Women Of The Food Industry – Ebru Baybara Demir, Chef & Culinary Researcher
In October 2019, Ebru Baybara Demir spoke at Food On The Edge in Galway, Ireland.
I have never met Ebru Baybara Demir and the chances of us meeting are probably not huge and that’s a real shame.
I have been sitting on this interview for the last couple of weeks. I’ve read her answers again and again. I have thought about her words and then I’ve thought again. Ebru Baybara Demir gave me a shake and made me check my privilege. Although I know it happens, I can’t quite wrap my head around the thought of having to ask permission to leave the house and go to work. I know women are not equal still, in Ireland, but all the same, our struggle is not in the same realm, socially speaking. I consider us to be at the top of the shit pile, if you’ll excuse my french.
The women of Mardin have a whole different level of patriarchy to contend with and they are blessed to have Ebru Baybara Demir fighting their corner, for she is a leader.
I’m talking to women the food industry. How did your career path bring you here?
I was born the third daughter of a family from Mardin. My father chose to take to Istanbul forty-five years ago, as it was a difficult place to raise women in. Still, I decided to I return to Mardin in my twenties, shortly before the turn of the century.
When I returned to Mardin, twenty years ago, tourism had not been identified as a revenue-making sector. I believed in the transformative power of gastronomy, the magic of local delicacies and how they reflect cultures. I founded my restaurant, Cercis Murat Konağı with twenty-one local women as my partners. It wasn’t an easy thing because at that time, women living in the area could not go out without their husband’s permission. Making money and working was unimaginable for them.
Following on from our success, the residents of Mardin were inspired to invest in the city’s tourism industry. The transformation began thanks to gastronomy, and tourism became one of the important dynamics of the city’s economy. Over the years, more than two hundred women have made their living by cooking thanks to this restaurant alone.
My career actually started in 2012. At a time when everything was going well, a tumour was detected in the left lobe of my youngest daughter’s brain. We had a difficult operation and part of the tumour was removed. When questioning the cause of this disease, our doctor said that even the products grown in the soil are not healthy anymore, especially not for children. We have lost our old eating habits and changed the natural structure of nutrients. As a chef for many years, while I was thinking that we were consuming natural products, this new knowledge set me on a new path. As a mother and a chef who nurtured countless people through the meals I cooked, I realised I had to return back to the soil.
We researched the territory of Mesopotamia, the homeland of wheat, which is currently said to have 25 thousand known species. We reached eleven ranges of wheat. We visited the villages and the mountainous areas around Mardin. We contacted the smallholders there. We collected seeds from farmers to grow the local seeds in different places where they would adapt. We have made great progress in our project in a short period of time. Starting with seventy women, ten acres of land and 2 tons harvested the first year, we reached three hundred and fifty women farmers within the first two years of our Sorgül project and for our last harvest, we collected four hundred and fourty tons of wheat on six hundred and fifty acres of land.
In addition, we started the Kitchen of Hope Project in Turkey where disadvantaged groups and refugees can study gastronomy. With this project, we will prepare the training curricula of the schools that provide gastronomy education while providing training that will enable people to gain employment in the food industry. We will continue to work with the healing power of social gastronomy.
How does your career fulfill you?
Where I am now in my career fulfills me. I can see that I’ve touched a lot of people’s lives and they’ve been able to stand on their own feet. This shows me how right the work I’ve done is. It’s more than enough for me to feel rewarded for my efforts. I know that I will benefit people and society at every stage of my career from now on.
What are your professional ambitions? What’s next for Ebru Baybara Demir?
As a chef whose job begins in the soil, I am responsible for all the stages in the process from the production of food to the consumption of it. We are going through a period where the world’s resources are declining and at the same time we are going through a process where producers and production are declining. As a chef who feeds hundreds of people every day, I will not limit my profession to just cooking, and I will continue my work on the sustainability of food and water resources. The point at which we are, is not the one that can create solutions by just reducing waste.
In this process, we need to carry out joint projects with local governments that have a stronger feet on the ground. Our projects should not be just about the region and local individuals, it needs to be social work. Working for women and refugees in Mardin, I have seen what a small grass-roots movement can achieve.
Now is the time for our gastronomic school’s project. We are opening six gastronomy schools in six cities in Turkey. Funded by the United Nations’ World Food Programme, six hundred people from disadvantaged groups and refugees will receive training. Our goal is to help them acquire a profession in the food industry and and to provide sustainable employment.
In your opinion, what challenges women face in the food industry?
At a time when women could not work, or even go out without their father’s, husband’s or closest male relative’s permission I started a business in Mardin where only women worked. We live in a world where women in all sectors, not only food, have difficulties. It is a fact that women, especially in the food industry, are working under oppression, long working hours and with lower wages.
This situation also applies to me. I find it very difficult to explain what I do to the community I live in. It is very common to think that food and meal are just a need and consumption habit. The idea that gastronomy actually benefits countless people in the process from soil to plate is not accepted in Turkey. Therefore, our projects and achievements in Mardin are ignored. Women will continue to have difficulties in the food industry, until the idea that women can change the future of nature and society, is accepted by societies.
Tell us of one woman in the food industry who consistently inspire you and why?
Dominique Crenn is the leading chef I see as an inspiration in the food industry. Crenn’s life, her dedication to her family and her past, and her treatment of all that work in her kitchen has always been inspiring to me.When I watched her life story, I saw that she was a self-made woman. As well as being a female chef with 3 Michelin stars, she is also very sensitive to social issues.
What do you think can be done to help raise the profile and visibility of women in the food industry?
The first thing we have to do is to believe in women. Cooking is seen as women’s duty at home, and in professional kitchens, men mostly come to the fore. But I see women as carriers of cultural codes. Different cultures and tastes coexist in the land where I live. It is women who best reflect these on the plate and carry these cultural codes with food. What I’ve been doing for years is supporting women in the kitchen and opening doors to make them more active and creative in professional kitchens. My journey in Mardin started with this purpose and the number of women we work with is increasing every day.
What was the proudest moment of your career so far?
Both in Turkey and in the world, unfortunately, women face many challenges. This situation was also very severe in Mardin. Women couldn’t even get out without permission, let alone work outside. I believe I changed that in Mardin. While serving food in my restaurant every evening, after dinner my team serves food with a special dance show with me, and they’re proud of doing it. Their self-confidence, their desire to prove themselves to people in a process over 20 years makes me proud at every moment. No reward in my life can come before this feeling of appreciation.
What advice would you give your younger self?
I got into business at a very early age, during my University education. I gained a lot of experience in this process, but if I could go back I would like to live my university time to the full extent and live in a different country for at least 2 years. So the advice I would give to young Ebru would be “enjoy the University term and go abroad to see different people, different places.” However, despite all the experiences I gained at an early age, I did work to change not only my own life, but the fate of the people of a city. In my early years in Mardin, I was threatened and pressured, but I did not give up my goal. Because young Ebru was always determined, decisive and courageous. I want to thank her for not giving up her path and her goals despite the difficulties she experienced. If it wasn’t for the brave decisions she made at a young age, maybe I wouldn’t be here right now.
What are the top skills required to do your job and why?
When I went to Mardin, twenty years ago, everyone but especially my family, tried to dissuade me and make me return to Istanbul. However, I have trusted the power of women who create out of nothing and in more than twenty years, I have brought together people not only from Mardin but also from Turkey and all over the world with our food.
I think my best skill is to be able to organize quickly and make decisions fast. Because of where I live in and because the work I do is constantly changing, if I want to be successful, I need to adapt quickly to these changes, make quick decisions and always have a plan B. I achieved this.
In addition, courage and determination were also very important factors in my work. It was very important for me to have those abilities so that you can move on while no one believes you or even tries to prevent you from reaching your goal.
What is a herb you think is underrated and how can it be used better?
I don’t think wheat gets the importance it deserves. People are not aware of this, but wheat is the most essential nutrient. At least in our society, even if there is nothing to eat, our people can fill their bellies by eating bread. We know that 70 years ago there were eighteen thousand types of wheat and wheat spread from Mesopotamia as an agricultural product. But this situation is changing day by day and the danger alarm is ringing for the future of wheat. We may not be able to eat meat in the coming periods, but if we run out of wheat, we will have a situation where many people will go hungry. We are trying to prevent this. We are reviving the oldest wheat seeds, the source of life, in Mesopotamia by traditional methods.