As someone who enjoys the occasional burger (and I’m talking once a year occasional), I don’t easily excite when it comes to the burger hype that has spread across Europe. You too, may feel the gourmet burger trend has tired, but when you come across a self-proclaimed ramen chef from Macedonia who opened his tiny street side joint in Ljubljana with his younger brother only several months ago, you’d best be standing up at that counter with a burger in your hands listening to his take on the world.
At only 24 years old, Tomislav Tabay has managed to set up shop with a burger-only menu based on experimentation and supported by personal philosophy. With a calm and composed manner, he moves in a comfortable ease as though we would be hanging out in his kitchen at home. Carefully addressing each customer that walks in, orders are taken and patties are fried as he explains the concept and vision behind his venture.
Ljubljana has seen a revival to its culinary offering as of late, a scene which has been dominated by gourmet burger joints popping up all over town. Brought together by a yearly beer and burger festival, Pivo & Burger fest, the desire for ‘craft anything’ is riding a high. Tomislav tells me he will not be attending this year’s event because it is not financially or logistically viable for his young company. A smart decision drawing its reason from the inability to match a desired quality output in a festival environment. Reserved for the bigger players, the Tabay Brothers’ missing presence at next week’s festivities means they will continue instead to focus on their product offering.
Every burger ingredient is made in house and only the best meats are sourced from nearby farms. This is a claim that is easier to believe in Slovenia, a country where fresh ingredients abound as a way of life as opposed to the following of any trend. After much research, a decision was made to prepare their patties the American way by mixing 5 different part of beef with a good fat ratio. America is, after all, the land of the burger. An icon so strong to its culture, it would be wrong to assume they haven’t mastered their burger game. Meat shipments come in on Tuesday, and I am told almost poetically of the sweet smell that fills the shop, as if you could breathe in the very grass these cows have eaten.
It is this fascination that ensures each burger is created with care and respect. “If you dedicate your life to something, the success will come.” Tomislav is not arrogant in his discourse, but instead highly reflective in recognizing that his start as a young chef is giving him the room to fail and build up resilience. It is his personal way of fighting the system, citing an overall balkan mentality of fear towards entrepreneurship preventing others from claiming successes that could otherwise be theirs. With reference to the blacksmiths, tailors and shepherds of the past who created their own markets to match their skills, he encourages others to take risks. Realizing they had something good to offer, the brothers decided burgers would be their entry point to the market, despite the competition that seems to have emerged in the city.
Tomislav originally moved to Slovenia from his native Macedonia to study economics. After training under a Japanese chef based in the city, he went on to work with pastries and chocolate. Near the end of 2014, the burger potential was strong in the city, something he sees being a result of the little knowledge required in the kitchen supported by the ability for a smaller kitchen and team to run the show. This means the food for everyone could be made available by anyone. The Tabay Brothers’ approach however, is likened to that of a boutique burger shop, where the average offer of 6 sandwiches every couple of months allows them to experiment with taste and gain an understanding of what their customers come back for.
Having served everything from Bahn Mi Chicken to American classics, this inventive approach is something that runs in the family. A former cook for the ruling king of Yugoslavia, the brothers’ great great great grandfather was a known inventor. With an ability to cook for upwards of 2000 people, he would experiment in his approach to comfort foods, something that is not far off from the modern interpretation put forth by the brothers. The value of his expertise however, have not been written. Instead of recipes, it is the technique behind the approach that have been passed down through word of mouth. Recipes can be shared, but it is how they are performed that requires a deeper understanding of the ingredients being worked with. To this day, it is unknown whether he shared all of his secrets.
Stressing the importance of family, working with his brother Marko is only way Tomislav can envision running this business and he speaks of their brotherly bond with great admiration. They are a two man team; Marko is very dedicated to what they do and offers a more balanced approach to the antics Tomislav can bring forward. It is these dynamics that have proven to work favourably for the pair.
And where does this leave the future of Ljubljana’s food offering? Surely, the burger phase will weaken over time, making room for newer taste experiences to try their shot at fame. Tomislav is quick to explain that burgers are the ultimate street food. While the time will come where the larger chains offering these sandwiches to meet demand will venture in other directions, the burger shops that remain will instead serve as a symbol of the time, just like the pizza parlours and kebab stands before them.