Thomas: For us it was exciting to bring something new to Toronto, that was really the incentive with this project. Our (mansion’s) background is less in food than in marketing, but we thought that it would be interesting to start a project in food because Toronto is a thriving city for new ideas, especially when it comes to culinary culture. A big part of our company’s vision is the importance of creating new experiences. Whether it is through our events or recently our food, we want to provide our community with a new experience to learn and grow from. We thought that there would be a market here to start a Döner restaurant in Toronto, so we approached Steve about it, he liked the idea and the two of us went to Germany after years of research.
Steve: Yeah, Tom and I went to Berlin and Turkey so we can get a better idea about the taste and culture around the Döner. I myself don’t have any cultural background when it comes to the Döner or German foods, but when this opportunity came by, I decided to take it and see what I could learn. So this trip was a really cool experience. We did a Döner a day really! Stuffing ours faces!
Thomas: I think we had about 24 or 27 Döners in 10 day…
Steve: The Challenge was to bring something completely different and new to a new market. For one it was about educating ourselves about a new culture, but also educating people here. Also, differentiating it from shawarmas, kebabs, or other places that do a similar things. What we did find was that every shop in Berlin was onto itself it’s own identity. It was built and styled in it’s own way.
Thomas: They have the same base of ingredients, but they all taste different. Not only between Germany and Turkey, but also just in Berlin itself. But I found it interesting that the Döner kebabs in Turkey were the most different.
Steve: Yeah the original Döner in Turkey are very different. It’s more about the meat, and not so much about the sauces and condiments that go on top of it. It’s very unadulterated and straight to the point. And from my understanding it’s because in Berlin there is a large population of Turkish people where the Döner finds its roots. When they brought the Döner to Berlin, they had to adapt it to the market that was there. Similar to Detroit style pizza right? That pizza was adapted to satisfy the market that it catered to, but the bases are the same. So in Berlin, they add sauces, vegetables, and a different type of bread to appeal to the German market. Going there was really just a launching pad. My philosophy around food is to try and take different elements from different areas and filter them into myself, and create something unique. There’s no point in replicating something, that’s my whole philosophy. There’s no way we are going to do it the same way as they do in Germany because the food is different here, and all the factors that influence our food are different too. It’s a balance of keeping it spiritually in line with what came before it, but also make it fit with what is here and available in our community and make it our own. Like the currywurst for example, to me when I first had it, it really didn’t exceed my expectation. It wasn’t something I had grown up with so i did not have that emotional taste memory, that lovers of the original currywurst would. So I had to creatively draw on other facets. So we had to look at it as a template of a dish, and create all the pieces ourselves. So we had to find the best sausages, and we found that with Ben Gundy from Olliffe Butchers who is doing amazing things with nose to tail butchery. I decided to make the sauce from scratch, and transform the traditional currywurst into my own version. For us it was important to make everything in house as well. Fair enough I lose a lot of sleep over it, but it’s worth it. Especially considering this is such a unique product, you have to have control over what we are putting out.
Thomas: In Europe, they also have a whole factory behind the Döner. It’s kind of like an industry really. No Döner shop makes their own meat. It all comes from a factory. We tried at first to get into a factory, but they wouldn’t let us. So we tried getting a stage to learn from the restaurants, but because these are all really small operations, its was really hard to get a weekend with them to learn, even for a fee. But we found out that none of them make the sauce in house either. So for us, we tried to remember the tastes, and made our own versions. Everything here is made in house! Our sauces are done here, our meats are marinated here and we hand cut our fries. The only thing we don’t really have control over is the bread. But even that, it took us a long time to source the perfect bread. But that was really important for us to achieve because we wanted our community to experience something new, that reflected another culture, but with our own twist. Like Steve said, it’s about taking tradition and adapting it to our community and our philosophy. That’s how we move forward and create new experiences.
Thomas Masmejean & Steve Nguyen - Co-Owner & Head Chef of Ötto’s Berlin Döner