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In the footsteps of copper: Emir Ali Enç and his brand Soy

Soy is one of the most important brands that come to mind when it comes to copper kitchen products both in Turkey and worldwide. We had a wide conversation with Emir Ali Enç, the founder of Soy, which has a wide range of kitchen products, from how he learned to forge copper in his youth to where his brand has come today

Interview: Liana Kuyumcuyan

Emir Ali Enç

We know that you started working with copper due to your personal curiosity before establishing the Soy brand. First of all, can we listen to the story that led you to this craft and how and with whom you worked in Syria, in other words, your apprenticeship period?

I was already interested in copper when I cooked in the kitchen. My favorite pot I used to cook octopus in was an armoudi pot that my mother and father bought during their missions to Iran, and it was a work of art. We had a lot of other copper pieces in our house, of course, but that pot was different from all of them. That's why I always wanted to be a coppersmith when I was young: To be able to make a work like this with my own hands and to pass on my craft to the generations that would come after me.

I started as an apprentice at the age of 24-25 at Aşur Coppersmiths in the famous Kalealtı Bazaar, one of the most specialized places in Aleppo for large pieces such as retorts, large halva cauldrons, and other copper products for industrial use. My master who trained me was Haji Ahmet Habbaze, who is now the hammer master in our factory. The other masters who taught me copper were Abdul Wahab and Mohammed brothers, who were younger than me but incredibly talented. 

One of the things I found most interesting in Syria was that luxury -and even mid-range, almost all- restaurants were lined with copper, from the counter to the pot on the stove, so to speak, from the ground up. When I was living there, Syria had embraced copper as a culture or rather had not abandoned it. Traditional desserts such as baklava, kadayif, and kunefe were made only in copper, and if the trays were not copper, they could not be made.

I can't say that I didn't envy it, wishing it was like this in Turkey.

You moved for a long time to learn about copper. I wonder how you made this decision, what was the reason that pushed you to this journey?

Of course, since I wanted to learn this craft in Turkey, my first route was Antep and Maraş. Unfortunately, I saw that old coppersmithing had been lost in Turkey due to the loss of craft knowledge because of industrialization. Therefore, if I really wanted to learn this craft, I had no choice but to move to Syria, the closest and largest coppersmithing center. Another option was Iran, but I was very unfamiliar with there at the time, and the ease of living in Syria was unlike anywhere else in the world.

Courtesy of Soy

What kind of difficulties did you face during this process? 

Honestly, I spent the happiest time of my life in Syria. I know it's hard to believe, but there was an abundance similar to America in the 1950s. As an apprentice, I was paid 16.000 Syrian Liras per month. Tomatoes cost 4 SL per kilo. For four people to have a great meal out, including alcohol, it cost around 500 SL, so it was incredibly cheap and high quality. There was no adulteration in the market. The best quality butter, olive oil, and yogurt could easily be found in any grocery store. There was also an emphasis on craftsmanship. Stonemasons, forged iron masters and coppersmiths were both numerous and well-paid.

Do you remember what your first finished product was after you learned copper forging?

Yes. I made a small vase as a gift for my mother.

What approach did you take to infiltrate traditional forms of production after learning the material until you established the Soy brand? 

Honestly, our aim was always to produce with traditional methods, once you get to know the material, you realize that the best quality product can only be obtained from hand production. Machine-produced copper never has the same hardness, so it is not suitable for professional use. A pressed pot, like the ones made by our European competitors, has the softness that is the biggest disadvantage of copper, but a hand-forged copper pot will never lose its shape even in the harshest professional use (as the forging process hardens copper by 370%).

How did the process of establishing the Soy brand take place? What kind of product range did you have when the brand first started? How much were you involved in this production process?

After returning to Istanbul, I rented a small workshop on Tığcılar Street in the Grand Bazaar, and we produced one or two prototypes; me at the hammer and our foreman Erol Usta, who still works with us, at the handles. There were two big fortunate events happened at that time: The first was that I participated in the contest called Who Wants to be a Millionaire and raised a certain amount of capital, and the second was that a French chef living in Switzerland liked my products so much that he furnished the kitchen of his chateau in the countryside of Lausanne with Soy. After that, it was up and down like any other small business, but one of the highlights was the 22-minute documentary Vice TV made about us in 2013. After that, our recognition in the world reached a certain point.

What kind of a team do you currently run the brand with? Who takes part in the design and production stages of the brand with you and how?

Now we have a professional team at every level of management and production. To be honest, the last time I dropped a hammer was 3 years ago, and that was for a prototype product. We now work with professionals in production, management, quality control, marketing, and operations.

How is your brand doing now? How are your copper kitchen products received abroad?

We have reached the 14th year of our brand and more than 90% of our sales are international orders. Personally, I am happy with the brand recognition, but if you ask professionals in the industry, the twinkle in their eyes when they talk about Soy already sums it up for us.

Courtesy of Soy

What do you think about design in Turkey in terms of kitchen appliances and eating products? What would you recommend to young designers, especially in a place where there are so many artisans who have mastered such a wide range of materials?

When I entered the sector in Turkey, in the early 2010s, Turkey was -except for a few major brands- a market with low ethical values, where there was no original design, but the products of foreign companies were recklessly copied. But the Turkey of the 2010s was full of extremely bright and talented young people graduating from departments such as fine arts and industrial design. I have always argued, sometimes bitterly and offensively, at fairs and various industrial chambers, which were the meeting point of our sector at the time, that these young people should be given a chance by big industrial companies to create their own original designs instead of copying foreign brands.

When we come to the 2020s, we see a much more flattering picture than 10-15 years ago. In addition, with the increase in technologies such as three-dimensional printers and their entrance into our daily lives, the way forward for many designers is much more open.

My advice is to be more courageous and original. Progress with labor rather than copying, don't hesitate to get involved in the production, learn how to crush stones if necessary or forge iron perfectly. I don't consider myself a designer, but I think Turkish designers deserve a lot of appreciation. The products I create are completely function-oriented industrial products, so based on my own experience, I suggest that designers should also have serious craft knowledge. Thanks to this, they will know how to shape the product of their hearts.

Are there intersections between your own kitchen practices and the Soy brand? What is your favorite kitchen product?

I am a person who has loved cooking since childhood. Therefore, I make all Soy products for myself first. I cannot choose a favorite product, this question is like "Which child do you love more?" for me.

What are the future plans for you and the Soy brand?

Of course, it is both Soy's and my common goal to be in the kitchens of more chefs in more parts of the world.


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