Kemal Demirasal: “We might sell kebabs, but we’re not a kebab house”

By Joe Lutrario

- Last updated on GMT

Chef Kemal Demirasal on his The Counter Turkish restaurant in Ladbroke Grove

Related tags Kemal Demirasal The Counter Turkish cuisine London

The high-profile Turkish chef behind Ladbroke Grove’s The Counter on importing his ingredients direct, advanced offal cooking techniques and his partnership with goat champions Cabrito.

Why did you launch The Counter in such a low-key manner?

I have been involved since the restaurant launched last year but I didn't initially want my name linked with the project. Through previous projects I’ve learnt that expectations can be high when there is a named chef. The Counter is our first project in the UK so I wanted to make sure the restaurant was settled before we made a big deal about it.

Do you have partners?

I'm working with a UK-based investment company. We have a few more projects in the works including a more casual concept based around Turkish wrapped kebabs. The ingredients will be as good quality as those we use at The Counter but it will be served in a more low-key way. We also want to open a version of my Turkish seafood restaurant YEK, which is located in my hometown of Alaçatı on Turkey’s west coast. We are already piloting that one with seafood nights at The Counter but we won’t launch it until next year at the earliest. I’m not the sort of chef that launches lots of things quickly as that rarely works out well.

You're best known for your avant-garde restaurant Alancha. Why did you close it? 

The restaurant market in Istanbul was hit very badly by the terrorist attack that happened in 2017. It was even worse for Alancha because we were nearly completely reliant on overseas guests. On top of that, it was a huge operation, we had 50 guests per night and a 70-strong team. But what we learnt at Alancha goes into what we do at The Counter so I don’t see that project as a failure.

Tell us about your background

I was a professional windsurfer prior to getting into restaurants. I realised I wanted to do something different at 26 but I didn’t want to go to culinary school or work under another chef. I didn’t grow up in restaurants but at that point my mum was running a restaurant in my hometown and wanted out so I took it on. It was a learning curve initially but I soon started researching all sorts of different cuisines and travelling round the world visiting ambitious restaurants as a customer. It helped that the restaurant was closed for six months a year, it allowed me to focus on development. I went on to open a number of different restaurants in Turkey but now operate only YEK.

Are you importing your ingredients directly from Turkey?

Yes. This is one of the things that set us apart from other Turkish restaurants in the UK. The ingredients that form the basis of our kitchen are imported directly from back home including olive oil, pomegranate molasses, tahini, olives, cheese and salt. We do it once or twice every few months. It’s a lot of effort in terms of paperwork but it’s worth it.

Your key fresh ingredient is lamb. Is what is available in the UK different to what you get in Turkey?

Yes very much so. I would not say one is better than the other, they are just different because the animals have different diets. We use halal meat not for religious reasons but because there is less blood which makes for a better, more crumbly kebab. We are very happy with the quality of the meat here in the UK.

There’s a lot of offal on your menu. Is it popular?

A lot of people said we would struggle to get UK diners to eat offal but it sells well. Ingredients like liver and head cheese are very popular in Turkey and we have developed some clever techniques to get the best from them. For example before we grill the liver we remove all the veins and cut it very small before marinating it with isot and sumac, which draws out the blood. We then cook it through to get rid of any remaining blood. When all these things come together the results are amazing.

What else does The Counter do differently to other Turkish restaurants in the UK?

We butcher our lamb chops in a different way so they are quite thin and we sear them on the flesh side rather than the fat side as most UK Turkish restaurants do. We also cook our lamb to just beyond medium rather than medium rare. When lamb is cooked like this you get a better, more complex taste that works well with the spices that we use. But it’s also about the overall experience. We are serving a wide variety of Turkish dishes alongside quality wines. We might sell kebabs, but we’re not a kebab house

Your wine list is focused on Turkish wines. How has that been received?

Most people know little about Turkish grapes or the country’s wine producing areas but they are keen to try it. It helps that Turkish wines offer good value for money, even the ones that we sell at a higher price because they are rare.

Tell us about your partnership with Cabrito

We are just about to launch a limited-edition tasting menu in celebration of kid goat season. We love goat in Turkey especially at this time of year when the meat is at its most tender. It’s a nose-to-tail menu that features dishes including kid saddle tartare; kid fillet skewer; grilled kid chops; and goat neck with green fava beans. For a small supplement we do a trio of offal (heart, liver and kidney). The menu will be available for lunch or dinner, from Sunday to Thursday from 24 April to 29 May, for a maximum of 10 covers per day.

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