There is no denying that the culinary arts in Turkey have been on the rise, empowered by the rich culinary past of Anatolia, which has been home to numerous civilizations and people of various ethnic backgrounds. Renowned Turkish chef and social entrepreneur Ebru Baybara Demir, whose family hails from Mardin, a cultural and culinary hub in southeastern Turkey, has been selected as one of the 10 finalists from among 110 worldwide nominees for the Basque Culinary World Prize, an international award given to chefs who improve society through gastronomy. Demir was nominated for her project, the Harran Gastronomy School, an initiative to improve the employability of economically vulnerable Turkish and Syrian women through culinary training.
HOW SHE FOUND HER WAY TO THE KITCHEN
As a child of a family from Mardin, Demir was born in Istanbul and received a bachelor's degree in tourism. However, she always wanted to return to her ancestral home and started Mardin Culture Tours, which encouraged her to get to know the cuisine of that area as well as the secrets of the culinary arts. She studied Middle Eastern and Anatolian cuisine for six years to unearth original recipes, register them and teach the recipes to her cooks so that they would be passed on to future generations.
In 1999, Demir moved to Mardin for good and opened a restaurant, Cercis Murat Konağı. When the tourism sector tumbled in 2015, Demir had to find a new source of income for the women she employed, so with her five chefs she started a new social enterprise, her first: Hayatım Yenibahar (My Life Is Spring). Hayatim Yenibahar creates job opportunities for local women by modernizing traditional local handcrafts and selling them on the internet. When it started in October 2015, Hayatım Yenibahar gave jobs to just five local women, but that number quickly reached 21. Hayatım Yenibahar went beyond Mardin and became a success story for the whole region.
REFUGEE AND LOCAL WOMEN ON FOCUS
This project was just a beginning for Demir. In August 2016, with U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR) support and in partnership with the Harran District Governorship, Demir founded the Amazon Queens Social Enterprise Project. As part of this project, she gave culinary lessons to 160 locals and Syrian refugee women and men, and 108 have completed the training and received their certificate. Six of the 160 students have found permanent jobs in one of the well-known restaurant chains in Istanbul. Selected women who completed their education in the culinary course also attended the Sirha Istanbul and Sirha Lyon Gastronomy shows to cook for and serve visitors.
Starting in February 2017, Hayatım Yenibahar began carrying on its activities as a non-profit organization pioneering vocational courses in priority regions where locals and refugees would be trained to be economically self-sufficient with the support of the business world, key leaders and nongovernmental organizations. The Amazon Queens Social Enterprise Project will be the model for upcoming projects organized in partnership with the U.N. in different parts of Turkey.
HARRAN GASTRONOMY SCHOOL
However, Demir achieved her nomination for the Basque Culinary World Prize for her Harran Gastronomy School Amazon Queens Project. Started in August 2016 with support from the UNCHR and neighbor Şanlıurfa's Harran district, the Harran Gastronomy School supports disadvantaged, unemployed Syrian and Turkish women in Harran and gives them vocational training to develop their labor potential, create work opportunities to support their social integration and increase their living standards. The project also aims to accelerate tourism by emphasizing the region's eco-gastronomy.
During the project, thousands of years of cultural values have been recorded through local and recipes and an ingredient inventory. In the Harran Gastronomy School project, of 108 people - 64 women and 44 men - 44 Syrians completed their training and received certificates and 16 women completed their training to become instructors.
FIRST TURKISH CHEF TO BECOME FINALIST
Demir said that she is glad that Turkish cuisine and Turkish gastronomy are mentioned in the international arena and added: "I take pride in being the first Turkish finalist in one of the world's most prestigious chef competitions, the Basque Culinary World Prize of the leading kitchen institute, the Basque Culinary Center, at which every year a chef who blends kitchen talent and creativity with social responsibility projects to support the community is awarded. What makes me happy more than the award itself is that refugee women from Mardin, Urfa and Syria who I struggle to touch and change the lives of will have the chance to be known worldwide and even more of them will have an opportunity to choose the kitchen as a profession with their own talent and effort."
Demir highlighted the critical value for Turkey and Mardin as well. "With this opportunity, a bridge has been built between one of the world's most important gastronomy centers, the Basque region, and Mardin," she said. "This bridge will support the worldwide promotion of our rich food culture and create awareness of our cultural variety."
IF SHE WINS THE PRIZE MONEY
If Demir wins the 100,000 euro prize, she wants to establish a permanent local gastronomy school and support the employment and the recording of the rich kitchen culture. "There are subjects that I sincerely believe are urgent, and I want to contribute to their solutions. According to TurkStat [Turkish Statistics Institute], unemployment in our region is around 30 percent. When 100,000 unrecorded Syrian refugees are added to this problem, immediate solutions are required. The biggest problem in the region is unemployment and migration due to uncertainty. The second one is cultural loss. This rich culture faces extinction because Syrians cannot find a platform to pass along the culture they brought with them. We want to support both communities to pass on their cultural richness by blending them together and help them to create a job out of what they are best at, which is cooking. Thus, we plan to establish a gastronomy school in the area and provide employment to people. If the prize comes to our region, we will finance the gastronomy school and record this rich kitchen culture to pass on to future generations."