In the nineteenth century, a sizeable Greek population still lived throughout Anatolia. Pandeli was the son of a Greek shepherd from Niğde who had moved to İstanbul and found employment as a porter at the Customs. As a young boy, he worked in a variety of jobs including dishwasher, apprentice barber, and grocer’s helper. For a while he was hired by Hacı Haralambos’s restaurant in Bahçekapı. He also peddled piyaz (bean and onion salad) on Mercan Hill behind the Egyptian (Spice) Bazaar. He opened his first köfte (meatballs) shop in the commercial building known as Çukur Han, and then moved to other locations several times.
Among those who tasted Pandeli’s meatballs during the 1910s was Mustafa Kemal, then a young kolağası (a military rank between captain and lieutenant colonel). They developed a certain friendship, and since Pandeli knew that military salaries were paid quite irregularly during those years and that the young officer experienced financial difficulties, he opened a credit account for him, saying “You’ll pay me at the beginning of next month, beghimu (Greco-Turkish for “my lord”).” Many years later, when Mustafa Kemal —now the President of the Republic of Turkey— once again came to his shop and asked for the bill, Pandeli refused to take the money, saying with a smile, “You’ll pay me at the beginning of next month, beghimu.” “And this is why I love this man,” Atatürk exclaimed.
Back then, Pandeli used to prepare food in his small store, put the dishes on a large tray which he would place on his head, and carry them over to the Customs for sale. He slipped and fell on a snowy day, and the neighborhood dogs had a feast. In 1911, he rented a tiny shop in the Fıçıcılar Hanı building, where he competed with Yorgo, owner of a then famous restaurant. He bought his way out of military service during World War I, but had to struggle with shortages, poverty, and enemy occupation until the 1920s. Pandeli returned to his home town of Niğde for a short while, but official records for the late 1920s indicate that by then, he had severed his links to that city. The year 1926 was a turning point for him, for the new establishment he opened on Arabacılar Avenue, coupled with his long-standing reputation, quickly made him a world-renowned name. While the neighborhood was hardly suitable for the rich, those who knew him or had heard of him soon found their way to Pandeli’s restaurant. During the 1930s, his place overflowed with the litterati. The writer and poet Yusuf Ziya Ortaç mentioned the following names: “Hüseyin Cahit [Yalçın], Necmeddin Molla, Orhan Seyfi [Orhon], Faruk Nafiz Çamlıbel, Ahmed Haşim… And these days German professors [many of whom were refugees from Nazi Germany] have also discovered Pandeli…”
During his years in Ankara, Mustafa Kemal often missed Pandeli’s cooking; when he entertained guests, Pandeli’s food would be placed on the train, to be deivered to Ankara the same evening. Pandeli never felt the need to advertise his services, for his fame traveled far and wide by word of mouth. When he prepared buffet dinners for the musical excursions started by the Şirket-i Hayriyye shipping company in 1937, the latter’s advertisements mentioned “Pandeli the restorer, famous for his expertise in his art.” These new Bosphorus tours were heavily advertised in the newspapers, carrying Pandeli’s renown even further.
Though Pandeli’s was one of the few restaurants that served döner kebabı (meat grilled on a vertical spit) at the time, his fame was mostly due to the new flavors he discovered. He had been enamored of food since his childhood. When he walked by shop windows, he would wink at the food and talk to it, wondering how these mysterious dishes were prepared, and imagining recipes for them. Hence, it would not be accurate to think of Pandeli as an ordinary cook: he was a true explorer of tastes, “the master who turned cooking into an art.” He was passionate about everything in life, including the ingredients he would meticulously choose for his concoctions. One day, a rich American guest enjoyed his food so much that he offered him partnership with no money down. “Thank you,” said Pandeli, “but please ask the gentleman, where would we find the ingredients?” The businessman answered, “We can fly them in.” Pandeli replied, “How can one cook with vegetables brought by airplane? Every morning I personally choose the meat from the butcher, the fish from the fisherman, the fruits and vegetables from the wholesaler. I know where they are brought from. A beautiful rose will only grow on its own soil.” Then he turned to his friend, the photographer Şakir Eczacıbaşı who had been translating the conversation. “These businessmen,” he said, “they don’t understand cooking. They think that all it takes is money.”
It is never easy to ensure customer satisfaction in the restaurant business, and even Pandeli would be the subject of complaints; but these complaints were often about eating too much! The great poet Ahmet Haşim could never have enough of Pandeli’s food, and when he went too far, he would be angry at him. The decorator Selahattin Refik once said to the journalist Refi’ Cevat Ulunay, “I will no longer go to Pandeli. The food there makes me ill.” Ulunay was shocked: “How is that possible? The food there is delicious.” Selahattin Refik answered: “Yes, and that delicious food is so delicious that I cannot help myself, I eat too much, and then I feel terrible.” Another fun story about Pandeli concerned two giants of Turkish literature, the poet Yahya Kemal Beyatlı and the novelist Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar. Having dined together at Pandeli’s, they were walking out when Yahya Kemal exclaimed “Wow, this Pandeli, that was some baklava! Such sweets do not exist in heaven!” Tanpınar tried to steer the conversation back, but this time Yahya Kemal said “Wow, this Pandeli, his köfte was delicious too!” Every time Tanpınar tried to initiate a serious discussion, Yahya Kemal would go right back to Pandeli’s food…
In other words, the restaurant Pandeli faced some serious “problems” like causing people to eat too much, to think of food, and to wish to return very soon. From the 1940s on, Pandeli Lokantası became one of İstanbul’s best known eateries. By neighborhood, the most prominent restaurants at the time were Konya Lezzet Lokantası in Sirkeci, Pandeli in Eminönü, Abdullah Efendi in Emirgân, and Hacı Salih in Beyoğlu. No doubt such fame required a great measure of continuity, and Pandeli knew how to deal with adversity. During the shortages of World War II, when flour was hard to come by, he beat rice in mortars to make bread. Moreover, as necessity is the mother of invention, this idea provided inspiration for a cookie he developed in later years, made of almonds, butter, and sugar. His most powerful culinary weapons were the dishes known as “Pandeli style,” such as vegetables and stuffed Cornish game hen, sea bass en papillote, and eggplant börek (savory pastry) with döner kebabı.
By the 1950s, Pandeli’s restaurant had entertained President Celal Bayar, Prime Minister Adnan Menderes, İstanbul’s Governor Fahrettin Kerim Gökay, and other Turkish statesmen as well as such international dignitaries as the Aga Khan, Germany’s former Chancellor and Ambassador to Turkey Franz von Papen, Greek Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos, and the rulers of Finland and Spain. Everyone knew Pandeli’s idiosyncratic style and loved him as he was: “The Boss” would sit behind the counter, preparing appetizers and imbibing at the same time. When the owner and editor of the newspaper Columbia Evening asked to take his photograph, he posed at the second-floor window, dangling his legs onto the street.
Among his guests, one day, was George McGhee, the United States Ambassador to Turkey. Upon hearing that the gentleman had ordered assorted baklavas, he snapped “Eat poison! Have you asked me if I have any assorted baklava left?” Knowing his personality, the Ambassador was not offended but quietly ate what Pandeli served him, then had a pleasant conversation with him. Such outbursts rising now from the kitchen, now from among the tables had become the spirit of Pandeli Lokantası. One did not have to be a native of İstanbul to understand this. Sydney Clark wrote that Pandeli was the maestro of his restaurant, an absolute ruler. The whole restaurant would shake when he stormed at his waiters, but no one would take umbrage, and his workers loved him all the same. To know him was to love him, and his colleagues respected him, like Hacı Ahmed Doyuran of the Konyalı restaurant, as the “taste expert of the century.”
Alas all this could not protect Pandeli’s restaurant from being looted during the dark days of the 6-7 September 1955 pogrom. Years of efforts were laid to waste and the locale was beyond repair. Pandeli took it to heart as only a child or an artist would, and did not leave his home for days. Having recently graduated from the Medical School, his son Hristo was busy making plans for advanced studies in the United States even as he helped his father at the restaurant. When it became known through the press that Pandeli was quitting the restaurant business as a result of the destruction of his establishment, the Governor of İstanbul sprang into action. The Prime Minister and President were informed of the situation, and the famous chef was convinced, not without difficulty, to stay on. A new location was found and allocated to him by order of the state: the upper floor above the entrance of the Egyptian Bazaar. With their limited means, Pandeli and his son restored their old place at Yağcılar İskelesi and set up their new locale too. Cemal Biberci, who had started working at the restaurant at a young age, and Hristo slowly took over the business. Meanwhile, Hristo had been convinced to give up his dream of studying in the U.S. by Governor Gökay.
For a while, Pandeli continued to operate in both places. Indeed, visitors to İstanbul in those days were told not to miss Pandeli’s food, but to go to the old restaurant on Arabacılar Avenue in Zindankapı where the chef had achieved fame, as it was more authentic. By then, Pandeli’s restaurants were listed in all tourist guides and mentioned in all travelogues. Pandeli Lokantası became the first restaurant in Turkey to be government-certified as a touristic establishment. It not only provided foreign visitors with delicious Turkish food, but also welcomed them in a unique picturesque setting. In 1958, the expropriations and urban renewal mandated by the government of Adnan Menderes brought an end to the Yağcılar İskelesi restaurant. Since then, the Egyptian Bazaar restaurant has been the only representative of the tradition in Eminönü.
In its heyday, Pandeli’s menu contained 170 different dishes. While that number has been reduced to 70, still a very respectable figure, interest in the restaurant has never ceased to grow. Among past patrons whose photographs still adorn the locale are Audrey Hepburn, Robert De Niro, John Malkovich, Peter Ustinov, Roman Polanski, Sarah Jessica Parker, Daniel Day Lewis, and Burt Lancester who all enjoyed the atmosphere and food of the blue-tiled restaurant. Yes, many famous stars came to Pandeli, but there was one star for whom Pandeli never failed to displace himself: Müzeyyen Senar, known as the “Diva of the Republic.” Whenever she appeared at Çakıl Gazinosu in Aksaray or at Kristal Gazinosu in Taksim, Pandeli would rush over to listen to her, standing up and raising a toast in her honor. After a lifetime of entertaining people, feeding them and giving them joy, Pandeli Çobanoğlu died in 1967.
Like Pandeli himself, many other people who worked at the restaurant also had a lasting influence on those who met them. The writer Cahit Uçuk tells of a business lunch at Pandeli during which the famous Russian waiter who worked there kept refilling her glass with the lemon vodka he had himself prepared. He was so warm, she writes, that she could not bring herself to say “no, thanks.” The partnership between Cemal Biberci and Hristo Çobanoğlu continued until the present. In the early 2000s, they were joined by Cemal Bey’s son-in-law Naşit Aydınhan, a graduate of public administration and former teacher of literature, who came in as restaurant manager. Unfortunately he died an untimely death in 2015. His life was perhaps most simply summarized in his own words, when he said “the story of our arrival in İstanbul in order to get an education reached its conclusion at Pandeli.” After having endeavored not to let his guests feel the absence of Pandeli, Cemal Biberci is now doing his best to do without his son-in-law. As for Hristo Bey, he is now continuing his father’s legacy at another restaurant, in Athens.
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