Pera: A Trend-setter in the Turkish Restaurant World

New York – Imagine the following setting: in one of the various 30 Turkish restaurants in New York City, a waiter hands menus to six guests sitting at a table. One of the patrons sitting at the table utters the following, “Your prices are very reasonable.” The smiling waiter replies, “The same food is twice as expensive at Pera, but our prices are low.”
Another person seated at the table interrupts the waiter, stating, “If someone is selling a Turkish dish for 28 dollars, you really should be proud rather than irritated.”

Sezai Celikbas and Burak Karacam. (By Ayhan Kay)

When Pera Mediterranean Brasserie opened in late March 2007, New Yorkers were presented with a Turkish restaurant different than the others spread out throughout the city. Many characteristics set Pera apart. For instance, customers have a view of the kitchen from their seats. Appetizers and kebabs are served with a more gourmet style. There is no soup on the menu. As the waiter indicated, the restaurant is more expensive than other Turkish restaurants. For dinner, appetizers and salads range from 8 to 17 dollars, while the main course can go from 21 to 36 dollars and the desserts total 8-9 dollars. A three-person group can easily dish out more than 250 dollars in one evening.

According to one of Pera's partners, Burak Karaçam, part of their philosophy is “to remove traditional Turkish cuisine from the ethnic and cheap restaurant market into which it had fallen.” He also states the following, “The sales price of the product is determined by the demand for it.” In order to defeat the stereotype of unhygienic ethnic kitchens, the partners have transformed the kitchen into a theater stage for the customers, with the chefs and waiters as the main actors.

Karaçam received his undergraduate degree in Economics and Mathematics from Duke University and went on to get his Master's Degree at Harvard University. During that period he worked on topics related to restaurant management. He says that Pera is not that different from the project he worked on at that time, for which he received a passing grade from his professor.

There are four managers for the 50 people working for the restaurant, 18 of whom work in the kitchen. Burak Karaçam and Cem Erenler are in charge of managing the restaurant while Sezai Çelikbaş and Jason Avery are tasked with overseeing the kitchen. Sezai Çelikbaş is the son of Ahmet Çelikbaş, also known as Pala, the head chef in charge of Istanbul's famous kebab restaurant, Köşebaşı.

Celikbas says: He states, ?I've been a chef since I was five. (By Ayhan Kay)


Karaçam's and Çelikbaş’s family friendship was an important factor in opening Pera. Burak Karaçam's father is the famous banker Burhan Karaçam, who, being from kebab-rich Tarsus, found a second culinary home in Pala Ahmet Usta's restaurant in the Istanbul neighborhood of Pera during his student years. The friendship began in 1966 and soon enough a plan to open a restaurant in New York began to percolate in the minds of the two families. The 40-year friendship that started in Istanbul Pera has been transformed into their children's partnership for this restaurant on Madison Avenue.

Having lived in the US since 1992 and worked in the financial firm Lehman Brothers for six years,   Karaçam and his present-day partner Cem Erenler met in 2005. Erenler had previously worked as a food and drinks manager at Ian Schrager's Hudson Cafeteria and The Regent Wall Street Hotel, both in New York. He had also taught restaurant management classes at Hudson Community College for two years. The meeting transpired during the years Erenler was working as a consultant for restaurants.

The 52-year old Sezai Çelikbaş arrived in New York with a 5-person team from Turkey and after moving into the kitchen began training Honduran, Ecuadorian, and Dominican chefs. The 12 branches of Köşebaşı Restaurant in Turkey (not including the branches of the restaurant in Greece and Brazil) were ranked by Conde Nast Traveler in their list of 50 best restaurants in the world. Çelikbaş learned how to cook alongside his father in Köşebaşı. He states, “I've been a chef since I was five. My career is crystal clear and I am extremely self-confident in my abilities.”