Sezai Zorlu is the head chef and owner behind Turkuaz, a Turkish restaurant specialising in authentic Turkish cuisine. Born and raised in a small village in southeast Turkey, Sezai moved to Indonesia in 1999. After years staying and falling in love with Indonesia, he opened his own restaurants, Turkuaz and Warung Turki, and he has become one of Indonesia’s top chefs.
Recently, we got the chance to chat with him when we met at Jakarta Culinary Festival 2017, and we were keen to find out more about the chef. Sezai shared with us about his activities at the event, his dish characteristics, the culinary problems in Indonesia, and his philosophy when doing business.
What did you bring to the table for this event?
They told me to help to put Indonesia on the culinary map, and I’m very glad to do that. So that’s why I’m not the only one who is putting their hands “under the stone”: we are also helping them to “pick up the stone”.
This is because Indonesia deserves a better place in the culinary world, and, as you know, Indonesia contributes a lot to the world. But, we also know that the world is not contributing enough to Indonesia, and they don’t have a proper respect for Indonesian cuisine.
From your perspective, what have we done wrong, and how can we take Indonesian food to a higher level?
The number one mistake is proper licensing and over-taxation on the business side. The second thing is sustainable agriculture, which President Jokowi is tackling well and there are some great projects coming up. However, the rules really must change to meet the needs of the republic. What we’re not doing right is that we do not having a proper supply line, and the government needs to provide a proper education. They must bring knowledge and spend the money on training the farmers.
This is because you can’t go anywhere if you can’t feed your nation, and food is life. We don’t have a consistently high-quality supply of raw products. And what they’ll do in Indonesia is go overseas [to source ingredients], and thus we have more expensive ingredients and more expensive food.
What do you think is the opportunity for a chef like you to drive the change?
If you want to make a change in a place like Indonesia, first you must understand the culture, because if you don’t understand the culture, you’re kind of against the natural flow of things. The only thing in Indonesia that is missing is fairness. Indonesia has everything else: goodwill, good people, natural resources, beautiful culture, hundreds of dialects... However, fairness is not there.
Everyone has his or her own head. They’re in the same boat, but they’re all going in different directions. I may be a foreigner, but, honestly, I could say that I love Indonesia and its people more than Indonesian people love their selves and their country. Change is coming but only at the speed of a turtle, and we must understand it all takes time. But hope is always there.
But talking about changes, the problem is that I cannot serve. However, what I can do for Indonesia is so-so because of a charity I cannot speak about. But I can tell you that I spare Rp10,000 from my main courses and Rp500 from my appetisers on every order for this charity. It’s just something small that we do. However, if you speak about rules and regulations, they’re beyond my control.
So, chef. What makes you love Indonesia?
The people. What makes me love Indonesia is its people. They’re too nice. They receiving everything and everybody. They offer you a beautiful contract that you cannot refuse, with helpers at home, and a driver to take your children home and to take you home. And then you come here, and say bad things about traffic, terrorists, and such things. The guests don’t understand because they’re from another part of the world, and this part of the world is where there is tolerance and humanity first and foremost, not how I make money.
What do you think is the most challenging thing about being a chef?
The new challenge for a chef is to adjust and make a new cuisine for a new generation. Because the new generation is not seeking the taste of their mother’s cooking because mothers don’t cook anymore. Authenticity will always be there for the people, and this is what we’re doing in our restaurants. We create memories.
What do you think of the Mediterranean or Turkish cuisine scene in Indonesia?
I don’t need all Indonesians to come to my restaurant. I only need about 150-200 people, which I’m getting. Out of the millions of people in Jakarta, maybe only 500,000 can afford to come to my restaurants. And, you know, 200 people out of 500,000 people is already very big when you are the only one, and you are already known and you only pick quality. Authenticity always wins. That’s my simple philosophy, and I would never change it: I’ll always go for authentic. I don’t guarantee you like my food. But I guarantee, my food is authentic: 110 per cent!
Will there be a third restaurant soon?
No third restaurant, but there are so many projects. The reason for no restaurants is the sustainability of the ingredients. And the import-export trouble that everyone has been experiencing. So, I decided to work with something more local with fewer staff, but more like empowering people. I cannot tell you about the project because the idea might be stolen. But something that is going to bring fresh kebabs to your doorstep for Rp20,000, because when you get hungry at 3am, no-one will serve you better, fresher food then me.