Cemal Ülman is a man known to many in Istanbul. Press members have had, and continue to have, a media frenzy over his seafood industry skill at Arşipel restaurant on the Bosphorous waters in Kuruçeşme.
I was invited to dine with him.
It was a fine dining evening filled with life lessons in seafood appreciation.
Arşipel restaurant owner Cemal Ülman stands in front of a seafood cabinet with a variety of twenty different fish. He picks up one, holds it to my nose and says ‘smell it’.
I do as I am told… I smell nothing.
He then gives me a piece of advice, ‘When you walk into a seafood restaurant, if you can smell fish… walk out.’
This is my first seafood lesson. Like an eager student I take notes, scribbling quickly over the pages of my small notebook.
During the evening I scribble more, listing the many important rules and somehow also find myself writing the words ‘circus’, ‘Iran’ and ‘Nairobi’.
How do I even begin to tell his tale?
Perhaps, let’s begin with rule two.
#Two – ‘The more you play with a fish the more you spoil it… the flavours are lost’.
The selection of cold and hot seafood appetizers take heed to this simple rule and place olive oil and lemon as the two most important ingredients in the Arşipel kitchen.
Raw prawns, smoked prawns, salted bonito, raw levrek, octopus. I lean my nose down to each dish with a smothering of oil and lemon. I inhale… still nothing.
There is no ‘fishy’ smell. No ‘fishy’ taste. I am being re-trained in the art of seafood dining.
I start to understand why each Turkish newspaper has printed a piece on Cemal and Arşipel. The prestigious articles can be found lining the wall at the restaurant entrance.
He tells me he originally thought word of mouth was the most important thing in a restaurant business. But, eventually the media found him. ‘If you do something right,’ he says, ‘the media find out. It’s their job to find the best things.’
He casually tells me this method is very different to the time he owned a circus in Africa and they would have to push for promotions, getting a girl to walk down the street with a lion for attention.
I swallow my raw prawn and grab my pen! Circus?!
The tale begins… At the age of 17, Cemal arrived into Nairobi as an International student after losing the family circus to a fire in Iran.
He says there was no such entertainment in Africa in those days, so it was only a natural progression to re-launch the circus business into Africa with his uncle.
On the side he learnt skills as a knife thrower and tells me weight, distance and timing are the most crucial elements to this difficult act, killing my suspicion that it is based on pure luck.
Whether it be touring Africa with knives in hand or running a seafood restaurant in Istanbul, Cemal learns the specifics and golden rules of each trade. He understands there is always a right and wrong way to do things.
The right way in the restaurant business brings us to rule #three; Food has to be your natural passion.
Rule #four, #five and #six; Fish must be stored correctly, it shouldn’t even smell when it is cooking (the fish smell is bacteria) and a fish that has been caught at the right time and cooked at the right temperature, will not even need a squeeze of lemon.
My plate of Black Sea mezgit and BBQ blue fish arrives. I leave the lemon to the side.
There are a thousand positives, but also one lingering negative… Thanks to Arşipel my future dining experiences in Istanbul have been limited. From now on I can never again dine at any other seafood restaurant.
I have been introduced to perfection and will not be able to turn my back to it.
I have been Arşipeled… and have never been happier.
Written by Sheldon Heyes
Suggestions: I hope your hungry… Special salad. Seafood cold appetizers – raw prawns, smoked prawns, salted bonito, natural squid, raw levrek with ginger and lime, raw red mullet. Hot seafood appetizers – hot oysters (put sea salt and lemon on it), octopus, butter cooked prawns. Main meal – BBQ blue fish, black sea mezgit. Dessert – pear tart, lemon dessert.
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