Sara’s Weeknight Meals: Season 03

Episode 310: Turkish Home Cooking – Cooking with Turkish Celebrity Chef Refika Birgul

I had never been to Turkey before this episode and what a shame I waited so long! Istanbul is quite beautiful; everywhere you look you see mosques and minarets. The city is surrounded by water with the Sea of Marmara to the south, the Bosphorous running through the middle of the city and the Black sea to the north. It is a fascinating mix of the old and the new, straddling the continents of both Europe and Asia.

And for the foodie, this is paradise. I have never seen such markets, filled with pristine produce, dried fruits, nuts, pickles, olives, charcuterie, cheeses and above all spices. In this episode I visit several markets with an extremely knowledgable food and cultural historian, Aylin Oney Tan. Then I take a trip to the west of Turkey to the Aegean to visit Hande Bozdogan who runs a farm, right on the water, to supply produce for her cooking school in Istanbul. We make pumpkin fritters, quince liqueur and simit (cracked wheat) and lamb kebabs.

Finally I visit one of the oldest neighborhoods in Istanbul, Kuzguncuk, to cook with Refika Birgul, a Turkish chef with her own tv show. We buy fresh bluefish from a fisherman off the dock and dough from a local bakery and then head back to her studio to prepare marinated bluefish, walnut poppyseed bread and a sauteed beef dish with tomato sauce and thyme yoghurt.

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Meet Refika Birgül


Refika Birgül

Refika Birgül (born in 19 May 1980) is the author of the book “Refika’nın Mutfağı / Cooking New Istanbul Style”, she also authors a food column called “Refika’nın Mutfağı (Refika’s Kitchen)” in Hürriyet newspaper’s Cumartesi supplement and prepares and presents the food show “Mucize Lezzetler” which is being sponsored by Arçelik on NTV.

Her Life
Refika, whose mother is from North Cyprus and father is from Nevşehir, was raised in a family of doctors. Even though dyslexia made it harder for her to learn reading and writing, she is able to multiply and add 3-4 digit numbers in her head. Mathematics became one of her biggest enthusiasms.
Her Education
She has graduated from top rank high school Robert College. In her high school years, she did not leave the dark room due to her love of black-and-white photography. As another passion of her, she prepared a dance project by combining mathematics and physics. Which lead her to have scholarships in USA’s finest universities. As her family did not want her to go abroad, she started studying psychology at Koç University. After her undergraduate study, she studied leadership education at London Business School.

Early Work Experience
In her university years she organized festivals and established several clubs which later led her to work in Kolektif Productions. She was involved in many projects, then the well-known !f Istanbul, Turkey’s first independent film festival as Communications and marketing manager for 2 years. Later on she worked in IKSV İstanbul Culture and Art Foundation. Afterwards she was needed in the family business and she worked in the hospital over 5 years until her passion for cooking took over.

The view from Refika's deck

The view from Refika’s deck

Her Relationship with Kitchen, and Her Book
Her relationship with kitchen started with making foamy Turkish coffee to the whole family when she was as tall as the oven itself. She learned the Mediterranean cuisine from her Cypriot mother, aunt and uncles and Central Anatolia cuisine from her father, grandfather, father’s sister and aunts-in-law who are from Nevşehir. Her palate got richer during her visits to her relatives in London. She always looks for different things and when she cannot find any, she wants to do it herself. She tried to figure out the algorithm of foods with her love of mathematics. In one of her interviews, she said “I believe that some people are born to love and others to be loved. I am on the to love side. In fact, cooking is a simplistic realization of the act of showing this love”. The fact that she thinks that even a nice view can be made edible.

Refika's deck

Refika’s deck

While she was working as a manager, people encouraged her to write a book. She worked for her book when she found the slightest chance in her overloaded business life. Therefore, her book Refika’nın Mutfağı / Cooking New Istanbul Style which was translated by her was published in April 2010 in English and Turkish. The first print was sold out in 1,5 months. New York MoMA (Museum of Modern Art) Destination: İstanbul collection also found the book to be worth selling with the collection pieces. Now she works in her Atelier in Kuzguncuk where she writes her column, prepares her TV shows and cooks recipes and books.

Her Newspaper Articles

Her first book Cooking New İstanbul Style was on the best seller lists and she started to write in the column titled Refika’nın Mutfağı (Refika’s Kitchen) in Hürriyet, well respected newspaper.

Refika’s Kitchen Studio- Simotas Building
Refika lives in Kuzguncuk- one of the oldest neighborhoods of İstanbul. Upon the publication of her book, she needed a studio that suits this spirit. Therefore she initiated a long-term renovation in the building that has been idle for 30 years and was built by the Greek architect Simotas in Kuzguncuk. So she created her own dream kitchen studio with the name Refika’nın Mutfağı that hosts different points of view and occupation groups in each square meter of it, and in which people younger than 35 years old are employed and which is just like a nest for the people who started up their first business thanks to dedication and hard work. Today, people from different occupational groups such as architects, lawyers, advertisers, dancers, tailors and sculptors work together and enjoy a pleasant and collective life in the building. This also brings multidisciplinary perspective to her work.

In her studio she has her TV program, develops her recipes, cooks books about Turkish Cuisine and helps the hidden talents.


Sunset from the dock on the Asian side of Istanbul

Her TV Show
In October 2011, she started presenting the show Mucize Lezzetler which was sponsored by Arçelik in her kitchen studio in Kuzguncuk. The show is being broadcasted on the weekends on NTV which is one of the most important national TV channel in Turkey. The fact that each show has a different concept, and that the Turkish cuisine is used in a local and natural way without any limitations make it stand out among other food shows.

Refika, whose greatest dream -with her own words- is “to see a French person making lahmacun in her/his house”, continues to create new recipes by conserving the traditions of the culture of Turkish cuisine and also to push the envelope. She feels the need to keep the traditions that developed through hundreds of years also break the lumpish rules that make them impossible to go on. To achieve this imagination and hard work should go together. Finally, she strongly believes in the power of fusion of life and cooking.