Explore Leiths Diploma Open House – 5th June 2024


Alumni Stories: Civan Er

Turkish chef Civan Er is the chef patron of Yeni Lokanta in Istanbul and its sister restaurant Yeni in Soho, London. Born and raised in Istanbul, Er studied the Advanced Certificate in Food and Wine at Leiths in 2005. He spoke to us about his culinary influences, modern Turkish cuisine, and why London is a great city in which to operate.

You come from Istanbul. How did you end up at Leiths?

“I studied economics back home in Istanbul and came over here to do my master’s in international relations. When I was doing that, I had to work somewhere so I started looking for a job. Cooking was already a hobby of mine ever since I was a child so I thought I should be working in a kitchen. Even if I didn’t utilise the experience professionally, I’d be a better home cook. I could only find a job in a Turkish restaurant and I worked there for about two years. After two years in that kitchen, I decided to go to culinary school. Because I already had some skills, knife skills and so on, I didn’t do the full year. I did just one term and was awarded student of the term.”

How was your experience of Leiths?

“It was tough actually, tougher than I expected. They paid a lot of attention to hygiene which was very good and I got to learn about the theoretical side of cooking. I found the teachers very knowledgeable. They were ex professionals who’d worked in the industry before which was a good thing for me.”

You said you enjoyed cooking as a child. How did you start cooking?

“I did cakes mostly, helping my mother like everyone else who is into cooking from that age. My mum is a very good domestic cook and she bought all these food magazines in Istanbul. Whenever I was at home on my own, I used to grab those magazines and go through them picture by picture, taking three, four hours to decide on one dish. The majority were tasteless; they were just made for the pictures, to be seen. In those days it was different; I think over here as well now [food media] is more taste-oriented, more real.”

What did you do after Leiths?

“I had already decided to go back to Turkey after culinary school. Military service is compulsory for male adults in Turkey so I did my military service as a chef, then looked for a job in Istanbul. I ended up in a fusion restaurant called Changa. Changa [and sister restaurant] Müzede Changa were both quite famous then; one was on the 50 Best list, the other was Wallpaper magazine’s best new restaurant. After two years in their kitchen, I became the head chef. When I started at Changa, it was mainly far eastern fusion. I changed the menu gradually and made it something more east Mediterranean. Although I’m not from the south-eastern part of Turkey, we had neighbours who were from Antakya, very close to the Syrian border. Their food was very much influenced by Arabic culture. From an early age, I was very familiar with spices and stuff like pomegranate molasses when nobody knew about pomegranate molasses apart from the people who are from that region. I was very into that kind of food and was always trying to put something from that area into my food. After a few years, the menus became more Anatolian-oriented, more of a modern take on Turkish cuisine.”

When did you decide to open your own place?

“After working at Changa for about three years, I was approached by a newspaper called Hürriyet to write their Sunday food column. I did so for about three and a half years, giving them a recipe of mine every week, a recipe that allowed me to play around with local ingredients and come up with new flavours. Those recipes piled up and I had a collection of more than 200 recipes. It was then that I thought, I have a collection of recipes, why don’t I actually do my own restaurant?”

“We found a spot in a neighbourhood which is the equivalent of Soho in London. Yeni means new and lokanta, like locanda, means restaurant. We just celebrated its tenth anniversary. We have a wood-fired oven; we do our own sourdough bread, ice creams, vinegars, even housemade tonic.”

What inspired you to open another Yeni in London?

“2016 was a difficult time in Turkey, with terrorist attacks in Istanbul which made it difficult to do business. Half of our customers were tourists and they stopped coming. It was then that my business partner and I decided to invest elsewhere. London was a place I was already familiar with so we decided to come here. It took us three, four years to find the right site, and we opened Yeni on Beak Street in 2019. For the last five years I have been mostly in London. I go to Istanbul every two months or so, but my home is here for the time being.”

What kind of food do you cook in London?

“We try to do a modern take on Turkish cuisine using flavours mostly from Turkey. The food reflects the geography and the culture of where I come from, that’s how I can describe it, it’s my take on Turkish cuisine. Manti is our best-known dish. It’s a classic dish in Turkey like tortelloni in Italy or wontons in China. It’s a very classic dish, normally served with warm yoghurt and chilli butter. Usually, the filling is mincemeat and onions. We double ferment goats and cows yoghurt for two and a half days and we make a sauce out of that using spices. It’s something different from classic manti. People in London are quite familiar with different ingredients and they are eager to go experimental. I feel very comfortable here.”