Tom Cooper smoked salmon

Cold-smoked salmon bagel.
Cold-smoked salmon bagel. Photo: Josh Robenstone

Stall 23, Camberwell Fresh Food Market, 519-523 Riversdale Road Camberwell, Victoria 3124

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Opening hours Tue, Thu & Fri 7am-7pm; Sat 7am-5pm
Features Licensed, Cheap Eats
Prices Cheap (mains under $20)
Payments Mastercard, Visa, eftpos
Phone 0412 200 148

It was one of those travel/food moments that stay with you forever: a simple bowl of salmon sashimi at a tiny restaurant above the fresh fish market in Kanazawa​ on Japan's central coast. The slices of raw fish were so fresh they were almost twitching, their texture was silky and the flavour clean and almost electric. One thing, done extremely well.

Camberwell is a long way from Kanazawa​, though its fresh food market does have a kind of old-world feel – the solid old world of Melbourne's eastern suburbs.

"It is kind of conservative around here," says Tom Cooper, standing at the counter of his market-stall salmon smokery, known only as Tom Cooper. His Canadian accent hasn't dulled a whit in 40 years in Australia.

Tom Cooper inside his namesake market stall.
Tom Cooper inside his namesake market stall. Photo: Josh Robenstone

Cooper is an institution in Melbourne's food scene, at least among the people who cook the food. He's been supplying the likes of Andrew McConnell, Frank Camorra, Guy Grossi and more since he started importing Canadian smoked salmon in the early 1980s.

"He's a legend," says the Calendar Cheese guy, who just happened to be calling on market clients. "Best smoked salmon in town."

That best smoked salmon in town has come out of Melbourne's restaurant kitchens and into a little market stall that opened in December 2015, where you can buy it to take home or eat on the spot.

Salmon gravlax cured with Four Pillars gin.
Salmon gravlax cured with Four Pillars gin. Photo: Josh Robenstone

Cooper, a large man with raggedy white hair, smokes the fish in cold-smokers that he designed, then had manufactured in China.

"It's the world's first compact cold smoker," he says. "We built 300 and put them in every restaurant kitchen in Melbourne. They all failed, due to faulty parts." Cooper replaced the dud parts in the smokers he uses now.

The secret is a slow burn of mixed wood (maple, birch and beech) shavings. The shavings burn at a relatively cool 180C in one box, and the smoke wafts up into a refrigerated smoker box that keeps the fish at 4C – so it smokes, but it doesn't cook.

Russian salad, smoked kingfish and smoked tomato.
Russian salad, smoked kingfish and smoked tomato. Photo: Josh Robenstone

"My theory is a cool, smouldering smoke," Cooper says. "A very gentle, delicate smoke. Up to six hours of controlled burning."

Cold smoking imparts flavour to the fish, but doesn't change the texture – Cooper's smoked salmon, served simply on a bagel or maybe a Natural Tucker sourdough croissant, is a revelation: the fish is clean and fresh, silky in texture and alive (almost electric).

On the bagel are a few slices of cucumber and a generous lick of something that's half-sour cream, half-mayonnaise, whipped with lemon juice and good horseradish – a creamy-sharp contrast to delicately smoky fish. That's $12.50. Add a glass of wine or some bubbles (yes, there's Billecart​), from $7.50 (not the Billecart…), and that's lunch.

Also on the menu is gravlax, which gets a three-stage prep: it's cured with salt and a little sugar to draw out the moisture and give it some texture; washed; then given another go with sugar, juniper berries and Four Pillars gin, and finally some fresh dill. Have this on a croissant or a bagel, or maybe even a slider: the fish is imbued with the clean, herbal taste of juniper and dill, and a little hint of gin.

He also does a Russian salad: poached salmon tails with beans and carrots in a dressing of sour cream, horseradish and lemon, a savoury retro delight on dense, dark rye bread.

Other fish hits the smoker on Thursday and Friday for specials: delicate slices of kingfish, swordfish, maybe some Spanish mackerel spiced with paprika and lemon cordial – all delicious and just-smoky.

Cooper leans across the counter to hand-sell some fish to a passing shopper.

"You like smoked salmon?" he asks. "This could change your life."

Over the top? Maybe. One thing done well? Yes, indeed.

Do…Try that Russian salad. It's a winner.

Don't… Skip the bubbles.

Vibe… Secret market stall.