Opening the minds to Turkish food: Tulum’s chef Coskun Uysal
We interviewed Chef Coskun Uysal, the award-winning chef of Tulum Balaclava. We hope you enjoy the interview where Tulum chef tells us about his beginnings, his passions and his remarkable culinary path.
Tell us about your story. How did you get your start? How and why did you open Tulum?
The reason I am here is a love story – I am here because of my partner. We met 15 years ago in London, we did long distance while I was in Turkey. After 15 years and I realised, we either have to finish or we have to move to live together – we have to make a decision now. My partner doesn’t speak Turkish so wouldn’t be able to find a job in Istanbul, so I gave my work 6 months’ notice, left everything – and that’s why I am here in Melbourne.
How and why did you open Tulum?
As a Turk and as a chef, I always think that Turkish food is not represented properly, even in the big cities in the world: London, New York. Even in Melbourne and Sydney it is mainly kebabs – that is what people know, Turkish kebabs or Turkish delight. I was not angry by this, but that was why I wanted to push myself – I had to do something! That is why I opened the restaurant, to show everyone that in Turkey we don’t just eat kebabs and dips.
Where did your passion of food begin? Was there a particular moment where you realized you wanted to become a chef?
It was never on my mind when I was a boy. I always wanted to be a football player, but I realised I was not that good, and that a football career is very short – when you are like 28-30 you’re done. So when you reach 30, you have no money, no future, and no job, and I wasn’t that good so I thought I needed to do something else. Because of this I needed to do something about my professional life. My mum always cooked, so I studied Tourism and Hotel Management. At university I thought I wanted to be a hotel manager. We worked at the university hotel so we cleaned the rooms, did reception, bar, waiting, and I ended up in the kitchen. I thought, “This is really nice”. I really loved it. It was so theatrical, everything is happening in the kitchen. I thought, okay – I want to be a chef. But when I said that, I didn’t just want to be a chef, I want to be a good chef. So because of this I went to London. I studied Food and Wine in London (Prue Leiths), I learned the basics, and then began proper work experience, so that’s how I started.
What was the inspiration for the menu and concept behind Tulum?
The inspiration is modern Turkish food, but it is not just about the food. I want to show that Turkey is very modern. Yes, sometimes looking on paper people think that it is a Third World country, but it is very civilized. Ladies are dressed very modern, in sandals and in short shorts. I want to show there is a modern and progressive part of Istanbul as well.
Although migration of Turkish people to Australia started in 1960s, Turkish cuisine outside kebab and pide types are largely unknown in Australia. Can you tell us a bit about your customers?
What I try to do with Tulum is largely because of George Calombaris, he makes my life easier in because of what he did 10 -15 years ago with Greek food. He opened people’s minds to Greek food and Turkish food. I am still having problems with people thinking, “Oh it is a Turkish restaurant, it must be BYO, or there must be belly dancers or live music” – there is still that perception. But mainly our customers know about us before they come our restaurant. They search, they look up what we do, they understand because they read reviews, so when they come in they are ready. But it really starts with George, he is a legend – my unknown mentor! He doesn’t know, but he is my idol.
What are their reactions to your menu?
They always say it is different. Sometimes, this can be negative, but mostly I take it as a big positive. It means they haven’t seen anything like what I do at Tulum. It makes them think, “Wow, this is really different and new”. So I take it positively. The reaction is always good, they love it. When Australians come here, they love everything because the flavor is great, which is what I want, and I love to get to tell my story to them. But when the modern Turks came in, they say, “This is like what my mum used to cook for me. The taste is there, but totally different looking”. I love that. That is what I am trying to do, it is a big compliment. It is the food my mum used to cook with me, but with a modern look.
What kind of questions do you receive?
The first question is always: Can you share your recipes with us? Which of course is a yes. I go into the kitchen and get my recipe book, say “Where is your phone?” and take a picture. I mean, it is all about sharing. That is what I do. It’s not like government secret! It’s food. I am releasing a book next year so soon people will be able to make all the dishes at home.
Do you have any “guilty pleasure” foods?
For me it is McDonalds! I can walk from here, order a Big Ma, diet Coke, strawberry milkshake and apple pie – I have to have like four of those! That’s my guilty pleasure!
If you had to eat one thing for the rest of your life, what would it be?
If I had to eat one thing…. I don’t know, I love food! Anything that comes from my mother’s kitchen, anything she makes.