Cooking with LOVE

I was born in a village. My parents separated. I lived with my grandfather. When I was supposed to go to primary school at the age of seven, my father disowned me. My older brother tried to poison me. My grandfather grew old and I became an unwanted child. I learned how to write by writing on walls and rocks with charcoal.

I herded goats. My mother got angry about this. She sent me to Ankara to earn money for a gun so I could shoot my father. I was a homeless child. I twice wrote to our president Demirel to educate me but didn’t get a positive reply. I slept in a public toilet in Sıhhiye, fuelled up lighters in Ulus square. I had borrowed 20TL to travel to Ankara from my village. I paid 40TL in return for that 20TL. Then I got a job in a bar and rented a coal bunker to sleep in at night. I bought books and decided to learn English. I founded the Hüseyin Özer Eğitim Vakfı (Hüseyin Özer Education Trust) with my first wage. Then I went to İstanbul. I found myself an English tutor. I fulfilled my obligation for military service then came to London by bus because I had no money for a plane ticket. I went on an English course in London and worked in a doner kebab shop, then I bought that doner kebab shop and turned it into a restaurant. I hired a nutritionist so I could cook healthy food. I created queues at the door of that restaurant which had been a bad business for 30 years and had been bankrupt many times over. I refined the Turkish food, and made the windows bulletproof so that the ambassador could eat there.

During the economic depression, I created cafes where we served healthy, reasonably priced food and at times even allowed the customers to determine the price they paid.

So this is how the chain was born. After some time I sold the cafes. Our restaurants now are situated in some of the most important areas of London. One is named Özer, and others are Sofra. I have contributed to the Turkish-English Chamber of Commerce for many years, sponsoring the Civil Society Organization in London.

Our restaurants have been the first and only Turkish restaurants recommended by the Michelin Guide. Our restaurants distribute Turkish tourism brochures. We promote good Turkish food and hospitality. Our English cookbook ‘Sofra’’ is still in print and sells worldwide.

Since 2003 my thoughts and feelings about London have been attracting visitors in the audio presentation section of the Museum of London. The documentary prepared by Discovery Channel about my life has been shown in about 60 countries and on 5 channels; daily messages have also been left on our website by viewers from all over the world.

A great part of our success lies in the training we offer which is very much based on our beliefs.

The restaurant business is an art. We teach communication skills: how to care for people; to value them without discriminating regarding race, ethnicity, religion; to welcome our guests with the right body language and to look after them well; to be one hundred percent honest; to teach that eating itself is an art, and to eat healthily is essential.

We also teach the managing of a restaurant: the cooking and serving; menu preparation; how to run a restaurant; how to deal with economic crises; being aware of the market; and knowing the customer profile in the locality. We have been teaching all this and have produced at least 20 millionaires; many of our previous employees have gone back to Turkey and have worked in big companies as general managers, or as bankers, as academics, in the government. Around 60-80 restaurants which use our menu are run by our former employees.

In fact we teach anything related to being a restauranteur: we teach science, waiting at table or at the bar, cooking, pastry making, and Turkish food and how to manage.

We are partnered with Middlesex University. We do not teach at the university; the university comes to us. According to the Dean, this is unique. The students assigned to us have a job, are earning money and eat at the restaurant. We are a foundation and are not funded for the time they spend with us.

The restaurant business is challenging at the best of times. I hope that what we have achieved in our restaurants so far and the training that we provide will continue to please our customers, both here in London and elswhere.