Ismail Tosun during service at Gigibaba
Ismail Tosun during service at Gigibaba. Photo Tony Knox

Ismail Tosun

Ismail Tosun was raised in Melbourne. His father was Turkish and his mother came from Cyprus. They separated when Ismail was nine. He went to live with his mother's parents - "they took me in and brought me up". And this, as Ismail tells it, was when his love of food began.

His grandfather was quite strict and had no money to waste on non-essentials. "He couldn't justify buying a $60 pair of jeans when he could go down to the butcher and buy a whole lamb and feed 10 people. Price was never a factor for him when it came to food. Other things were out of bounds."

In this family food was a central part of life. Ismail learnt early how to check fish for freshness by looking at the gills and making sure the eyes weren't cloudy, that the beetroot had a fine root and that the eggplant was firm and light. These were important things for a young boy to know.

He says that that his food today hasn't changed a lot. "When I look back my taste is based on their finished product". Of course, he does other dishes as well but he fits them into that framework.

After all, as he says, "the food is the food. Yes, you might have your own interpretation of certain things but essentially you don't want to change it too much. It is what it is and its been like that for hundred of years for a reason."

One of the reasons, of course, was the lack of refrigeration in a hot climate. It meant buying often and cooking to preserve the food. "A lot of a lot of olive oil braises, for example, because you keep your vegetables submerged in the oil so you wouldn't need a fridge as long as its in a cool place and it would be alright for a couple of days."

Eventually he left Melbourne and went to join his father in Perth.

He started his first restaurant Eminem in Leederville, an emerging bohemian suburb. Here Ismail's other talent came into play. He didn't just design this and his subsequent restaurants he also built them. "I've tiled, built the bars, hung lights - done everything myself." This wasn't wasn't just to save money or because he couldn't explain his vision to an architect but because he believes that this whole of life approach effects people's reaction to his restaurant and his food.

Making Cypriot Turkish dishes accessible to Australians doesn't require changing the food. He says "it's about front of house atmosphere and the feel of the place more so than actual food"

He outgrew Leederville and built another much larger Eminem in the comfortable suburb of Nedlands where he won Gourmet Traveller's best new talent for 2007. Eventually he found that, catering for nearly two hundred covers, he was spread too thin. He couldn't lavish enough care and attention on his food and customers. He closed, and went to Turkey with his young family.

Those outside the industry are often surprised to discover how long and hard the hours are. It's an all encompassing world which becomes your whole life. Ismail says "it doesn't make sense when you tell people you do seventeen hours a day and get six hours sleep. I mean who does that - its ridiculous."

Then after finishing work at one o'clock how do you sleep? "Its like we are bats or something that come out at night." So one sits down and has a glass of wine and perhaps something to eat and suddenly it's 4am. Another day done.

In Istanbul he was disappointed that no 'young Turk' had taken up the challenge to build a modern Turkish restaurant. But, what he did enjoy was the food on the street, "I look for the old man and the old lady that have probably brought up seven kids doing what they're doing for 30 years and I know it's not just about making money for them. It's done with respect and love - it makes a big difference."

He was fascinated by the specialisation. Restaurants don't offer a complete carte. Each place does one thing. A soup shop does soup, for meat you go to a kebab house and "after midnight you go to the offal soup shops - its huge - people queue up. Its very basic and basic in fitout. You go for the food, the company. Its quite unique."

In 2008 Ismail returned to Melbourne and in November opened the doors of his new venture, Gigibaba, in Smith St, Fitzroy. Again he built it all from scratch. A tiny shopfront dominated by the bar where people perch on stools. A reminder perhaps, of eating in Istanbul.

The warm encompassing atmosphere adds a lustre to Ismail's beautiful small plates. He says "if you bring joy to people that dine at your restaurant then that comes back and brings joy to you." Which is exactly what happens at Gigibaba.

He's happy to have found a vegetable supplier he can trust - by coincidence, a Lebanese friend from high school. "He says to me 'what do you need' and I say 'exactly what your mum would want'. He has that understanding."

Ismail says "it is such simple cooking you really do depend on the quality of the vegetable or the fruit to make it really stand out." More so as apart from cumin and corriander there are few spices or other flavourings used. It depends on the taste of the ingredients.

Watching him in the kitchen one is struck by immediacy of the food. Salads are chopped to order, lemons squeezed freshly and cucumbers peeled and cored only as required. It is not just that the produce is fresh but, for an optimum result, it must be prepared on demand. Freshness is a fragile thing.

In Australia, firm cultural boundaries are thought to restrict the chef's free flowing creative impulses - it is courageous to respect tradition and work within a framework. However, Ismail doesn't believe this stifles him. He says "you might do something for ten years every day but the important fact is that every time you do it you pick something up on it, understand it a little more, learn something about it, or see something you've never seen before."

And the seasons lend variety to what one does. The constant change of produce means continually adapting how a dish is done. "Cooking is not set in concrete, things change on a daily basis - every day is a new day."

This is why he distrusts recipes. He says that in his kitchen he doesn't use them "because one day you might use one tomato and another day you might need two. It changes. I try to get my boys to really feel it, what we do, and be hungry to learn it and watch and steal it as opposed to get it given to out on a piece of paper. You read it and you do it - it's not going to always turn out the way it could."

Not the thoughts of a tertiary educated creative chef but Ismail says "I'm just a village boy trying to make a living."