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Oriental soul food for sharing
Ismail Korkut is a restaurateur and gourmand through and through who would rather trust his gut instinct than look at his bank balance. So it is no surprise that his restaurant in Basel, Za Zaa, offers more than just good food.
Ismail Korkut wants Za Zaa to set an example for others to follow. The restaurant cooks Lebanese soul food – food that makes you happy. And the idea is for everything and everyone involved to be happy, from the environment to the employees, and of course the guests, and even to the animals that get eaten. That's why the restaurant only uses organic produce from the region, operates as sustainably as possible, and classes employees as part of its big family, which also includes the guests. After a successful evening, Ismail always tells his guests "you're a Za Zaa-ist now, too". He wants to bring people together over food, the greater the number of people and the diversity of backgrounds, the better.
Quantity and diversity are also something the restaurant aims for when it comes to mezze, its house speciality. The majority of the guests order a selection of the colourful little dishes to share, which the waiting staff arrange on the little tables like a real-life game of Tetris. There are 20 different hot and cold mezze dishes on the menu, including eight varieties of hummus. With their flavours, scents and colourful appearance, the little platters are a feast for the senses. The concept of mezze comes from the Middle East; it's a Persian word meaning taste or snack. So when people talk about mezze they don't mean a particular dish but rather the way the food is presented and eaten, a whole variety of different appetizers, snacks or desserts to be shared between the guests.
Typical ingredients include aubergines, tomatoes, cucumbers, chickpeas, yoghurt, tahini, olives and olive oil, often seasoned with cumin, coriander or sumac. Garlic is also an important component of Oriental cuisine but is only used in moderation at "Za Zaa" to accommodate the Swiss palate. Following a three-month trial as a vegetarian several years ago, Ismael reduced his meat consumption by half and substituted the meat component of his diet with vegetarian and vegan dishes. At the start of his meat-free phase, he turned his restaurant menu vegetarian overnight, almost driving his employees to despair. For at the time, "Za Zaa" featured in a Basel food guide with its recipe for a Syrian meat dish – and many guests were coming to order this very dish. "That's just how I am", explains Ismael laughing. "What I do has to feel right". He prefers to listen to his gut instinct rather than worrying about whether his spontaneous decisions could lose him guests.
He descends from the Zaza people of eastern Anatolia – a group numbering around three million. As a child, he fled to Germany with his family, left school as a teenager and worked on a doner kebab stand. On turning 20, he came to Switzerland and sold beer and ice cream to the people of Basel. "The bar on the Rhine was a gold mine, but I found it too boring so I gave it up". I know how to let go and I always trusted myself to start something new". He opened various restaurants before finally finding his professional home at "Za Zaa" in 2010. He named the restaurant after his people, with an additional "a" for Aaron in honour of his eldest son. Ismael served up Oriental cuisine and the little eatery was soon bursting at the seams. In 2014 he moved to Petersgraben and appointed a new chef. Milad, a Syrian who had fled his war-torn homeland. Ismael decided to change his culinary concept and work to the strengths of his talented chef. Instead of a broad range of Oriental cuisine, he now serves Lebanese mezze platters for his guests to share.
Nowadays, Za Zaa is fully booked every evening, which is why at the beginning of the year Ismail decided to step back a little in order to spend more time with his children. He employed Mohran Jouini as his managing director. Born in Tunisia, Mohran studied business administration in Germany and then "fell in love with gastonomy". He speaks eight languages and has travelled to 102 countries. Ismail remains the guiding spirit of Za Zaa, while Mohran is taking the restaurant into the future. The two passionate restaurant hosts share the same philosophy, namely that in the restaurant trade things only work if you give before you take.
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