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Movers & Shakers: Süreyya Gökeri brings a taste of her heritage to Café Turko

Welcome to Movers & Shakers; a series where we look deep into PNW life for people who are making moves, doing big things, and who are just - in general - being rad. Seattle is full of multi-talented and multi-faceted people, many at the intersection of technology and the arts. How do they find the time? What's their secret? Well friends, we're here to find out. Meet Movers & Shakers; aka Seattle Refined attempting to capture the not-so-secret lives of impressive locals. Have a recommendation for us? Email hello@seattlerefined.com.

Süreyya Gökeri, co-owner and chef extraordinaire at Café Turko, had an early epicurean start in life. Born and raised in Gaziantep, a charming Ottoman Empire town and the culinary center of Turkey, her formative years were all about food.

Gökeri is the keeper of old recipes in dog-eared books, family traditions, and culture of her city.

"Food was everywhere around me—all the time," she said. "Everyone in Gaziantep brags about how well they eat and how much they know about cooking. I grew up in a huge house and have memories of climbing on fruit trees to harvest apricots, pistachios, and walnuts with my cousins. We plucked fresh grapes from the vine and grew our own artichokes."

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Gökeri learned how to cook at her grandmother's feet when she was a little girl in pigtails. The dining table was always groaning with food, conversations were lively, and the food was eaten family-style. Hospitality is a way of life for the Turks. It is ingrained deeply into their traditions, and reflects on the way Gökeri runs Cafe Turko,

"My family lived in a sprawling three-storied home with grandma and grandpa on the main level. My grandma would entertain about fifty people at a time, at least once a week. We always had many guests. That's why we love to invite people over for dinner. Hospitality and sharing are big parts of the culture."

Gökeri considered food her heritage.

"As a kid, I was too short to see the cake baking in the oven, so I would climb on the counter to watch it rise. My grandma would quiz us grandchildren about spices," she said. "Café Turko is the daughter I never had."

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The Gökeris owned a successful retail store in Fremont, selling imported gifts from Turkey. Along came 2008 and the Great Recession, and business turned slow. Little did Gökeri know at that time that it was a blessing in disguise.

"I used to teach Turkish cooking at PCC, and was quite a popular instructor there. When the recession hit, my Import gift business suffered. I decided to open a cafe in the same premises and was fortunate to have a great landlady who made it happen for me. Within six months of opening, Café Turko became a buzzing destination."

Café Turko has a personality of its own, and a lively one at that. The decor is a smorgasbord of color and kitsch. It is reminiscent of a Turkish yurt with Islamic art, colorful lanterns, statement mirrors, and gorgeous tapestries. Gökeri is a decor person, and the vibrant interiors at Cafe Turko showcase her experience in that arena.

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"I put my heart and soul in it. I brought my culinary skills and 20 years of retail and merchandising experience to the table. I know decor. I decorated the restaurant with my own hands like it was my own house - old textiles, lamps, thrifted furniture."

It is not just the interiors that are a riot of colors. Gökeri dresses up the food just as pretty. "Food is our merchandise, and we know how to sell it well. I created a dish called rainbow hummus - a platter with four kinds of hummus - Yam, beet, spinach and traditional."

The food at Café Turko is hugely influenced by the Gökeri's personal life, culinary ethos and family. Turkish breakfasts are the real deal. Take their "mother-in-law breakfast," for instance.

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"Basically this is what my late mother-in-law would eat every morning: Turkish olives, hard-boiled egg, kefir cheese, tomatoes, cucumbers, dried apricots, olive oil and artisan bread," Gökeri explains.

As master chef, Gökeri is a veritable force in the kitchen and has complete mastery over the grill. Most of these dishes are inspired by Gökeri's own comfort corner when it comes to food.

"Sour, spicy and salty - these are the flavors of my childhood. I love pickles, cheese, olives - things that have a tang to them." The hummus at Cafe Turko has an addictive tanginess to it and isn't as creamy as hummus usually is.

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In the early days, Gökeri made her infamous Ali Nazik (translation: Made by Gentle Hands) using a mini convection oven.

"Ali Nazik is a dish that takes me back to my childhood days. It is grilled meat with eggplant and a garlic yogurt sauce. I just love to dip my bread in that sauce. In the beginning, we didn't even have a stove. Everything was made in the oven. A customer told me he could take a bath in that delicious sauce!"

When it comes to food here, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The kebabs are pure sorcery, with delicately spiced meat that melts on your tongue instantly. Think meat that just falls apart at the mere suggestion of a fork, salad for freshness, smoky baba ganoush, garlicky hummus, creamy tzatziki to tone down all the heat, and soft pita to mop it all up with. The show's star is the meat, and the garnishes, accompaniments, and flounces play spectacular supporting roles.

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That is not to say the vegetarian dishes are not as good. In fact, even die-hard carnivores would not miss meat in their eggplant beyti. Think succulent, sautéed eggplant wrapped up with marinated peppers and salty feta cheese in lavash bread. It is all crispy from outside and soft, umami goodness inside. To wash it all down, try their rose mocktail — where Gökeri takes the classic lemonade and gives it an exotic, fragrant rose flavor. The only thing that can make it better, in our humble opinion? If you have the luxury to take a snooze after a decadent meal.

Remember to keep room for dessert! Gaziantep claims to be the birthplace of the legendary baklava. While the jury is still out on that one, we can personally testify that Gökeri makes some pretty mean baklava. They have a mystic quality to them - buttery, flaky pastries drenched in honeyed syrup, and studded with pistachios. The magical quality? These can disappear instantly! For the weight-conscious, she whips up a "no-guilt baklava" that has lesser butter and sugar than its more-calorific counterpart. Talk about having your cake (or baklava, in this case!) and eating it too.

You'd be hard-pressed to find a more versatile Turkish or Mediterranean menu anywhere else in the city. They have gluten-free, vegan and dairy-free options. While dine-in service is currently shut, do continue to support Café Turko by ordering takeout or catering. Travel to far-off historic lands with delicious pide, moist kebabs and the sinful baklava while comfortably curled up on your couch. Got a not-so-curious case of cabin fever? An exotic, gastronomic journey might be the perfect (epi)cure.

Looking to support more small businesses like Cafe Turko? We're proud to collaborate with Intentionalist, an online guide that makes it easier for you to find/connect with diverse local businesses owned by women, people of color, veterans, members of the LGBTQ community, and people with disabilities.

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