Dada Döner, a new Columbia food truck venture, springs from proprietor Vahap Ulker’s desire to see people savor more moments in their daily lives.
The experience of sitting down, taking a deep breath and sharing a communal meal — a value he absorbed growing up in Turkey — is something he found too often lacking in the United States.
“In Turkey, people eat food to be happy, to enjoy life. Here, we eat to do more work,” he said.
Serving up Turkish street food since last month, Dada Döner’s world turns on one flavorful item: chicken döner. Cooked on a vertical rotisserie, the meat is served in wraps, on a sandwich or as part of a dinner plate with rice and a salad. The menu is that simple — and that focused on making one dish perfectly, Ulker said.
Because of the cooking process, döner invites reference points from cultures with similar fare, Ulker said. Mexican food has al pastor; Greek cuisine includes gyros; and other Middle Eastern countries offer shawarma, a dish döner is often mistaken for, he said.
Döner dates back to the 1800s, Ulker said, first served in one of Turkey’s seminal cultural cities, Bursa. Its name comes from a word for “turning,” as in the way meat rotates while cooked. The dish is the most-consumed fast food in Turkey but variations can also be found in nicer restaurants, Ulker said, in much the same way you might find a cheeseburger at a drive-thru or a steakhouse.
And döner is a global success. Due to the influx of Turkish immigrants in the 1960s and ’70s, the döner kebab has become one of the most popular fast-food items in Germany as well, Ulker said.
Starting from scratch
Ulker’s story is one of making everything from scratch. Yes, his truck serves only fresh, hand-prepared food, nothing processed.
But this entire experience began with a need and a notion, and not a single day of professional experience. Working through the week as a researcher at the University of Missouri’s NextGen Precision Health Center, he is not a chef by trade.
Whether in the laboratory or a mobile kitchen, he is the type to conceive a project, then learn everything he possibly can, finding something where once there was nothing. Ulker first had the idea which became Dada Döner in 2016, while studying in Louisville, Kentucky.
He asked friends in restaurants both in Turkey and the United States to let him work on weekends, for free, to learn the art and craft of cooking, his cultivating skills with each visit. Ulker knows his limitations, he said, but these limitations have freed him to make one dish with as much heart and soul as he can muster.
Ulker and Co. begin marinating their chicken 24 hours ahead of lunch service, using spices sourced from Turkey — a practice he hopes to continue as long as possible. On a service day, chicken is stacked very carefully on the vertical skewer to ensure both outside and inside portions are cooked evenly, he said.
Döner is served with a choice of three sauces, all yogurt-based: a white sauce, a curry sauce and a spicy option featuring Turkish hot peppers.
And, as with science, the true test of one’s labor is in the results, Ulker said.
“A good taste is a good taste. Doesn’t matter what culture it is,” he said.
Multiplying his kitchen experience with each day’s work, Ulker completes every task with the customer’s reaction in mind. He works to receive a “wow” or a gleam of surprise in a diner’s eyes, he said. And the early feedback, in person and on social media, has been heartening, he said.
Finding the right fit — for everyone
Transferring a Louisville-forged idea to corners of Columbia, Ulker recognized another good fit here. A wide-ranging population with a strong student presence helped him see the possibilities for Dada Döner — as did the absence of something similar.
“If you don’t know it, you don’t know if it’s missing or not. But I know it,” he said of döner.
He also seeks to create the right fit for the business within his life. Fulfilled in his day job, with no intention of stepping away, he brought on a partner who can focus on Dada Döner’s growth.
This choice only reinforces Ulker’s deeply-held values: quality over speed, community and experience over grab-and-go meals eaten alone. He wants people on both sides of Dada Döner to enjoy more little moments in their lives — himself included.
Dada Döner currently serves its food on weekends in various Columbia locations. Keep up with the truck’s whereabouts through its Facebook page.
Aarik Danielsen is the features and culture editor for the Tribune. Contact him at email@example.com or by calling 573-815-1731. He’s on Twitter @aarikdanielsen.