Murat Ovaz’s culinary career began by running away from boarding school. Now he’s wowing Melburnians with his unique take on Turkish cuisine.
After leaving boarding school in Turkey with his two cousins at 15, Murat started out as a kitchen hand in a five-star hotel before entering mandatory military service. Post service, Murat jumped back into the kitchen, working his way up the ranks of respected bars and restaurants in Turkey, including Istanbul’s Reina – one of the city’s biggest nightclubs until the devastating terrorist attack in January.
Since arriving in Australia in 2009 to challenge his cooking skills, Murat has studied and worked in top kitchens throughout New South Wales and Melbourne, including Bacchus (Newcastle), Four in Hand (Sydney) and Tulum (Melbourne). In October, Murat opened his first solo venture, Yagiz – named after his greatest influence, his grandfather – on Toorak Road in South Yarra.
We chat with Murat about Turkish wine, working with My Kitchen Rules’ Colin Fassnidge, making the move to Australia and his new restaurant, Yagiz.
How long has Yagiz been in the making?
Yagiz has been in the making since the beginning of the year. The restaurant has been built from scratch, as well as the menu, around my concept of a modern Turkish restaurant and bar.
What influences are behind the restaurant? What gap in the market did you hope to fill at the South Yarra venue?
I had a new concept in mind, as I wanted to create a menu with simple dishes [and] few ingredients, but cooked well and respected. My motto is ‘fine food with no fuss’. I think I have achieved that, with [a] Turkish influence. My offering is quite unique in Melbourne and I am pleased that the Melbourne foodies have embraced my dishes.
Can you tell us a little about the name of the restaurant, Yagiz?
Yagiz was my grandfather. My grandparents looked after me when I was young, and at 15, they put me in a boarding school with couple of my cousins. We all hated it and ran away. We all got jobs in five-star hotels and this is how I discovered my love of food and cooking. So, arguably, my grandfather – Yagiz, [which] means tall and handsome in Turkish – had the strongest influence in my life. I am pleased to see him ‘overseeing’ the restaurant – there is a big painting of Yagiz hanging in the venue, created by talented local artist, Robert Scholten.
It’s been a few months now since Yagiz first opened its doors – what has the reception been like?
I am very pleased with the way our customers have embraced my food. Our customers like our original food, our unique wine list and the ambience that we have created. Some locals have come to Yagiz a couple of times of week, to dine in the restaurant or to enjoy a Turkish Delight cocktail in the bar. It is definitely a lot of word of mouth and I am of course very pleased.
What do you think makes Turkish food unique, especially alongside Australian cuisine?
Interesting and unique ingredients, especially spices, its history and variety. It is now quite easy to find Turkish ingredients in Melbourne, so my food is very authentic.
What is different about Turkish wines? How are they best enjoyed? What are some of your favourite drops?
Turkey’s wines are still a ‘mystery’ to Australians. There is a modern resurgence of this ancient wine-growing region. Winemaking goes back to 4,000BC in the Anatolia [Asia Minor] Region. The various micro-climates allow so many different varieties of grapes to grow, with many newly rediscovered indigenous grapes. At Yagiz, we want people to share the dishes with their friends, which is the basis of Turkish cuisine, and Turkish wines go very well with this concept.
It is hard to pick a favourite, but I’ll pick our rosé: Suvla Rosé, [which contains] merlot and karasakiz, from the Gallipoli Peninsula. Such a beautiful fresh and fruity palate.
It sounds like food has taken you on a big journey around the world – when did you discover cooking?
When you run away – especially at 15 – you have got to survive and jump at the first opportunity. It was easy for me to get a job in a good hotel in Bodrum on the coast and I was lucky to find out that I liked cooking! I eventually went to Istanbul where I got great jobs. Australia was a new challenge for me and I have embraced this country and now Melbourne for the past 18 months.
What was it like working with Colin Fassnidge?
It was fun! It was very stressful at the beginning, but we developed a great working relationship. He is the best person I have ever worked with and for. I am proud to have earned his trust and [to have] become like part of his family. I learnt a lot! Colin has been very supportive of my Yagiz venture and I cannot wait to cook for him when he is in Melbourne next.
How do Australian kitchens differ from those in Istanbul?
Australian kitchens are much more intense and ego-driven. The equipment is definitely more modern and practical. You can achieve a lot more in Australian kitchens.
How were you affected by the news of the Reina nightclub attack in January? How has Istanbul’s hospitality industry coped since then?
Of course, I was affected by the attack of Reina, not only because I used to work there, but because it affected people. It was not an attack against the Reina nightclub as such, but against the culture it represented. A very sad day. Tourism has dropped because of it and a lot of restaurants have closed because of this. It has affected some of my friends and people I know.
You’ve accomplished a great deal in just eight years since moving to Australia. How have you done it? What advice would you give to chefs, especially migrant chefs, finding their feet in Australia?
Australia provides still a lot of opportunities – especially in the hospitality sector – if you are prepared to work hard. I was very lucky that I have always met the right people at the right time. I am proud to have my own restaurant after having lived less than 10 years in this beautiful country. My advice: don’t be afraid to take risks and don’t be scared of trying new things. In the kitchen, we are all working the same. At the moment, at Yagiz, we have got chefs from Turkey (of course!), South Korea, India, France, England, Nepal… in the kitchen, we all speak the same language!
Finally, what dish should we try at Yagiz? What’s the best way to enjoy it?
To pick my favourite dish is like picking your favourite child! But if I had to pick one, I would suggest the lamb liver. I know people can be a bit reluctant to try liver, but when my customers try it, they become addicted. [Enjoy it] with a beautiful glass of Vinkara Okuzgozu (our best-selling red wine), from the Ankara region.
Discover Yagiz for yourself by heading this way.