BY MARYAM SHAHID (CS/I)
Ali Ünal, an instructor in the Department of Tourism and Hotel Management, is a 1994 graduate of the department and also holds a master’s degree from Başkent University in Ankara. Mr. Ünal has won second and third prizes in the Turkish Chefs’ Competitions with the Bilkent Gastronomy Group, which involves the students of the department. As the gracious host of the department’s practice restaurant Le Piment Rouge, he teaches hospitality and courtesy through his own example. Mr. Ünal teaches Restaurant Service in the practice restaurant and Food and Beverage Services Management courses in the classroom.
Why did you choose an academic career?
I’m an instructor; my area of expertise is food and beverages. I’ve given weekly lectures since 1998. In the academic world, you work with a more homogenous group of people who are more cultured and better educated. In contrast, in the hotel business, you work with a very heterogeneous clientele that includes individuals you might not otherwise associate with; still, you have to work with them, and that can be very challenging. For my personality, I feel more comfortable in the university.
What do you like the most about being at Bilkent?
We’re good friends and work well as a team, as all of us are from the hotel business. All of the faculty members are very helpful, and the department head was a classmate of mine. It’s delightful to work with friends, former classmates and so on. In addition, Bilkent is a very special place. You’ll understand this if you work with other universities and companies, as I can’t even compare Bilkent with other schools. The vision of the founder, İhsan Doğramacı, was unique.
What’s your best work?
My students! That’s what we’re here for – the coming generation. I think it’s like a flag race; you’re carrying a flag and you pass it on to the next generation. Communication is everything. We try to form a medium between the previous and current students to improve our work.
What excites you about your work?
Every day is a new day. We meet new people that we might not meet anywhere else. I think of our business as being like a new notebook. The notebook is a semester, and each page is a new day, but we have to turn the pages in such a way that we leave them clear and blank. We achieve that if we do our work in a correct way, if we keep our students informed, are generous to them and become their friends. Otherwise, we would be making a mark on that white page that says “unfair.” There should be no such marks on the page. You need to close the book in a correct, generous way.
Could you share a turning point or defining moment in your career?
The turning point of my career came in 1998, when I gave up business at the Hilton and shifted my focus to academics. Everything changed that year. My daughter was born, I moved, I changed my career, I changed everything; it was one of the biggest steps that I’ve taken in life.
What’s one piece of information from your field that you think everyone should know?
Well, coffee! To give you a serious answer, food and beverages are an important issue. Everyone should have some knowledge of the subject. People should know what they eat, because most processed foods have a lot of problems. We need to turn back to our roots, and eat what our grandmothers used to cook and eat. In fact, the industry is trying to bring about that change, albeit slowly, but in a good way.
When and where do you do your best thinking?
During my nighttime walks with my wife and my dog.
What distracts you?
Quarrels. That’s why I love this school; people here handle their problems in an intelligent way. In hotel management, quarrels are common, even with guests. So dealing with them is difficult, and different from the situation in the academic world. Here, my students are my guests/customers, but we don’t act that way. We try to create an interaction between the host and the customer, which gives the students a better learning experience.
What’s the most common misconception about your work?
People think that our life is very easy. However, even though the restaurant practicum is a six-hour course, it doesn’t end after six hours. We clean up, calculate revenues. It’s very different from other courses. I start my day ironing tablecloths and making sure every glass is clean. I work as a staff member so that the students can see and relate. This gives them motivation to work harder and better.
What do you like to do when you’re not working?
I like to travel, like most of us, but my travels are much more related to gastronomy. I like gardening; many of the trees around RC Building were planted by me. I’m also growing an olive tree in the back! I love cars as well, just like all gentlemen in Turkey.
If you were not an instructor, what career would you have chosen?
I would have continued to work in hotel management.
What’s the secret to leading a happy life?
Family! Family is very precious, as are lifelong friends. If you have good relationships, life gets easier. This is because life is too long and too short at the same time. Your family, friends and loved ones make it a lot easier for you. I feel the same way regarding my daughter. I pray that she’ll always find positive personalities around her so that she’ll stay happy.
If you could go back to your undergraduate/graduate student years, what advice would you give your younger self?
To benefit from the professors and teachers at Bilkent. Your department instructors will show you the way, as they have more experience. Some students may well turn out to be even better than their teachers; that’s why we invite our graduate students back to serve as guest speakers. However, while you’re here, rely on your instructors and their ability to help you utilize your resources to the best advantage.