The Bosnian concentration camps of the 1990s are far removed from the life of Ahmet Alisah, 51, who now owns a Tucson restaurant.
Alisah was captured and imprisoned on a trip to visit his family during the Bosnian war. Now he is one chef who can say with conviction that he would guard his recipes with his life.
One of those recipes is for cevapi, or Bosnian sausage, which put Bosnia on the international culinary map, according to Alisah. He makes cevapi along with a dozen other Bosnian dishes at his restaurant, Chef Alisah's Restaurant European and Bosnian Cuisine.
Alisah's recipe is a closely guarded secret. Even his wife of 28 years, Halida, doesn't know the details.
"I will give my life for my wife, but I won't give her recipe," Alisah said.
His son, Emir, 12, is the only other person who knows the recipe.
"Nobody in United States (makes) cevapi like me," Alisah said proudly.
Bar and restaurant broker Bob Kramber acknowledged his client's talent in the kitchen.
"I think he's kind of like myself. I just want to do one thing and do it better than anyone else," Kramber said.
Alisah claims to have the only 100 percent Bosnian-food restaurant in the country, saying that other Bosnian restaurants are merely posing. He mentions that some serve non-Bosnian items such as hamburgers.
"He's got something in town that nobody else has," Kramber said.
Alisah says he is living the American dream.
That dream is located at 5931 N. Oracle Road, between a coin-operated laundry and an apartment complex in the San Marcos Plaza.
Vines growing up the complex wall give the building a Mediterranean feel. Once inside, the purple hue can be overwhelming and might remind some of Barney the Dinosaur. Adorning the walls are enlarged photographs of Bosnia. Pictures include the capital city Sarajevo and the famous Stari Most, or old bridge.
Life was not always so easy for this chef, however. A prisoner during the Bosnian war, Alisah was held captive for six months, which he said felt like six years. The conflict was the result of Serbia's reluctance to recognize the sovereignty of Bosnian Muslims and Croats awarded by the European Union.
During those months, Alisah said, his family presumed he was dead, adding that it was thoughts of his family that helped him survive.
He was moved from concentration camp to concentration camp. At times Alisah was stuck in a cell with nearly 100 people crammed together.
They could talk as long as no guards were present, but the cell became eerily silent when the guards returned.
Prisoners were deprived of food and water. Many were beaten.
Alisah suffered seven broken ribs. Several of his lower teeth were knocked out as well. Because of the poor prison diet, he lost 22 about 50 pounds.
Alisah does not try to block out these memories, but shares them with friends and family.
"He told me all about his experiences. He said he came out of Bosnia with two suitcases and two children," Kramber said.
He spent four years recuperating in hospitals.
After his health improved and he secured visas for his family, they packed up and headed for America.
He came to Tucson on Aug. 12, 1998, as a part of the refugee program. Upon arrival, he met another refugee family, the Tesnjaks. The Tesnjaks' daughter, Merima, 22, is particularly close with Alisah and his family.
"I've known Mr. Ahmet 10 years. We've been close friends, like family," Tesnjak said.
Tesnjak is working as a receptionist for Alisah's restaurant.
"I'm his right hand. Whenever they need someone to help out, I'm there," she said.
Alisah's interest in owning a restaurant was already germinating when he arrived. He had worked in hotel restaurants in Germany for 10 years before his capture. In total, he has been honing his culinary skills for nearly 30 years.
In order to generate excitement, Alisah promotes his food with the same fervor he uses in the kitchen. He networked with everyone from local dignitaries to the Tucson Soccer Metro League FC Bosnia team.
Fellow refugee and FC Bosnia team captain Mario Knezevic said Alisah's food reminds him of home. Knezevic and Alisah have a bond different from most and rooted in the hardships they suffered during the war.
"We all went through something similar," Knezevic said.
Alisah's networking abilities led to a solid turnout at the Saturday grand opening. About 35 people sampled a variety of dishes for free. There were at least a few people at every table.
People trickled in slowly at first. Alisah welcomed each guest, many of whom were friends and family. For the first half hour everyone appeared timid when it came to mingling and hitting the buffet. It took a little push from Alisah before people began chatting and lining up at the buffet. Many praised the food, including family friend Paul Gavitt, 61, who compared it to Greek food.
"What I like about it is, it's simple. It doesn't use many sauces," Gavitt said.
Alisah is particular about his craft, cooking meals in a pot for nearly seven hours. No deep fryers here.
"Everybody who try my food call me again and again and again," Alisah said.
The difference, according to Alisah, between Bosnian food and everything else is the time and care spent on a meal.
There are no fat people from Bosnia "because there is no fast food," Alisah chuckled.
He pointed at his own stomach and said that he might be an exception. He picked up a thin metal skewer and said people might think he was a bad chef if he were that skinny.
Cevapi, the sausage, is Alisah's specialty, but he has a host of other entrees that will whet diners' appetites. He also recommends Halida's pita burek, a pastry resembling a cinnamon roll. The burek is stuffed with beef, onions, peppers and spices.
For desert, try the tufahija, an apple stuffed with walnuts, and cream. There is also a Bosnian spin on baklava, which Alisah says is better because it is juicier than most.
All the food is "baked to perfection." The assertion is not entirely unfounded for someone who works seven days a week and keeps a secret recipe from his wife.
"Everything in my life is my family and food," Alisah said.
The cevapi recipe, for those interested, is on sale for no less than $100,000.
If you go
What: Chef Alisah's Bosnian restaurant
Open seven days a week
• Lunch: 10:30 a.m. - 1:30 p.m.
• Dinner: 5:30 p.m. - 9:30 p.m.
Where: 5931 N. Oracle Road
Visit the Web site: www.alisahrestaurant.com