Turkish chef Ebru Baybara Demir is working to empower under-resourced women in the Middle East through agricultural and culinary arts education.
“I’m a social gastronomy chef,” Demir tells Food Tank. “My job is to touch people’s lives as much as the taste of the plate I make.”
For more than 20 years, Demir’s Mardin, Turkey-based restaurant Cercis Murat Konaği (Cercis Murat Mansion) has trained nearly 200 women in the art of traditional Turkish cuisine. The restaurant prepares Indigenous recipes using ingredients from 170 different local farmers.
“By continuing to cultivate farmers’ [soils], we ensure the continuity of healthy and sustainable agriculture and enable disadvantaged women to create a sustainable economy for themselves by using their values and agricultural knowledge,” Demir tells Food Tank.
A violent civil war between government forces and terrorist groups in Syria over the last decade has led almost 2 million refugees to flee to Turkey. Syrian refugees in Turkey face difficult living conditions, limited employment opportunities, and widespread hostility.
The influx of Syrian refugees has strained Turkey’s limited resources and exacerbated political and economic instability in the region. Demir notes the specific difficulties for female refugees, telling Food Tank, “In a society where being a woman [is] a disadvantage, women and girls [are] also the most affected by all these negativities.”
In response to the Syrian civil war and the Turkish economic crisis, Demir has developed numerous humanitarian projects to aid female refugees and impoverished Turkish women. In partnership with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Demir founded Turkey’s first gastronomy school—the Harran Gastronomy School. From 2016 to 2019, the school awarded culinary arts degrees to hundreds of refugees and earned Demir a nomination for the 2017 Basque Culinary World Prize.
Demir continues to educate refugees through the “Kitchen of Hope” initiative. With funding from the World Food Programme (WFP), the project teaches culinary arts to female Turkish and Syrian refugees. The initiative has taught 348 students in 9 different Turkish cities over the course of two years. Demir tells Food Tank, “I believe that [“Kitchen of Hope”] will create sustainable economies for more people with the transformative power of food by addressing the lives of our disadvantaged people from the gastronomic perspective.”
Demir also promotes food and environmental sustainability through agricultural projects. Since 2017, her project Living Soil, Local Seed has employed 350 female Turkish farmers to cultivate Indigenous Sorgül wheat without fertilizer, irrigation, or power. In partnership with the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), Demir’s From Soil to Plate Agricultural Development Cooperative teaches skills such as baking, farming, mushroom cultivation, soapmaking, and bee conservation.
Demir tells Food Tank that sustainability drives her culinary philosophy. “The flavor of the food on the table comes from the soil where it gets its strength and from the lives it benefits,” she says. “For environmental sustainability, I think we should first of all take care of our food, our soil, our water, basically the balance of nature.”
Demir is also working to support women impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, which devastated Turkey’s food and agriculture industry. Travel restrictions and mandatory closures reduced tourism by 70 percent and drained income from restaurants and farmers. The effects have been especially severe in Demir’s home city of Mardin, which has the highest unemployment rate in all of Turkey. Like many restaurants throughout Turkey, Cercis Murat Konaği closed its doors in March of 2020, only to reopen months later with few customers.
In response, Demir launched several new initiatives to provide the Turkish culinary and agricultural community with vital employment opportunities. As part of one program, Demir hired “Kitchen of Hope” graduates to sell and distribute food from farmers who could no longer sell at markets. She also purchased locally sourced olive oil to create and sell soap in an FAO-sponsored workshop.
Demir says, “While many sectors had to discharge their employees during the pandemic, we tried to create a local ecosystem in order to maintain the employment of women and to support the small agricultural producers in the surrounding provinces.”
While Cercis Murat Konaği recovers from the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, Demir continues to engage in humanitarian aid through social gastronomy. “Gastronomy is not only cooking in the kitchen,” Demir tells Food Tank. “To [produce] food, you might not just be in the kitchen. You should be taking part in everywhere you have to be.”