Think of Sezai Çelikba as a chef de kebab: He’s the man responsible for the succulent skewers at Pera, the 3-year old Turkish restaurant near Grand Central, and his specialty is the Adana, a mix of spicy ground lamb named for the northern Turkish city where it was originally grilled.
At Pera, Turkish fare is fine dining and even the street-food-style Adana gets top treatment: The lamb is chopped not by a Robot Coupe but by Çelikba himself, using the massively thick knife the Turks call a pala.
Çelikba learned his way around the big blade from his father, Ahmet, the chef at a famous kebab spot in Istanbul. (Ahmet’s nickname was Pala, since his moustache took the same shape as the knife.) Çelikba? still uses the moves he mastered early—”all my life, since I was 5,” he says—starting the process nearly every morning with either a whole lamb or a sizeable chunk of one.
Working first with a small knife, Çelikba strips away nerves, tendons and sinew—his expert hands slender but strong—and separates fat from muscle, cutting each into cubes until he reaches a ratio of 30 percent fat to 70 percent lean. (Saving the head, neck and shoulders for other recipes, he prefers the saddleback, a slightly marbled piece of meat that sits exactly where you’d think.) He sprinkles on kosher salt, Turkish paprika and a paste made from roughly crushed red chilies called marash, then brings out the pala, working back and forth, stopping only to pat the bright orange mass the way a baker kneads dough.
When it’s the consistency of artisanal burger meat, Çelikba kneads a lump into a fist-sized ball and slips it onto a skewer. After a six-hour rest in the refrigerator, they’re ready for the wide, gas-powered grills in Pera’s open kitchen.
Admittedly, in Turkey the grills would be charcoal and the Adanas would be at least 50 percent fat. No-holds-barred meat lovers take note: A special fat night might just be in the works.
Photo credit: Blake Sinclair