When you hear the word “festival,” you probably think of a collection of jam bands performing to college kids in the middle of a cornfield, or perhaps some swanky soiree on the streets of SoBe, sponsored by champagne companies and studded with celebrity chefs. At least that’s the version I pictured when I was invited to attend the 12th annual International Istanbul Gastronomy Festival in February. My mind was awash with visions of vendors giving out samples of Turkish delight in a rainbow of colors, roasted meats dripping in oniony, herbaceous juices, and a never-ending line of booths where I could unravel the mysteries of Ottoman cuisine one taste at a time. Maybe there’d be a band, and I would definitely be leaving there with at least five extra pounds of heft on my figure.
Unfortunately, I didn’t get lavished with exotic eats created by the Turkish versions of Bobby Flay and Rachael Ray upon arrival, nor did I fatten my frame; instead, I found myself hungry and bitter after gawking for hours at countless culinary creations that I couldn’t taste, as the Turks have a different idea of how a gastronomy festival should be organized. That’s not to say it isn’t lively and entertaining for a while -- it just needs work, and I’ll explain.
But first, forget about my all-you-can-eat taste-a-thon fantasy: this festival centered around testing the abilities of hundreds of young chefs from around the world (but mostly from Turkey) in a series of over 40 intensive competitions. It’s far from the way these things are done in America, where guests pay for admission into an area decked out in glittering streamers, are handed a plastic plate with and insert for a wine glass, and are given the privilege of unlimited booze and gourmet bites from a wide selection of stalls, with rare instances where you have to shell out extra cash for something special, like raw oysters or caviar. Here, you got to watch as high-school and college students engaged in a series of cooking trials focusing on things like pasta, pizza, and modern Turkish cuisine using mystery boxes of ingredients, as well as artistic exploits like ice carving, floral sugarcraft, wedding cakes, and show platters of small bites a la garde manger class. Only the judges had the opportunity to fill their bellies. A bribe of twenty Turkish lira couldn’t get you a bite of baklava if you begged for it. (Trust me: I tried.)
Perhaps in the next few years the festival will become closer to my dream of a döner kebab free-for-all, but for now, the Turks at least have one aspect of a great gastronomy festival on lockdown: the talent. In addition to drawing exceptional students from all over Turkey and as far away as England, Italy, Qatar, Israel, Serbia, Malaysia, and Korea, a world-class panel of chefs flew in from across the globe to participate in judging and critiquing, some also to partake in events themselves, as certain events . To make matters more intimidating for rookie cooks, each judge donned his or her finest kitchen attire, fully loaded with fine metal medals hanging from their necks, colorful pins and sashes across their sleeves, shoulders and waists to commemorate their prowess in competition, and to exert their egos just a bit. One particular chef judge, Thomas A. Gugler, wearing what looked to be twenty-plus pounds of bling around his neck and a full color spectrum of sponsor badges emblazoned across his coat -- even made sure to put a little extra wax in the curls at the ends of his mustache, a measure that multiplied his swagger a million-fold. (Google Gugler to see just how much of a baller chef he is, I dare you.)