… Some sort of addiction.
Curator & Writer | Hakan Burcuoğlu · Venue | Chambar · Gear | Leica
He sits across from me, clad in vintage plaid—disheveled hair, a little twitchy, pushing up the frame of his signature leopard-print Ray-Bans. A hint of nervous nostalgia, and rightly so. This place, Vancouver’s coveted Belgian restaurant Chambar, was where he cut his teeth, and made his bones, after all.
The pathos is palpable. A life spent cooking on the line—a curious compulsion, a cloistered, cathartic existence. People seldom realize the culprit—the source of addiction—is in fact the life itself. Reality becomes fiction, and nothing but the kitchen starts to suffice—that’s the sacrifice. And who better to indulge us than the best fucking breakfast cook west of Ontario.
I typecast [and perhaps exaggerate] for effect, but Deniz is so much more—a polyglot of culinary lingua franca. A firebrand—a mad scientist—who holds an astonishing pedigree of pastiche, a perennial passion for food and feeding people, and a profound reverence for the industry and everyone in it. I’m partial, of course—in fact, full on nepotist. He’s a friend, a partner, and a prolific contributor to this platform. But one thing he’s never been, is safe.
And here, we’re sort of allergic to safe. Start getting used to delving deep into the lives of fiercely talented, non-conformist brains with a “fuck you very much” kind of an attitude. It’s revelatory, bonafide Curatorialist, and it’s fucking [C]hronicled.
HB: What kind of an upbringing did you have? Where’d you grow up?
DT: I was born in Fatsa, an idyllic seaside town in the Black Sea Region of Turkey known as a hotbed for communists. My parents worked, so they’d ditch me to my grandparents; my father was the manager of a bank and my mother worked for the trade union, so my childhood was spent travelling back and forth between my grandparents—my father’s side in Fatsa and my mother’s side in Balikesir [Marmara Region]. At the same time, I was a privileged kid, I had the happiest childhood.
HB: How was grandma’s cooking?
DT: My grandmother in Balikesir, her cooking was the worst—you could hurt someone. Dehydrated, like a thick puck of shit. Too sweet. You needed goddamn milk to dip shit in, or maybe it was a way for her to get us to drink milk, I don’t know. She made moppy stews you’d soak up with bread—that kind of Turkish fare. Most of my food memories originate from her kitchen. Even though it wasn’t good technically, the love was always there and I picked up on that, it’s what I became obsessed with.
HB: Did you ever lend a hand?
DT: Of course, I had to. I was with her all day. I used to make different types of panini with this shitty metal basket with a shit handle, and a shitty clip which never worked. I loved making them so much—I’d adjust the fire, knowingly too. It was my first ever cooking experience. I was also frying eggs for myself when I was around 3 or 4 years old, I remember that.
HB: Sounds like you started forming your palette quite young.
DT: I remember giving shit to a waiter about çiğ köfte [a Turkish spin on beef tartare] at 6 years old. It needed more tomato paste, lemon juice and way more seasoning. This was a celebratory thing we’d make for family gatherings—I’d help my uncle make it for New Year’s, peeling onions and pureeing garlic. I knew my shit. So when the guy came back, I told him it was unacceptable. I was always involved and engaged with food, always interested in the process.
HB: I find it surprising that you were downing çiğ köfte at age 6. It isn’t for the faint-hearted.
DT: My grandma fed me a hot pepper every morning to get me used to spicy foods—like raw, fuck it, “you’re going to eat it”. I’d also suck on salt-dipped lemon wedges to get brain highs. I developed this super duper balance for acid and salt early on, and that’s where my fundamentals come from. I was always aware of different tastes, how the acid curves. I wasn’t just eating food—it’s like you tap your foot to the sound of music, and then you actually listen to the music. I was always listening when I ate.
HB: Your mom must’ve had a hard time meeting her son’s expectations every night for dinner.
DT: She’d cook a fresh pot of food every night—practical fair like poached chicken breasts with vegetables, a side of bread and salad. It wasn’t utilitarian, it was a serious task—an expression of a healthy relationship. French cooking, for instance, is a wonderful way of eating but the shit takes days to make. There’s a whole other type of cooking the whole world does on a daily basis. If we ever eat the same thing two days in a row, we’d give mom shit—that was our expectation, and she never complained once.
HB: Sounds like a happy family that took dinner time quite seriously.
DT: I grew up with that culture—food was an expression, a point of relation. I relate via food, it’s how I was raised. Want to make people happy? Bring ‘em together, pour them a drink and cook them a fresh pot of food. Then get drunk and make fun of each other. That’s what we did as a family, and how I’ve come to look at working in professional kitchens.
HB: How come you didn’t pursue that expression as a way of life?
DT: You don’t do that in a developing country when you have educated parents—you don’t go and become a “tradesman”. You go to university and do whatever an adult does with a degree. I studied business. I didn’t want to. I wanted to study psychology or journalism and they said “no, your father can get you a job in his field”. That was the whole logic behind it. Ironically, much to their chagrin, my first job was as a bikini salesman.
Me selling bikinis to Turkish
women—it was double jeopardy
HB: Wow. Which clever mind put you in that department?
DT: It’s the weirdest thing, they just assigned me to that department at the newly opened Marks & Spencer on the Asian side of Istanbul. Me selling bikinis to Turkish women—it was double jeopardy. I love Marks & Spencer, they’re the shit, the clothes are great quality.
HB: Is that also how you felt at university? A case of double jeopardy?
DT: I hated school. The first two years in university studying economics, there’s like 600 people in a classroom, so no one even noticed if I’d attended class. I paid the nerds for their notes and passed all my tests. I wasn’t an A-student, and didn’t give a shit about it anyway.
HB: And after university?
DT: My father got me a job at the stock exchange to do paperwork for the brokers. Then I went into the treasury—I was working from 7AM to 11PM, five days a week. I was making good money, there was lots to be made in finance back then. Then my father and uncle decided to open up a factoring business. At that point I’d left for Tunceli [Eastern Turkey] to serve my conscription as a blue beret commando in the special forces.
HB: And the food there? Run-of-the-mill, I presume.
DT: Hah! 5000 calories of testosterone-amplifying food. Lots of protein. It demanded a lot physically though… I still ended up losing 40 pounds in the first month.
HB: They should’ve assigned you to the kitchen to cook for your fellow troops.
DT: But I didn’t have kitchen experience. It was an odd time… we were the first short-term conscripts so the regulars didn’t know how to react when we first arrived. We were deemed “special” because we had privileged lives—university degrees—and they treated us accordingly. It was quite rough for a while.
HB: That must’ve proven quite instrumental in your career as a chef.
DT: Of course. I’m running with 30 pounds of gear and there’d be a sergeant in the back who’d wack me with the butt of his rifle the instant I fell behind. And when we were falling apart, which was often the case, they’d hand you your gear and make you do the walk of shame. You eventually realize you’re way more capable than what you think you are. That mentality of turning exhaustion to aggression to energy helped me a lot in life. And I also got to play with big boy toys, people buy video games for that!
HB: Was it hard reacclimatizing to life upon returning back home, to Istanbul?
DT: By the time I returned to Istanbul, the country had gone bust. Turkey had entered an economic depression. My father had dissolved the company… declared bankruptcy. We were maxing out credit cards to maintain our old quality of life. That happy family we had… everything fell apart. My parents separated after 31 years of marriage and my father eventually moved back to the countryside by himself. The stress never left him. He passed away some years later.
HB: That’s a stark reality to face, especially after such a tough time in the military. How’d you bounce back from all of that?
DT: I needed a job, and there were none in my field. I landed one in a small advertising agency, met a girl there, got engaged and became a copywriter. We needed more money so I applied for a fancier position and got that too. But soon after, I was told that they could only keep one person in our department. The other girl was sleeping with the boss, so I got kicked out of there. That day, I met up with my fiancé at a pub in Taksim [an entertainment district in Istanbul] and told her “I’m going to Canada”, to which she replied “you can’t just go to Canada”. I arrived at my aunt’s house in Vancouver 3 weeks later.
HB: I guess there needed to be a drastic change, but this sounds way too sudden.
DT: I wanted to leave it all behind—the broken relationship, the depression, the shitty working conditions in Turkey, just for 6 months. But a couple of months after I arrived here, I met a girl who knocked me on the head and took me home, so we got married. I’d extended my visa but had ran out of money, so I started cleaning chickens for $7.50 an hour, under the table at a Sri Lankan curry joint. They made fun of me all day for being stupid and slow. I needed another job, and quick.
HB: I think I know where this is going.
DT: You go and find your own, right? I gravitated towards the Turkish people, who were known for owning the best pizza parlours. My first real gig was manning the register at Pizza Garden on Commercial Drive. “Veggie slices are $1.25 and meat slices $1.50”—that was my orientation. I was happy as a clam, and decided to stick with it. I showed real interest and eventually they bumped me up to work the back-of-house at Uncle Fatih’s. He fired me immediately, and told me that my brain didn’t function properly [chuckles]. So I went back to Pizza Garden.
HB: Why’d you get fired?
DT: The kitchen work was basic but required those minimum skills I didn’t have. I wasn’t ready for it. In between, I was dreaming of opening up a fuckin’ pizza joint of my own but my wife (soon to be ex)—and I’ll give her credit for this—recommended I get some schooling to learn shit properly. “Don’t be a pizza guy for the money” she’d say. Funny enough, this guy Emir Polat moved into the neighborhood with plans of opening up a Turkish restaurant called Rime. He’d come into the shop to eat pizza during the renovations. One day he asked if I wanted to work for him, and I said “Sure, why not?”.
HB: Finally an opportunity to prove Uncle Fatih wrong.
DT: What’s to prove?! I didn’t know anything. We started as 3 cooks in the kitchen, and the other two quit right away. So I became the head chef, and for almost two years I was the only cook in that kitchen, cooking a full fucking menu, washing my own dishes, doing almost 80 covers every single night. The delivery was bumpy, but it was proper food.
HB: What kind of food were you cooking?
DT: Turkish food—lots of vegetables with olive oil, lamb shanks, marinated chicken thighs, bulgur rice… We were idiots, we didn’t really know what we were doing. None of us had any prior experience in running a restaurant, but we still did a great job. It was a restaurant of misfits—a complete mess, but somehow controlled. Definitely not profitable though, we were squeezing a little bit to get by.
HB: What was the restaurant scene like in Vancouver back in the early 2000s?
DT: There was nothing—it was a stagnant city. Boring fine-dining… white tablecloth restaurants—green beans, roasted fish… fucking squash puree. That kind of ding dong food. There’s nothing wrong with it, but nobody needs to eat that shit anymore. And of course pubs with their shitty chicken wings. The only exception was the awesome ethnic restaurants run by immigrants.
HB: Was there ever an anticipation that Vancouver would, one day, redeem itself?
DT: I was just a guy working in a kitchen. I didn’t know food trends, I didn’t know who did what, or who the famous chefs were. With the exception of whatever I watched on Food Network, like Emeril—it looked fun, super professional.
HB: So how did you end up in the big leagues?
DT: I left the Turkish restaurant, enrolled in the culinary program at VCC [Vancouver Community College] and graduated with flying colors. At the time, the hottest restaurant in town was Diva at the Met, run by super talented cooks like Kristian Eligh, who had apprenticed under J.C. Felicella—the head of VCC. The last day of school I walked up to J.C. and said “I want to work at Diva”. He told me I wasn’t experienced enough. I insisted. So he phoned the restaurant and said “you’re one lucky son of a bitch, you got it”. Their breakfast cook had just quit.
HB: It must’ve been a totally different animal, working at a restaurant which [then] had 4 diamond status.
DT: It was way out of my league—very aggressive, very technical. But I persisted and eventually got the hang of it. Chef Eligh once told me “I can’t stand looking at you when you’re cooking, but your food tastes delicious”. I was panicky, messy and flustered—a ball of confused energy in the corner, but still alive and operating in his little corner.
HB: How’d you end up getting a foot in the door with Chambar?
DT: I broke my foot 8 months into the job and had to quit Diva. I sat on my ass for 6 months. This was the 2008 housing crisis, so fine-dining restaurants had stopped hiring. I was binge-forwarding resumes to restaurants and Pat Hennessy, [then] sous-chef of Chambar, was the first person to call me back.
HB: So at this point you had made the conscious decision that you’d pursue this as a serious, full time career?
DT: Yes. Except I still didn’t know shit. But I was so full of myself because I had my epaulettes from Diva.
HB: Did they hire you on the spot or give you a trial?
DT: Nico [Schuermans, Owner/Head Chef of Chambar] wasn’t interested in seeing my résumé. He told me I looked like a line cook and asked me to come in the following morning to do a trial shift at the café [Medina, then a part of Chambar]. I showed up the next day and my mind was blown. The food was so simple, so well put together and so much fun. Everything was executed impeccably; the line had just one salamander [broiler], a flat top, two shitty coil burners from Costco, a panini machine and a water bath that kept our sauces warm. With that tiny setup, we cooked the best breakfast in this city, hands down.
HB: The best thing a cook can ask for, right? That kind of education.
DT: Medina was a tough gig, it broke a lot of cooks. I’d say 40% of the chefs who came in never made it. We’d do 300 to 500 covers a day—you had to be emotionally stable. Anybody can make a fucking omelette. The deal is to do 200 of them, 15 at a time, all perfectly, during a crazy service, while you’re also juggling everything else. That’s what I learned and mastered there—that tricky rhythm of the line.
HB: It sounds quite aggressive, distancing.
DT: You don’t have to taste every single fucking scrambled egg that you make. I’ve probably cooked over half a million eggs in the last 6 years, I know what’s what. The shit they tell you on TV is great, and some cooks are lucky enough to take their time and taste their food, but it doesn’t represent my reality. There’s a lot of mechanization when you’re feeding people on that scale.
HB: Was there an incident that got you noticed for something other than your talents on the line?
DT: I cooked a great curry—it was popular at Chambar back then. There was a Sri Lankan prep cook, Bob, who’d eaten curry everyday of his life. I asked him to show me his way and I attempted it for the staff meal the following day. I’ll never forget Nico running back into the kitchen—Who the fuck cooked this? I got his attention, and the more he paid attention, the more amped up I got.
HB: That’s pretty remarkable.
DT: We were just after good food—nothing was glorified, there was no pretension. A $10 box of cumin powder and $600 worth of premium Persian saffron sat beside one another, on the same exact shelf, in the same shitty containers. All of these practices—business, technical, cultural—were copied by so many cooks who moved up and on in the business, including myself.
HB: What was it about Chambar anyway?
DT: It’s the whole package. It was so unique, exactly what Vancouver needed back then—a sexy place for “civilized debauchery”. It felt so great that you wanted to be a part of it. We were more than just a team, we were a family. When I worked at Diva at the Met, all they talked about was Chambar, all day long. And those guys were considered to be the best chefs in town.
HB: What’s your guiding vision as a chef?
DT: People who make the money in this business are those who deliver exceptional food under all circumstances. We all fuck up, sure, but we take responsibility. It’s also about the whole package—not only delicious food, but an atmosphere that they want to be a part of. Guests attend to your service; it’s like “feeding time” in the wild. That need—it’s ingrained in us.
HB: What do you think is the best way food should be cooked?
DT: I cook food the way I like for it to be eaten—that’s my ultimate gage. I don’t buy into crowd-pleasing, but I’m not against it either. An exceptional dish, whatever the context, is one that’s universal. Whether you’re feeding it to a French Michelin-starred chef, or a Brazilian dishwasher—the effect should be the same. That’s what you’re trying to achieve.
HB: One thing I’ve noticed about your cooking is that it has a very rich flavour profile. You do tend to over season your food quite a bit, but it’s never a bad thing and almost always a good thing.
DT: [Chuckles] You know why I do that though? It’s because we’re all obsessed with junk food. We react emotionally to high levels of seasoning and textural contrast…that crunchiness. We’re predators still searching for that bone crunch. We love chewy cookies because we loved chewing on ripped up flesh from a freshly killed prey.HB: Leveraging impulses in a chefy kind of way?
DT: No fuckin’ gimmicks—it’s that junk food that I stole the whole concept of. Nico just made me aware of it. 99% of the time my food always hits the spot. 1% may not like it because they have an aggressive palette. But you either love it or hate it, never ignore it. That’s when cooks lose their magic. I’m just milking the junk food thing as much as I can.
HB: Do you care what people think about your food?
HB: You’re not even interested in negative feedback?
DT: I am, but I don’t care for it. I’d listen, but at this point my food converts people rather than incite negative opinions. They submit to my flavours, and abide in the food they’re receiving. I’ve had two plates sent back in the course of 15 years. It’s never a concern. We do a pretty good job, what’s not to like?
HB: You’re no loyalist when it comes to tradition, but there’s always a hat tip there.
DT: Well that’s what Hendrix did right? When you break down what he’s playing, it’s actually the good old fuckin’ blues. But what he did was amplify, respectfully. Stripping it to the core—taking something well known, and liked, and putting it on an electric surfboard.
HB: Hendrix rose to fame pretty young, and now cooks are leaving kitchens at a much younger age to pursue their own restaurant dreams. But there was only one Hendrix.
DT: Hendrix was young, sure. But when he walked onto that stage and stole Eric Clapton’s thunder, as a complete overnight phenomenon, he’d done so having mastered the guitar. Years of practice. Nobody’s born with that; anything worthwhile requires a lot of hard work. I lucked out, I’m the luckiest guy to have had Nico and Eleanor [Chow Waterfall, Cadeaux Bakery] around me.
HB: Grant Achatz, referencing his time at Charlie Trotter’s, said “cooks want to do the opposite of their mentors”. But you revere yours, especially Nico.
DT: He taught me almost everything I know. I was in rough shape when I came here, he pulled me out of my rut. He worked on me, pointed out my strengths to me. He didn’t mentor me one on one but if there was something he knew someone else couldn’t pull off, he’d ask me to do it. He was never a hard ass. He was super respectful… still is… because I was a good cook.
HB: You were lucky to work alongside great cooks. I’m sure not everybody has that sort of camaraderie, a support network.
DT: I get that the new generation is deemed special, but as far as cooking goes, nobody’s that special. Ever. Trades require vision and talent, but you only learn by repetition. You have to work hard and put your time in regardless of whether you think you’re better than everyone else. I’ve mentored a lot of young cooks—some are receptive, but most don’t seem to care. When you’re frying chicken wings at a shitty pub at 40, you might see where it went wrong.
HB: It feels like cooks are either ambivalent or way too certain about what their future holds.
DT: What do you want to do as a cook? Do you want to be a rockstar, a concert pianist or just play the good ol’ blues? The options are endless. You have to gather enough knowledge and experience in kitchens to understand yourself—where your strengths lie. The more you vary your experience, the more you’ll educate yourself going forward.
HB: What kind of future do you imagine Vancouver will have, food-wise?
DT: We’re going to be the next big thing, at least in Canada. The future of food is healthy, delicious and light. We’re going from veal jus to chimichurri for steak. One of them is technical, costly and takes 2 days to make, and the other—fast, healthy, fresh and delicious. This is the way we eat now, and this was our approach to food in the first place.
HB: Sure, chimichurri’s delicious, and comparatively, doesn’t cost a thing to make. Cost always seems to be the biggest concern in this industry. It seems to trump taste even.
DT: The first thing people have to fucking understand is that this is a business. Talented kids who are experimenting with food, being artsy fartsy, sometimes end up costing them their lifetime savings. I don’t care how passionate or exceptional you are, it has to make money, so you can pay your staff better, have better access to ingredients. There is no bad side of making money in the restaurant business.
HB: What are some other negative sides then, in your view?
DT: It’s changing, but I’ll tell you the old story. It requires long hours depending on the level you’re operating at. You could very well get an institutional cooking job with set hours and be OK with yourself. But if you want excellence—it’s going to cost you, somehow. No way around it. It costs people relationships, I lost mine. I spent my 30s in a kitchen that was probably the ugliest place on earth.
HB: And of course, the higher the pressure, the harder the decompression.
DT: People eat out to treat themselves—to be happy, stimulated. As a server, for instance, you have to match the patron’s excitement. And as a cook, you need to constantly satisfy their demands in a high-alert, fast-paced environment. And when you excite people too much, they either fight or fuck.
…when you excite people too much,
they either fight or fuck.
HB: I like that. That’s a good one.
DT: Our work can be mechanical but we’re not machines. When it’s all over, you’ve done it together. The bar’s right there, you want a drink, to spend time with people. Just like everything else, some people are addicts and some become addicts. People who work in the industry are obsessed with their pleasures, so it’s easy to get pulled into the sex, drugs and rock n’ roll side of it.
HB: The restaurant life itself becomes the source of addiction, the drug, so to speak.
DT: It kills the pain of being dysfunctional. I’m addicted to working because it makes me feel normal and useful. I do well but I’m no social butterfly outside of work. It’s also a personality thing. I never wanted a family, or to settle down. At some point I had to make a choice—to be a husband or a cook. I chose to cook.
HB: Since this is a life choice, what are you working on outside of work?
DT: Learning is endless for me. I’m currently experimenting with baking bread, especially sourdough, as well as fermentation. Bacteria has made a glorious come back; natural preservation is coming back and it’ll be the new flare of cooking. It’s my happy place.
HB: What’s ultimate happiness then?
DT: I see Turkish cuisine managed dysfunctionally and think it deserves better recognition on a global scale. It’s a hard country to cook at a high, innovative level… people are still going through life struggles… we’re talking about leisure here. I’d be very happy to be the one to put it on the map.
HB: There’s a dissonance there between your feelings for your motherland and your ambitions regarding the promotion of its cuisine.
DT: I’m bitter about the country, mostly the politicians… but never the people, the mediterranean, or the bounty. I’ve also got daddy issues maybe? I don’t know. I was living in Vancouver when he passed and never had the chance to say goodbye. When you cook, you need a starting point—to wrap your cooking around an idea. You can’t just compose shit from nothing. Adrià… Blumenthal… they’re wunderkinds. They can wrap shit around whatever they want. They have their influences too of course. It’s my strength, and how I get away with things. I also feel a responsibility… but I could cook 5000 Turkish recipes off of the top of my head.
HB: I’m sure a lot of Turkish chefs may have a bone to pick with you. The gastronomical landscape in Turkey has witnessed drastic change, even in the past 2 years.
DT: Great. But their methods aren’t fucking working. They’re doing what we did 5 years ago and trying to sell it as something new… fuckin’ risotto in a heart-shaped mould. They’re being a bunch of children. I want to do something with a more modern approach and believe in my ability to deliver.
HB: Who do you have most respect for, and what’s wrong in this city?
DT: Rightness and wrongness is relative. I never believe in “who’s the better cook” anyway. To me Eleanor Chow, along with Nico Schuermans, are the most talented cooks in town. As for what’s wrong, fuck poke bowls. It just tells me you don’t know how to roll sushi.
HB: Poke feels like a fad, but you can’t neglect that there’s a very strong, almost inviolable Asian influence, which isn’t going anywhere. [And yes, I know Poke originated in Hawaii]
DT: There’s a huge Asian population here, yes. But the new age of cooking is with Asian ingredients. Most Asian products come fully seasoned, which makes for super flavoursome food. If you’re deglazing with tamarind caramel, the flavour’s already there. Also, stocks used in classical French dishes aren’t stabilized like their Asian counterparts. In French cooking, flavours change as things age, and continually balancing flavours is a skill set in itself.
HB: As a final question, I wanted to ask you about your feelings on the hegemony of Instagram and the rise of food influencers.
DT: Here’s the catch—if you’re a good cook and have a great restaurant, you’ll be successful regardless. If your shit’s good, people will always find you. If you’re a popular idiot whose shit stinks, but you’re amazing on instagram, people are going to come once, and eventually abandon you. No influencer on instagram is ever going to save you. I’m not concerned with them thinking they power or influence because they ain’t jack shit. All this shit is going to sort itself out. Be genuine—it always stands the test of time.