Esra Muslu

Esra Muslu

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The success of Moreish led to Esra being offered the opportunity to open five further restaurants in Istanbul, each of which was totally different in style from the rest ('I don’t like any of my restaurants having the same identity; each has to be totally unique'). These proved just as much of a hit as Moreish but after a while Esra took the decision to step away all six of the restaurants, ‘everything had happened quite quickly and I wanted to slow down a bit,’ she explains, ‘I was working seven days a week at one point. So, I spoke to the team and we parted ways. The idea was that I was going to write a cookbook during that time but I never finished it because other things kept coming along.’

Esra’s time away from the kitchen didn’t last long and she soon took up the position of head chef at Soho House Istanbul – a role which ultimately led to her moving back to London in 2017 to lead the kitchen at Shoreditch House, and then at Ottolenghi Spitalfields. All the while however, she was starting to think about opening another restaurant of her own, and this time she wanted the focus to be on the wide-ranging food of her native Istanbul, and in particular the home-style food she grew up eating.

Zahter opened its doors in 2021 and saw Esra source everything from the floor tiles to the kitchen equipment from Turkey, to give it the sense of uniqueness that she prides herself on, ‘I love the idea that you won’t see the same stuff anywhere else,’ she says, ‘because nearly everything’s hand-made rather than produced by machines.’ The same goes for Zahter’s menu, which features traditional dishes from all corners of Turkey, most of which wouldn’t typically appear on the average Turkish menu in London, ‘I want to show people a style of Turkish food that people in London are less familiar with,’ explains Esra. ‘It’s also amazing when Turkish customers come up to me and say ‘my grandma used to do this, how did you find it?’’

Much of the menu at Zahter is cooked in an impressive wood oven, which, as well as harking back to her memories of the wood ovens in Istanbul as a child, represents a move back towards more traditional techniques for Esra, ‘as I’ve got older, I’ve definitely got more old-school,’ she laughs, ‘old methods like using a wood oven may take a lot more time but the flavours are totally different from anything you’d get in an electric oven.’ A lot of chefs with the experience of Esra find themselves less and less involved in the day-to-day running of the kitchen but it’s still the cookery itself that really motivates her, ‘if I’m out the kitchen for even four or five days, I start to miss it,’ says Esra, ‘that’s how much I love cooking and challenging myself. It’s just never felt like work for me.’

It’s no easy task bringing a style of cuisine to London which people might not be hugely familiar with, but the combination of Esra’s wealth of experience, her passion for traditional Turkish food and of course her infectious love for cookery has won her many fans. Her food may not be what we people have come to expect of a British Turkish restaurant, but that’s what makes it so enticing and ensures she’ll continue serving to busy dining rooms for a long while to come.