Esra Muslu

Esra Muslu

Esra Muslu

Having grown up in Istanbul and opened a series of restaurants there, Esra Muslu relocated to London in 2017, where she made it her aim to showcase the regionality of Turkish cuisine through her food.

With a wealth of experience behind her running restaurants in Turkey, Esra Muslu turned heads in London with her take on traditional Istanbulite cuisine at her restaurant Zahter. Esra’s family were always incredibly food-focused and she had a distinct memory as a child of going with them to buy fresh bread from the local bakery every week, ‘they had this wood oven that they’d cook the bread inside,’ she explained, ‘I remember being fascinated by it. The bread would come out so hot that you could just cut it in half and put butter and salt on it and the taste would just be amazing.’ Growing up in Istanbul, she was also witness to the breadth of Turkish cuisine, which would ultimately inspire her later in her career, ‘so many different types of cuisine all come together in Instanbul,’ she explained, ‘there’s amazing street food and different regional specialities, and then there’s a separate home style of cookery, which you won’t find outside the house.’

Throughout her teens, Esra started to cook for her sister after school while her parents were working, but it was when she moved to London to study aged eighteen that she began to take more of interest in cookery. Esra’s Jewish landlady began teaching her various techniques, showing her how to make traditional Jewish dishes and introducing her to flavours she hadn’t tried before, and within a year she’d decided she wanted to cook professionally.

To develop her cookery skills further, Esra decided to move to Melbourne to attend culinary school, ‘I wanted to go to Australia as I was fascinated by different cuisines,’ she said, ‘and I think it’s one of the best places you can go to learn different styles of cookery because it’s a melting pot of different cultures.’ Having finished her training, in 2004 Esra returned to Istanbul and began working in a café restaurant, and despite the lack of women working in professional Turkish kitchens at the time, she worked her way up the ranks over the coming few years, before moving to a different restaurant to become head chef.

Although she enjoyed working in these more casual restaurants at the start of her career, by 2007 Esra was wanting to focus on a more refined style of cookery and she decided to partner with a friend and fellow chef to open her first restaurant Moreish, in the Beyoğlu district of the city. ‘We wanted to do a fine dining take on traditional Istanbulite cuisine, so we’d do things like smoking aubergines and making a soup out of it and making beetroot ice cream. It was incredibly popular because there weren’t many fine dining restaurants in Istanbul at that time, so we even started to get attention overseas.’

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 explained, ‘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 prided herself on, ‘I love the idea that you won’t see the same stuff anywhere else,’ she said, ‘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,’ Esra explained. ‘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, ‘as I’ve got older, I’ve definitely got more old-school,’ she said, ‘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 was always the cookery itself that really motivated her, ‘if I’m out the kitchen for even four or five days, I start to miss it,’ she said, ‘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 won her many fans. Her food may not have been what people expected of a British Turkish restaurant, but that’s what made it so enticing.

In August 2023, it was confirmed that Esra had died. In a post from Zahter, Esra was described as a 'visionary founder'. 'Her vibrant spirit and unwavering positivity touched us all,' the post continued. 'With heavy hearts, we share the news of her peaceful departure this morning. Her legacy will forever live on in our hearts.'