (or those close to them) can submit their own details to the directory, as well as urgent calls for perishable goods that need to be sold off wholesale in a hurry.

“The earthquakes have had a big effect on local production and food culture,” said Çoban, adding that the vast majority of regional makers in their solidarity network are farmers or producers of food items like herbs, olive oil, pickles, salça (tomato-pepper paste) and pekmez (molasses). “Our biggest advantage is being able to bring attention to some of those stories so people can see how they can help.”

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Published on March 08, 2023

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