Born in Turkey in 1949, world-renowned chef Hüseyin Özer has come a long way in every possible sense. Özer was born in a tiny village in Turkey, where he taught himself to read by writing on walls and rocks with a charcoal stick. After living on the streets for several years, saving up money to buy books and study English, he moved to Istanbul in 1967 to find employment as a dishwasher. After serving in the army, Özer immigrated to England in 1975, and worked his way up from the bottom of the restaurant business, eventually acquiring the kebab shop where he worked. By 1981, he had transformed the place into the first of a line of successful cafés, which he then sold in order to start Sofra in Shepherds Market, the first of several high-end Turkish restaurants scattered across London.
Since then, Özer has appeared on BBC One’s Master Chef and in a Discovery Channel documentary about his life. He has also published a successful international cookbook, and prepared meals for royalty and VIPs across the European continent.
There are currently four Sofra Group and Özer restaurants run by Mr Özer in Covent Garden, Mayfair, St Christopher’s Place, and Oxford Circus. A busy outside catering business also provides the same food found at Sofra for a wide range of events and parties.
Each Sofra restaurant features a slightly different atmosphere and decor. Sofra St Christopher’s Place prides itself on its family-friendly atmosphere. Özer Oxford Circus is a more exclusive resturant, with chandeliers and a sumptuous atmosphere of elegance, while Sofra Mayfair is famous for its black cod. Sofra Covent Garden has undergone a full refurbishment, transformed into a modern space for all-day dining and events, with a large indoor roof garden and a relaxing lounge area offering drinks and small bites. A Juicebar serves freshly squeezed juices, along with tasty and quick takeaway food.
With the Sofra Group, Özer attempts to show customers a more refined side to Turkish dining, breaking the stereotype of Turkish food as street kebabs. As the first and only Turkish restaurants recommended by the Michelin Guide, the Sofra Group has succeeded in raising the profile of Turkish food within the gourmet world. Emphasising healthy eating and fresh, light ingredients, the Sofra Group crafts meals that are both nutritious and satisfying. Özer says of his cooking that he is a ‘devoted ambassador of revolutionised Turkish food. You will re-discover a delightful eating experience in my restaurants.’
The story of Özer’s incredible self-made success is made even more inspiring by his continued determination to give back to his community and to disadvantaged youths. He created the Huseyin Özer Foundation in Turkey and The Özer Foundation in the UK with his first pay check to help finance education for young children from under-privileged backgrounds.
The Sofra Group also has a partnership with Middlesex University’s Institute of Work Based Learning, offering a course for prospective chefs, complete with employment and hands-on experience. The course gives students the skills to learn what it takes to be a top professional chef, teaching them how to handle the business of running a kitchen and a successful restaurant.
Sofra also partners with Middlesex University to provide a masters-level business course designed to produce entrepreneurs and executives with theoretical and practical expertise. Over the course of the degree, students apply concepts and theories to practical business situations at Sofra International through case studies, company visits, mini projects and assignments, preparing them to create their own businesses or to take on entrepreneurial roles within larger corporations. Course leader Hong Woo says that Özer’s teaching allows many graduates to find ‘that little bit extra to succeed…Our students will learn from someone who has truly mastered skills like customer service and seizing business opportunities.’
Özer is also determined to give back to Turkey and his fellow countrymen. He has contributed to the Turkish-English Chamber of Commerce for many years, and a number of his employees – after learning business skills and gourmet cooking at his restaurants – later return to Turkey to start their own businesses or to exercise management skills working for large companies or the local government. Özer estimates that ‘around 60-80 restaurants that use our menu are run by our previous employees.’ The Özer Academy website comments on the international nature of his work: ‘From humble beginnings in rural Turkey, Özer has risen to become an international ambassador for his country and a passionate champion of high quality cuisine… He has demonstrated that food can be the catalyst for an exceptional “East Meets West” experience.’ www.sofra.co.uk