Be Instigators of Change: Chef Mehmet Gürs’ Inspiring JWU Keynote

Mehmet Gürs '93, '19 Hon. at 2019 JWU Providence Commencement

For Mehmet Gürs '93, '19 Hon., life and food are one and the same. As chef and partner of the Istanbul Food & Beverage Group, the adventurous Gürs presides over a growing range of restaurants, coffee bars and a culinary innovation lab. His visionary restaurant Mikla — a tribute to the richness of Anatolian cuisine — has ranked on the World’s Best Restaurant list since 2015. Buzzfeed listed his the coffee bar concept Kronotrop as “one of the 25 coffee shops in the world to see before you die.”

Through his New Anatolian Kitchen manifesto, Gürs has created a culinary movement that ties the creativity of chefs in the city to the ingredient-rich growing fields of the country: “How many of us big city people are still in touch with the villagers? How many of us can still feel the roots of what we eat? Do we know where our food comes from? Today, more than ever, making an effort to maintain and improve the ‘neighborhood market’ is essential.”

In his keynote speech at the 2019 Commencement ceremony, where he was honored with a Doctor of Culinary Arts degree, Chef Gürs extrapolated on these themes:

Mehmet Gürs: Not so long ago, I was standing where you are today. Just about a quarter of a century ago, I was the student host of the legendary chef Joël Robuchon when he got his honorary degree in 1992. That memory has stayed with me ever since. Now I am up here. It is truly a humbling feeling to be back at Johnson & Wales like this. It does make me feel a bit old — but I guess that’s OK!

"Food is everywhere. Food is at the center of the universe. It really is!"

I am expected to deliver a really smart and inspiring speech … and that could take hours, as I tend to talk way too much. So I am not going to bore you with it. At least not today!

But I will give you an insight to what you are getting yourselves into. Food service, hospitality, institutional management … it doesn’t matter if you are a chef, a dietitian, a restaurant manager, if you work in a hospital or in the corporate office of a multinational chain. Food is everywhere. Food is at the center of the universe. Yes, it really is!

I will give you three examples to explain it.

One: Depending on the food you decide to cook or serve, you can either heal people or make them sick. You can keep them alive … or you can kill them. Food is medicine — or alternatively poison.

Two: Depending on the producers you decide to source your products from, you can either kill off an entire farming or fishing community and force them to move to a city or even another country and pretty much work as modern day slaves. Or, alternatively, you can help that community survive and hopefully flourish. Please remember that it is still the small farmers that feed the majority of the world.

Three: Depending on the products you decide to use, and the variety of it, you literally decide on the agricultural practices, the balance of the fish population and even the CO2 emissions of the ever-farting cows…

So YES, I’m not exaggerating when I say that food is truly at the center of the universe.

And the good part is: YOU have the key to it.

"Be curious and don’t take anything for granted. Take a different road as often as you can."

You, as chefs and hospitality professionals have an enormous power to change the world for the good or like it has been in the past — for the bad.

Our work is changing. It is not just about pushing out new dishes or serving up the coolest or best-tasting stuff anymore.

We are already seeing doctors and chefs that work hand in hand as equals to cure — and more important, prevent diseases. Chef José Andrés has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Can you believe that? A chef for the Nobel Peace Prize — that is beyond amazing. Chefs are more often on the Time’s “100 most influential people” list. And food-related businesses are more and more instigators of change.

Not only can we make life better, but we can also make it tastier. Filled with pleasure — that is, if we choose good over bad. And believe me: it is not that hard to do. Dear colleagues — that’s what you are now. Future chefs, managers, dietitians, you are all members of our little gang, “people of the hospitality industry!”

You are not students anymore, at least not in the traditional sense. But please, always continue to be a student in its true sense. Be curious and don’t take anything for granted. Take a different road as often as you can. Get lost while doing it. And make sure you’ve learnt something new every single day before going to bed. Even if you are barely alive from having survived too many shifts in a row. And that will happen, I guarantee it!

Throughout your career your will have those Eureka moments where it will hit you: “Damn! So that’s what the professor meant.” The wonderful information that has been squeezed into your short time here will come back to you drop by drop, bit by bit. Try to find your own way while adding to that. That’s what makes us so special. We are all wonderfully different.

Learn something new to throw into that amazing backpack called experience — something to add to life itself. It may be a new flavor, a new shortcut on your smartphone, some absurdly crazy idea or even a horrifically cheesy song to sing in the shower, that hopefully no one sees nor hear you sing. It doesn’t matter what it is... Just continue learning.

And friends, I hate to tell you … life is short. Standing up here looking at you, it feels like yesterday. Please try to enjoy the privileged life you have all been given. Standing where you are today is a privilege. Being a part of this community is a privilege. Let’s be proud of it!

I will finish in a customary fashion. Class of 2019, congratulations, and good luck!

Follow Mehmet on Instagram.

Mehmet Gürs