Gökmen Sözen: Creating a culinary bridge between gastronomic cultures

For G.I new series of features focusing on people around the globe that play a key role in different landmarks, Gastronomy Indicator contributing writer David Egui interviews Mr. Gokmen Sozen, gastronomic diplomat and creator of the international conference Gastromasa, a global sharing platform where chefs from all over the world show their most diverse practices.

When it comes to promoting and representing Turkish culture and gastronomy, few people work as hard as Gökmen Sözen, a man that’s been a part of the gastronomic industry for more than two decades, starting with photography and publishing. Now his goals and dreams are way bigger and he’s using all his experience to build a bridge between Turkey and the rest of the world using food as a foundation.

He describes Gastromasa, one of his most important and successful projects, as a global sharing platform for chefs and industry experts, and that’s precisely what it is. In only seven years, Gökmen has managed to bring the biggest names in gastronomy to Turkish lands to share their knowledge as they get inspired by local ingredients, flavors and ways of cooking. A true cultural experience.

After one extremely harsh year for the food industry, and the world in general, due to the terrible worldwide pandemic, Gökmen plans to come back strong. I sat down with him to talk about his journey and to discover more about the past, present and future of Gastromasa –set for November 7th in Istanbul with Design as the main theme– and some of his other exciting endeavors.

How did the whole project start? What inspired you to do it?

I have been working in the Gastronomy sector for 25 years, it started with food photography and publishing. Gastronomy has always been a passion for me. The publishing world also led me to follow restaurant trends and the gastronomic landscape closely. Foodinlife, which was the first digital portal of the horeca sector in Turkey, inspired me. It made me excited to introduce Turkish cuisine and the idea began. Then and there I realized that I could build a bridge between the global and the local ecosystem, to promote our country and its culinary wonders.

Gastromasa was the podium to share those sources of inspiration while at the same time inspiring a bunch of new ideas and projects for the visiting chefs and speakers.

Do you remember the moment you first thought about doing Gastromasa?

I was interviewing some of the world's most important chefs for our own publication, Foodinlife, and my biggest passion was to experience different cuisines. While chatting with them, I always thought that it would be nice to invite them to Turkey and show them our cuisine and culture, while introducing them to young Turkish chefs…The idea was for them to come to Istanbul and discover us and our cuisine while we, at the same time, learned from their different visions, projects and experiences. Actually, I wanted to be a bridge, so after a very inspirational interview with Ferran Adria, I decided to start making that connection and Gastromasa was born.

Describe Gastromasa in your own words.

Gastromasa is a global sharing platform where chefs from all over the world show their most diverse practices. A bridge between gastronomic cultures.

Every year Gastromasa centers around a central theme. Let’s make a quick trip down memory lane and mention a highlight and a lesson you learned from every conference:

In fact, each of our themes represents a different dimension of gastronomy. In 2015 the theme was destination. It was our first conference and we wanted to showcase the strong Anatolian geography as a destination, so we invited chefs, speakers and writers to different gastronomic landmarks.

The second conference in 2016 was all about the importance of the story in the kitchen. And what better way to make that point than having chefs like Josean Alija, Elena Arzak or Andoni Luis Aduriz in Turkey to share their own personal stories and their restaurants' storytelling.

In 2017 we focused on the product. A key element in the kitchen. We were able to bring 18 international chefs like Virgilio Martinez, Mauro Colagreco, Joan Roca, Kamilla Seidler and Carlos Garcia just to highlight a few, to learn about the different products that they use and how they turn them into gastronomic jewels.

Creativity is essential in the kitchen and in fine dining restaurants and for that reason we made it the theme of 2018’s conference. By participating in Gastromasa, chefs like Oriol Castro from Disfrutar in Barcelona, Paco Morales from Noor in Córdoba, Jorge Vallejo from Quintonil in Mexico or Alex Atala from D.O.M in Brazil, shared their own creative processes with peers from all over the world and with local young chefs.

In 2019, the last conference before the COVID19 crisis, the theme was inspiration. Each chef is inspired by a different subject; sometimes from his roots, sometimes from his surroundings, from a flavour left on his palate, from his grandmother or from a product… Gastromasa was the podium to share those sources of inspiration while at the same time inspiring a bunch of new ideas and projects for the visiting chefs and speakers.

How was 2020 for Gastromasa and for the Turkish culinary scene. What did you do during this pandemic?

It was a really challenging year, complete with economic problems that affected the whole food chain. The food and beverage sector stopped, getting the product and service suppliers in the sector into an economic deadlock that’s becoming difficult to get out of. We tried to keep our morale up with solidarity and by staying in constant communication with live broadcasts on Instagram. We also supported a platform established for the sector via donations under the name of Gastroinitiative. But unfortunately some chefs couldn’t reopen their restaurants. Our culinary landscape changed dramatically, and it isn’t over yet.

How did this past year change your project? Are you doing anything different this time around?

Last year was a strategy planning year for me. I decided to deal with the supply and hospitality issues, processes that affect each other very much. And so our new brand “farm-network” was born. It’s a network event where farmers and chefs meet and discuss sustainable agricultural practices from climate change. We started the first event from the lands where agriculture was born, Mesopotamia. Our other new brand is “f-summit” that was held in Antalya last month which is going to be an important summit and deal with three main issues at the same time; International Tourism, Hospitality and Gastronomy.

Is it now more important than ever to promote Turkey’s natural beauty, historical sites, regional and local gastronomic values and to create focus for gastronomic tourism?

Yes, it is more important than ever. We want to accurately describe our cultural food heritage, ethnic and historical richness from Mesopotamia to the Aegean, from the Greeks to the Caucasus and to become a destination in gastronomic tourism. And that’s the goal of all of our work. With the Gastromasa Conference, FSummit Conference, Mezze Fest, Farm Network, FoodFest Antalya and GastroAntep Fest, the big picture is to promote our culture and our country.

All events have a soul and a unique style, all of them are very authentic in their own way, in Gastromasa we still have many local stories to tell and discover.

This year's theme is design. How do you decide on each year’s theme and why do you think design plays such an important role in the culinary world?

We decide on the themes with trends and projections. The interaction of gastronomy and different disciplines is very important. Successful chefs always know how to combine their kitchen with design, history, science… Imagine a restaurant from outside to inside; architecture, interior design, concept design, menu design, dish design… all of them important and design is one of the key factors of restaurant success.

The list of invited chefs that have visited Turkey because of your events is amazing. What would you say is the main reason for all these incredibly talented and busy personalities to get out of their kitchens, jump on a plane and go to Turkey?

Gastromasa has now been recognized as a conference with a high reputation by the global gastronomy ecosystem and has been highly embraced. We enjoy hosting our guests by experiencing Turkish hospitality and flavors outside of the conference and international network here.

In your opinion, what does Turkey have to offer to the world gastronomically? Why Turkey?

In Turkey there’s a very rich biodiversity as an advantage of climate and geography, and the menus are very rich. There are also different cuisines that you will experience with excitement when the deep-rooted traditions of the hanging history and the rituals of different ethical groups come on top of it.

Turkish Cuisine has not been discovered yet...

Could you mention some of Turkey’s strong points in terms of gastronomy? Some of those wonders that you want the world to see and that motivate you to build this amazing project.

There is something I want to give an example; You can find mezes from Armenian cuisine, Greek cuisine and Arabic cuisine at the meze table of our traditional tavern called “Meyhane”, so you can taste the recipes of 3-4 cultures at the same time with amazing Turkish Raki.

Please tell us about your other activities and events in Turkey besides Gastromasa.

One of the strongest publishing brands of the HORECA sector, Foodinlife magazine, continues in both digital and print. We work with many cities in Turkey on international promotion and global events, such as Gaziantep, whose cuisine is under protection by UNESCO. Our new brands “Farm-network” covers sustainable agricultural products and agricultural value chain issues, and “F- summit” covers tourism, gastronomy and hospitality. And I’m giving you an exclusive: we’re opening our European office in 2022.

Can you talk to me about GastroAntep Fest?

Gaziantep is one of the most powerful cities in Mesopotamia and Gaziantep Cuisine is in the UNESCO list. We have been working on the international promotion of this cuisine for 5 years with Mrs. Fatma Şahin, the visionary woman mayor of the city. At this point, we hosted many of the world's most famous chefs such as Elena Arzak and Diego Guerrero, and we introduced them to our local food and products.

Now a part of Gaziantep’s cuisine and products in the global culinary landscape, thanks to the patient and long-term work of the mayor, we want to make this example in other regions.

After only 6 years you’ve managed to position Gastromasa at the top of international Food Symposiums in the World. What makes it different from Madrid Fusión, San Sebastian gastronomika. Identita Golose or ChefsTalk?

All events have a soul and a unique style, all of them are very authentic in their own way, in Gastromasa we still have many local stories to tell and discover. And we position Gastromasa as a bridge between the culinary cultures.

What is your goal with everything in the longer run? What is your dream scenario for the future of the Turkish culinary world?

My biggest dream is for Turkish cuisine to gain a respectable place among global cuisines and to be recognized for this. I have a team of believers and Turkish Chef friends working with an incredible passion towards achieving that dream and every project, every year of successful conferences, is a stepping stone towards that goal.

Top of mind, a Turkish dish you love, and why?

Our home cooking is very interesting and authentic so I like all local home cooking. Instead of street food, my favorites are kokoreç made from lamb gut and milky dessert made from chicken breast.

*The next Gastromasa Conference is set for November 7th in Istanbul.