In partnership with V&A East

Meeting Ground: The Dirik Family of Mangal II

BY Vivian Yeung


Divided into four main regions, each part of London has its own distinct identity. West is where the affluent reside; the historical architecture and key landmarks attract masses of tourists year on year. Away from these hotspots, on the other side of the capital, is east: the cultural and creative sector of the city. It’s here that you’ll find a plethora of clubs, queer spaces, creative companies and independent businesses. It’s here that you’ll find some of the best spots within London’s best-in-class food industry, a mixture of cultures and cuisines lining its streets.

Nestled within east London is Dalston Kingsland, located next to Stoke Newington and a short bus journey away from Hackney and Shoreditch. The bustling area is steeped in stories of migration, innovation and movement. One such story is that of the Dirik family, who run the Mangal restaurants: exemplary examples of Anatolian cuisine injected with a touch of modernism. The father, Ali Dirik, first moved from Istanbul to London in 1987 and opened London’s first ever ocakbasi restaurant, named Mangal 1. His approach to cooking – such as the use of charcoal and grills – gained him a cult following. Later, in 1994, the success of his first business led to the launch of another: Mangal 2.

Now, the Mangal restaurants are run by Ali’s two sons, Ferhat and Sertaç Dirik. As the children of immigrants, the pair are taking their family’s traditions and adding in new twists to create sublime cooking in the heart of Dalston Kingsland. The roots of Anatolian cooking are layered, altered, with their own innovations and culinary ambition. Vine leaves are paired with crab meat; traditional hummus is accented by cheesy flavours. Since taking over the family business, the pair have rung in a new era of Anatolian and Turkish cooking, ensuring that the Mangal restaurants continue to feel innovative amidst the cultural hubbub of east London.

Over forty years on from the opening of Mangal 1, we sat down with Ali Dirik and his two sons to discuss the legacy of Mangal, and how it’s shaped the culinary scene of east London.

Brought to you in partnership with V&A East, Meeting Ground tells the stories of preservation, progression and identity from those that are living, working or making in east London.

The Dirik Family stood outside their restaurant Mangal II

Ferhat Dirik: Why did you decide to move to this country?

Ali Dirik: Because around the time I moved here there was almost no Turkish cuisine in this area except kebab places, like takeaway places, and my style is more like ocakbasi: cookery, stews, butchery and so on. I used to do these jobs in Istanbul. I felt like this area needs this type of thing. First, I opened a small place on Arcola Street with a friend, called Mangal 1. It got a lot of attention.

Sertaç Dirik: Did that happen immediately, or?

AD: It didn’t take long for it to attract all the attention. Even the wealthy people who wouldn’t normally pass through this area were coming with their private cars and livening up the street. It also got a lot of attention from the press. We received lots of support from various different places, and in a very short time it got heard.

Back then this area was not like this, of course. Mostly the poor and the refugees used to live here. But in time, as new things started to happen around, the scenery started to change as well. Because it’s a new, unknown cuisine, a new style and taste, it drew people here.

SD: When did the other places start to open?

FD: There was one other, right?

AD: Yes, one. Istanbul Iskembecisi which had a different style. They served other meals as well but it was predominantly soup. There were also takeaway doner kebab places. But with the ocakbasi structure we moved the outdoor garden barbecue system indoors.

FD: You were the first to do that, weren’t you?

AD: The first, and it was highly appreciated. People loved it. The word was spread over time and as it did, we started to train our own staff and they began working in different areas of London. And now ocakbasi, and various kebabs and Turkish cuisine, and in general, food from the east and the west of Anatolia came together here in London. Now you can find all sorts of flavours. Later, we opened this place here.

FD: After four, five years, right?

AD: Four, five years later. We had a pide place right across the street. That was also something that never existed before: we were making pide and various types of lahmacun and tava.

SD: When was that? Did it open later?

AD: This place was opened in 1994 so that one was probably around ‘95 or ‘96.

FD: Sertaç was born that year, right? I remember something like that. Sertaç was born and you opened Mangal Pide.

AD: You were born and I opened Mangal 1, you two brought me luck. When Sertaç was born I opened [Mangal] 2. When I was in Turkey my daughter was born and after six months I moved to England. My kids brought me luck.

FD: I was born in Dalston and we moved to Chingford. Sertaç and I have a seven year age gap. We moved to Chingford when Sertaç was born in the winter of that year. But we were always here, coming back and forth all the time. We grew up in these areas for the most part.

AD: Half day they study, half day they help daddy pretty much.

FD: Yeah, we’re here often. We’ve both had different journeys. For me personally, a lot of things happened in life where you deviate from the industry, or I did, and I came back and deviated and came back. Becoming a father rooted me here ‘cause I wanted stability and to have a steady source of income. In time I’m rooted, sort of loved the industry more when I accepted I was in it for good.

And was it always going to be Turkish restaurants in the industry?

FD: To be honest not necessarily. That’s what I initially inherited when my dad took a step back. But then we had different ambitions that are more in tune with what we are today, but realising them didn’t seem quite as possible or likely.

SD: It wasn’t clear.

FD: Until lockdown.

SD: Even then it was still a baby step everyday, and then it was more the actual customer base had decided what the restaurant was becoming and we took some more confident steps in through [the] reaction of guests, really.

FD: Definitely. At the time, when we did reopen in July 2020, it felt like we were changing everything but in hindsight we weren’t. Looking back, we were actually making very minor changes. It seems significant but it doesn’t seem so dramatic. Maybe our feeling was we were working towards changing and it wasn’t going to stop there.

SD: It felt massive because the restaurant had been here for 24 years when we decided to change everything. It felt like the biggest change on earth, because this whole street, everything is so set in stone. Every restaurant has a very… we felt they had a very similar menu, and to deviate from the script felt massive.

FD: But even looking at that menu, it wasn’t actually that drastic.

SD: It felt like the biggest change because it was so abrupt. Looking at our own menu, the amount of change that has happened within two and a half years is insane. It doesn’t feel like we’ve taken massive leaps because it’s been day by day by day by day. Constantly, constantly, changing, adjusting, rethinking.

It was a risk in itself because the restaurant supports our entire family. If this restaurant’s gone, we don’t have anything to fall back on but also it was a necessary risk. We weren’t at that point where the restaurant was doing well and then we decided to change. It was also a force of hand. If nothing was going wrong then we wouldn’t have changed it.

FD: Also, we lost all of our staff when lockdown happened. So, we really did have to start fresh and for my part, with the old staff, it was hard to implement changes when they were so set in their ways. It was so much easier to do with a fresh start with my brother coming back and his views, his understanding of cooking and his experiences. As horrible as Covid was, and it was horrendous, it allowed us to stop, think and then decide what we wanted.

Why do you think it felt like such a big deal to change the restaurant? You’ve alluded to it.

SD: It was dad’s system, you know? What he did was so monumental and so game changing for Turkish cuisine and for east London. It felt like we were without experience, we were tempering with something that was sacred and something that has deep roots in tradition. It feels like you’re going against the grain but not in a good way. It was really difficult for me forcing those changes, knowing that his system was tried and true and beloved. But what we were embarking on had no legs. We didn’t know if it was going to work. It was a complete risk.

FD: We wanted to continue this business, but we knew that if we continued it in this old, traditional sense, it wouldn’t be honest to us whereas it was very honest to our dad. It wouldn’t be honest to our interpretation and understanding of being a restaurant in London with Turkish roots, but Londoners born and raised and liking what we like when we dine out and when we go on holidays and go to restaurants, what we seek. We wanted to implement that within our own space because that’s how we would be happy to continue working in the industry moving forward. So that we could express our own understanding of cuisine that is essentially Turkish flavour but rooted in London and with seasonal, local produce.

SD: Similar to what it is for dad, his own cooking. We wanted to have the same feeling with our own experiences, with our own trajectory. We didn’t grow up in Turkey, we didn’t grow up the way our dad did, with his background. He was a master at what he did because he experienced all those things. We grew up in a very different way, and operating his way would have just proved to be a bad version of something great. I don’t think I would have been confidently able to continue that. If you are not selling something that you really have a connection with then no one is going to believe it anyway.

FD: This might be a very bold statement but I think what we’ve done will become so much more the norm in 15 years, when you have somebody who is maybe not Turkish but Bengali or Cantonese, or Vietnamese and they’ve inherited a family restaurant. To them, having been born and raised in London, what would they like to do? What would they like to express? Their menus might alter, their approach might change, they might do things that might initially receive some backlash, but it would be honest to them. It's a normal part of being second generation, children of immigrants. I think it happens quite a lot in America. [The] second generation in hospitality have their own understanding and belief in things, and they saw the change in the script of what the menu is traditionally. I think it will happen in the UK more often because it makes more sense for it to happen than not.

AD: I always support your new creations, changes, alterations. And if I don’t like the taste of something, I will tell you. If I didn’t, that would be a betrayal to our business. Because I do like it, and in today’s circumstances I believe some things need to be changing. I stay in the background and watch you. That is why I congratulate my sons. They took big risks, created beautiful things, and came to success. In my opinion, people should constantly renew the profession they love but without forgetting our past. Our history is very important. We, our cuisine, has maybe 10,000 years of history but at the same time, we need to be open to new things. Just as everything changes in the world, flavours change too. And thus, it is necessary to introduce them to people, and to benefit from that.

We shouldn’t be scared of change. As a person, first, you will taste it yourself. If you like it, know that you have created something good. Do not make them eat what you wouldn’t eat. However, if you are sure of what you have created, then you will present it to the people with courage. I say, lead our young people.

FD: People always ask us, “What does your father think about these changes?” And we always answer, “He is proud of it, he supports it”. People are often surprised at this, as they don’t expect it.

A chef at Mangal II assembling food

I guess when he came to East London that was also a big change and it’s nice that you guys have continued his legacy.

AD: It changed a lot, because in time, with certain innovations, a type of wealth has been formed which resulted in new people and cultures to come here. If it is for theatre or the food industry or a type of market. People move to places where the things they need exist, and this migration further improves those places. This place has been enriched by new cultures, new flavours and different types of lives. And I think that is great. This area has become a place with such a colourful, tight knit community which manages to peacefully live together. I think this is a type of wealth and we are very pleased with this situation.

SD: Just like any other cultural movement, people are viewing food as another experiential thing and that is necessary for these things to change. That has added another layer of richness to our cuisine, to our culture.

FD: My dad was headhunted as a chef in Istanbul. He was cooking there and one of the visitors was a customer who really enjoyed his cooking. He had just become a father to our sister and he said, “I’ve got a restaurant in Newington Green, down the road.” It was Newington Green, right?

AD: Yes.

FD: And he said to my dad, “I’ll arrange a visa for you, I’ll arrange a job for you and you could earn a lot more money in London compared to the Turkish economy.” So he came. My mum followed a year later. That’s why he ended up in this area in particular, and Turkish people were more drawn to this area and northeast London because there are a lot of textile factories. Most people in the Turkish community worked in these factories. Like any other sort of ethnicity in a city they congregated to each other in the same community. Strength in numbers, because a lot of them weren’t from the city or a highly educated background, so there were a lot of working class Turkish and Kurdish families who came through. They all wanted to support each other. That’s the way the Turkish community started, for the most part, in north London. Mangal 1 opening around the corner from that makes sense. It seemed like a natural location.

Is there much of a conversation between you about how you preserve culture?

SD: It’s been an interesting topic of conversation when certain guests come in and say, “Well, this isn’t Turkish food.” It used to offend me a lot but he used to really say what is Turkish and what’s not, just because it’s not piles and piles of meat and rice.

FD: Also, who is a Turk? What’s a Turk? Turkey is conquered and being conquered numerous times through the empires. It’s very hard to define a Turk because every Turkish person that you meet will have a heritage that’s Middle Eastern, North African, Balkan, Russian, Georgian. Turks are the most ethnically diverse race that I know.

SD: I mean the Silk Road runs straight through Anatolia. We’ve had every type of trade through that country. Also, we used to say that what we do isn’t Turkish either.

FD: Yeah, by that definition. It’s a nonsense comment.

SD: It’s quite offensive.

FD: How could Turkish culture be proven and lived in London?

AD: Turkey has been a Republic state for [a] hundred years and Turkish people have always had a modern life. So Turkish culture is not too different from any other European culture.

FD: East London historically, if I’m not mistaken, has deeper roots in migration and different ethnicities settling, so it always feels like this own sort of world compared to other parts of London for me. It definitely feels a lot more of a melting pot than other parts of London. East London is quite special, and is more forgiving and more accepting of these things than perhaps other parts of London.

Head to V&A East to find out more about their new site and plans for the future.

The new V&A East building