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The Interview: Hseyin zer, Owner, Sofra Restaurants

Published:  23 July, 2008

How did a poor boy from Turkey manage to put his stamp on the London restaurant scene?
It wasn't really planned. I came to the UK to learn English, and then I stayed because I love it here. I love the culture, the people and I love London. London is Miss World to me. As for the restaurant, I bought it for my girlfriend at the time. I didn't have any money, but the bank liked my idea and gave me a loan. One minute I was cooking my favourite foods for just myself and Linda, and the next minute we had a queue outside the door.

Turkish food in the UK was pretty much restricted to the kebab shop before Sofra came along. Do you consider yourself a trailblazer for the current trend with Middle Eastern cuisine?

Yes, you could say that. While people like Nico Ladennis and Anton Mossiman were showing the way forward in the UK for French cooking, I did the same for the Middle East. I was the first person to do this, and now they're all copying me in Turkey. Although, the food I make isn't for Turkish people any more than it is for the British; I make the things that I like, and luckily, this has proved to be popular. To start with, I didn't even care about selling it - I just wanted to eat it!

You have a few Turkish wines on your list, but in general you haven't shown a particular bias to any country. How do you choose the wines?

Basically, I'll try anything that's new and good value, and if I like it, I'll add it to the list. I think there are a lot of pretensions surrounding wine, and I don't believe in having certain wines with certain food - none of this white-wine-with-fish nonsense. I've never had any wine education (or indeed any education), but I love wine and I've learnt what I like purely through drinking and constantly trying new things.

Turkish winemakers are trying very hard to break into the UK market. Don't you feel inclined to help them?

If I am approached with a great Turkish wine, then sure, I'll add it to the list. But this stands for any country. I agree that my wine list is the best possible exposure for Turkish winemakers, but where are they? I'm not hearing from them at the moment. One of my friends is a Turkish wine supplier and I will always try to support him; I want to keep him in business after all! In my opinion, Turkish winemakers have to bring the prices down until they've made a name for themselves. People are coming here for a reasonably priced meal, and they won't pay out for an expensive Turkish wine that they've never heard of. At the moment, I want to list wines from different places because my customers are all from different places.

Why did you decide to write a cookbook, and has it been a success?

HarperCollins came to me and insisted that I write this book. The recipes in the book are all mine, and it's a big success around the world. The only problem is the price.

It was supposed to sell for 10, but the publishing house has put it up to 13. I'm not happy about this, so I've bought a huge pile of them [and I'm] selling them for 10 in the restaurants. I have no interest in ripping people off, and this is my philosophy for the whole business: good, healthy food at a reasonable price. It's virtually impossible to get these three things together, especially in London, and this is what I believe I have done with Sofra. Seventeen years ago, I brought in two dieticians to help me put the menu together, and I have kept this consultancy going to bring me up to date with changing health trends.

What's your view of new competition in the shape of reasonably priced Lebanese and Greek restaurant chains?

I don't see this as competition; we all help to make a market for Middle Eastern food, and I see them as my brothers. It's far better to be part of a fruitful forest than stuck in a desert on your own. I am actually teaching people how to open Turkish restaurants, and if they want to open one next door to me, then no problem. I am genuinely happy to teach people how to copy me, and people are now opening up Sofra-style restaurants all over the world. I would also help to train anyone who wants to set up a Sofra franchise in the UK, outside of London. Although, I would prefer this to be taken on by somebody British, rather than Turkish, because it is a chain concept, and I would want the Turkish food to continue to be made in my style. Turkish people might be more inclined to let their own tastes creep in.

So what's the next challenge for you?

I definitely have plans for more restaurants, but it'll have to wait until next year. This year I'm having a break.

Ozer Restaurant, 5 Langham Place, Regent Street, London W1

Hseyin zer was born in Resadiye, in rural Turkey. He ran away from home at the age of 10 and worked in various positions in the Turkish catering industry before moving to London in 1975. He bought his first takeaway outlet in 1981 and quickly turned it into a sit-down restaurant called Sofra (eating table'). This Mayfair site was one of the first acclaimed Turkish restaurants to open in London. The menu, featuring the now-popular traditional mezes, grills and local specialities, was a huge contrast to the takeaway kebab shops already prevalent throughout the UK. The success of Sofra restaurant led to the opening of a second site in Covent Garden (1994), a third in St Christopher's Place (1996), a fourth in St John's Wood (2003) and a fifth in Exmouth Market (2004). The slightly more upmarket Ozer Restaurant, near Oxford Street,

also joined the ranks in 1999. The Sofra Cookbook was published by HarperCollins in 1998, and Ozer donates the proceeds to his own foundation in Turkey, which goes towards the education of poor children in his birth town. Matthew Clark is the drinks supplier for the Sofra chain.