Meet the Chef Blending the Culinary Arts With Changing the World

This award winner is serving up a menu flavored with kindness.

Feb 13, 2024
Special Collections: CHANGEMAKERS
Meet the Chef Blending the Culinary Arts With Changing the World | This award winner is serving up a menu flavored with kindness.

Turkish changemaker, Ebru Baybara-Demir, is not your average chef working in a restaurant or high-end hotel to cater to well-heeled locals and tourists. After graduating, she headed back to her parent’s volatile region in southeastern Turkey, not far from the border with Syria, and has been involved in cooking up a rich blend of cultural exchange and tolerance ever since, reports the Guardian.

To date, she has helped earthquake victims, refugees, and the hungry of all ages, among others, and she is also an environmentalist; all this in parallel with her pursuit of culinary excellence.

A social entrepreneur linking cooking with tourism and women’s empowerment
Mardin is a historic city of almost a million citizens in southeastern Turkey, known for its scenic views and traditional culture but one that offers few employment opportunities for women.

According to KTCHNrebel, an international online magazine for professional chefs looking to make a difference, it is also where Demir spent her early years. When she decided to move back to Mardin as an adult and an established tour guide with a dream of bringing tourism to the Anatolian city, it had nothing more than a 3-star hotel and a small diner. 

This was also the starting point of her culinary career, which was kickstarted when she heard visitors talking about being less than impressed by the city’s only hotel and restaurant. With a love of creative cooking nurtured by her mother, Demir decided to open her own home to these visitors, engaging other women in her family to prepare traditional meals for her guests.

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A post shared by Ebru Baybara Demir (@ebrubaybarademir)

After this project grew to involve more homes, Demir and 21 other women renovated a traditional Assyrian mansion leading to the opening of her first restaurant, supporting and transforming the lives of many local women as well as her own. She explains that this was so empowering for women on many levels especially as at the time, women couldn't leave their homes without permission from their husbands.

Since then, Demir has continued to support local communities. Following the devastating earthquakes in Turkey and Syria in early 2023, she helped established a soup kitchen, Gönül Mutfağı, that has served millions of meals to date and earned the support of more than 2,000 volunteers Speaking of it in our featured video, she calls it “A symbol of the transformative healing and inspiring power of gastronomy.”

Her environmental achievements are varied, and include a beekeeping project that plants local cotton seeds producing a healthy nectar for bees, and working on a program growing a local crop, “sörgul”, first cultivated in Mesopotamia thousands of years ago, as reported by Many of the smaller cooking and sustainable agricultural projects she is involved in empower women with the skills to go on and launch their own income-generating activities.

The compassion that motivates Demir to help others is always apparent. She has included both refugee and local children in workshops teaching them how to bake bread and pastries, or grow strawberries while getting to know each other. She talks about her wish to help her children’s Syrian refugee friends who don’t attend school, telling “What will they do? What will they be in the future? I have to care about them — as a mother, as a human.”

2023 winner of the ‘Nobel Prize in Gastronomy’
Demir already enjoyed a reputation that extended beyond Turkey’s borders to international conferences, TED talks and high-level advocacy. But in 2023, Demir won a respected global gastronomy award, the Basque Culinary World Prize, after two earlier nominations. As the Guardian details, this is a prize awarded by the Basque Government in Spain in recognition of a chef’s leading transformative initiatives in areas beyond the professional kitchen. These can encompass innovation, education, the environment, and social and economic development.

According to the official prize website, the decision to award it to Demir recognizes her two-decades-long pivotal involvement in initiatives tackling pressing issues. These include the migratory crisis in the region, the regeneration of local crops in the face of climate change, and her leadership in humanitarian efforts following tragic events such as the February 2023 regional earthquake. 

It also highlights how Demir has lent her energy to initiatives creating spaces for cultural integration and job placements for refugees and displaced people in what is a troubled region.

KTCHNrebel details that Demir is dedicating the substantial prize money to her initiatives benefiting local people and the environment. She will use it to make the above-mentioned soup kitchen sustainable, while she also plans to open a zero-waste restaurant that will double as a gastronomy school.

Winning the 2023 Basque Culinary World Prize, the Nobel Prize of gastronomy, is an indescribable honor. Being recognized as a “culinary force of nature” by leading experts in gastronomy is incredibly meaningful. It signifies over two decades of heartfelt dedication to a profession I deeply cherish. Receiving this award, not only as a chef but also as a Turkish woman… holds deep significance for me and my country.  Kitchen surpasses physical walls and the importance of acknowledging everyone involved in the journey of food from soil to plate,” Demir shared.

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Daphne has a background in editing, writing and global trends. She is inspired by trends seeing more people care about sharing and protecting resources, enjoying experiences over products and celebrating their unique selves. Making the world a better place has been a constant motivation in her work.
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