Kingston restaurant owner defies pandemic to open second eatery

Mayla Concept executive chef, Andrew Smyth (right) and sous chef, Hediye Cifci. Photo provided

During the pandemic, most restaurant owners were lucky just to survive. In Kingston, Gokhan Cifci saw an opportunity to open his second dining establishment.

“During COVID, it was challenging, but I have the kind of personality, when things get negative, I go very positive,” says Cifci.

And so in 2021 he opened Mayla Concept, just two doors down from his original eatery, Tango Nuevo, a tapas and wine bar.

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Cifci says Tango Nuevo had done well and he was itching for a new challenge. He’d developed a strong team who enjoyed working together and wanted to stay with him. So, when the building at 343 King St. came on the market, Cifci discussed it with his wife and together they decided to take the plunge.  

He says he was convinced that, as bad as things were with COVID, it wasn’t going to last forever and, when everything opened up, it would be better than before.

Mayla Concept is designed as a fine dining experience, open four evenings a week.  

“It’s hard to put my finger on the type of food we serve,” says Andrew Smyth, Cifci’s executive chef at both Tango Nuevo and Mayla Concept. “I like to play around with food from everywhere. I like Middle Eastern flavours, I like Asian flavours, I’m a huge fan of Thai food, so I like to mix all of that into my original menu offerings. Gokhan likes to use the term global fusion, I just get inspired by ingredients.” 

Cifci says he wasn’t going for a run-of-the-mill restaurant.

“I want to do something unique, different, something that would be new to Kingston and my whole mentality and soul went into it. And it’s kind of a little bit challenging at the same time because I didn’t go for the easy market, I went for the very difficult, picky market,” he says.

Mayla Concept incorporates earth, wind and fire in its logo and that’s deliberate on Cifci’s part.

“I want people to think about earth and nature and habitats and this is my vision, that’s my focus with the design, the look and everything I am building there,” says Cifci.

Cifci is still working on the upstairs of the building, where the fine dining will relocate this summer. The space is designed with warm, earthy tones and features an eight-foot open wood fire grill as well as a bar. It will seat 50 to 60 patrons.

“We’re playing around with different flavours but kind of keeping that traditional French Michelin-star style of food quality behind it,” says Smyth.

“One of my favourite dishes at Mayla and quite a popular one is a grilled zucchini that we do on a big long shish (skewer) and we marinate it in zaatar and sumac and then we aerate a tahini sauce and bring it out to the table and pull it at the table so it sizzles and pops and people really enjoy that, and it’s a vegan dish,” he adds.

Smyth and Cifci have worked together for the past 13 years. Part of Cifci’s management style is to reward and nurture his team. One way he finds particularly effective is to arrange trips with his staff.

He’s taken Smyth and senior management on several food-inspired trips within Canada and beyond. He’s even taken his entire staff on a couple of winter holidays. While the expense is significant, Cifci says it’s worth it in the long run.

“I come from nothing and I built everything up myself and my staff are all my friends and I like to build good memories with my team. If we have good memories, we will have a good solid team,” says Cifci. 

“Gokhan has taken me to Turkey, where we went to Istanbul and Gaziantep, right near the Syrian border, to experience the mixture of food culture there. It’s a huge opportunity and growing experience to learn so much about different food cultures. It’s given me a lot of drive, direction and inspiration,” says Canadian-born Smyth.

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