What is Greek cuisine?: Tradition vs Modernity
A conversation with Alex Gkikas, Vasilis Chamam and Dimitris Blachouras
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The first I heard of Catalyst was a rumour rumbling around the coffee world of a slick new cafe that had opened on Gray’s Inn Road that was also serving excellent brunch and roasting their own coffee. I remember checking out their Instagram, scrolling through pictures of oozing egg yolks in a thick cut bacon sandwich, and deep fried halloumi katsu sandos. I noted that whoever was behind it seemed to be on trend, and was probably from Australia.
I didn’t realise Catalyst was Greek until I first met its owner, Alex Gkikas, and its chef Vasilis Chamam. By that point I had eaten their sandwiches, and had a bottle of their coffee sriracha (a gamechanging hot sauce), but it was their bar snacks on Friday evenings they seemed to be most proud of: things like monkfish with trahanas pasta and dill oil, ox tongue and soaked almonds, chargrilled octopus glazed with rum, and many dishes involving white beans. It was here you could finally see the outline of something that resembles Greek cuisine, albeit somewhat blurred at the edges.
It was on the strength of these dishes that I updated my Best Value list for Eater London by putting Catalyst in there. At the time I wrote:
Alex Gkikas and Vasilis Chamam are creating something special at Catalyst, with their version of Greek/definitely-not-Greek food that isn’t straitjacketed by moussaka and someone’s memory of what they had somewhere in the Cyclades in the 1990s.
It was a revelation to me how tired a lot of London’s Greek food looked in comparison. I had been brought up on Palmers Green’s Greek-Cypriot tavernas, but outside of this (and even inside of this) London is stuck in somewhat of a time warp ─ questionable gyros and souvlaki, dry spanakopitas, the food equivalent of an extended bouzouki solo. It seemed there was such a huge space for someone to do something different, and that space was not being contested.
In the next few months, there will be a changing of the guard at Catalyst. After four years, Chamam is leaving for (literal) new pastures, and the incoming chef, Dimitris Blachouras, has been given more license to colonise that space. Perhaps the reason it has taken so long for someone to do this is the tension between tradition and modernity that lies at the heart of every cuisine, but Greek cuisine in particular, one where my flippant line about moussaka and holiday memories is far more pertinent than I had realised.
On a weekday afternoon, in the searing heat, I cycled up to Palmers Green to Paneri, the best Greek-Cypriot taverna in London, to buy some souvla and sheftalia, bringing it back down to Clerkenwell to eat with Alex, Vasilis and Dimitris ─ tradition meeting modernity, in a feast of grilled meat.
The reason I brought this over is because this is what Greek food was to me when I was growing up. I grew up in Palmers Green, so if I was having Greek food we would go to our local taverna ─ either Vrisaki or Paneri ─ and we would buy this, take it away and eat it in front of the TV.
Alex: Woah, sheftalia!
But the thing I learned later on about Greek food in London is that so much of it is actually Greek-Cypriot food. So first of all, what is it about Cypriot food that is different to Greek food?
Dimitris: I think, in Cyprus, they’re big meat eaters. They eat a lot of meat. So they have great experience making souvla and how to properly roast it. And how to make nice bread also. And the cheese!
Alex: They have halloumi that we don’t make in Greece, right?
Dimitris: Yes. I think most of their culinary history comes from the bread and cheese from the farmers, as they were taking the herds and moving them around, etc etc. And there’s a very strong influence both from the Mediterranean and the Middle East in Cyprus.
Alex: I think Cyprus is a bit more limited in that it’s an island. Even though it has the mountains and it has the sea. Cypriot cuisine is very small but very distinctive: they do Cypriot potatoes, kolokasi (taro root)
Alex: They use coriander more than the Greeks use. They do halloumi cheese that the Greeks don’t do, which is really, really distinctive. And even sheftalia ─ although we have a version that we do in Greece, they are really known for this. If we see sheftalia on a menu then we know it’s Cypriot.
Vasilis: Also they have hummus, we don’t.
Where did you all grow up?
Vasilis: Thessaloniki. I was there until I was 19.
Alex: Me too, but my parents are from the mainland of Greece, and we used to spend every summer there for three weeks. In Lamia and Thessalia, known for their shepherds and farmers.
Dimitris: I grew up in Patra. It’s a big port city in Greece, in the Peloponnese. My family is from Agrinio on the mainland. They have an extremely strong tradition over there of fire. So souvla! They’re big meat lovers, I don’t even know if they eat salad over there. They also have pies: filo, macaroni with feta, butter and milk, they do spanakopita, meat pies. They have whatever you want in pie form basically.
Even though you come from different parts of Greece and have had very different experiences of Greek cooking, do you think growing up Greek has given you all a shared perspective on food, and particularly what the function of good food should be?
Vasilis: Yeah, all the regions have their own food, but the modern, urban family cuisine is more or less 30 to 40 dishes, done with slight variations across Greece. And you eat these on a weekly basis. The type of dining as well: you have taverna type of dining, meze type of dining. This is something you grew up with regardless of where you grew up.
In a way you get trained in how to do it. When you visit a taverna for the first time, you start your training. In the taverna the mezes are quite monolithic dishes of one ingredient, and there is a bit of an education you need to go through in order to know which one goes with which, and the succession of how you eat them: from octopus to this salad, and from that to there. And then when the dish is halfway finished, you know when to eat the bread. So it’s a bit of a training, but once you grow up there comes a point of adulthood when it’s time for you to order what everyone is going to have.
Alex: Also we are from a generation where our mothers and fathers were born one or two decades after the Second World War. Their parents lived through famine. Because in the 40s there was famine. For all of us, when we were with our parents growing up, they always wanted the table to be full. Even if they didn’t eat all of it, at least the table was full. As Vasilis said, you were trained as a child to start with the salads, then the octopus and then the mains, etc etc.
Vasilis: The thing is, this type of dining is not really controlled by the chef, in the sense that they don’t build a plate with a beginning, middle and end. They build monolithic plates that will be combined through your own skill as a diner.
Is that something you ever bear in mind with your own cooking
Vasilis: Yeah, I mean, I have to do this on an actual plate so I need to be controlling all these sequences of flavours and textures that I’ve come to love over the years in meze, but all in a single dish.
Alex: *interrupting* God, this souvla is really good by the way.1 This is the first time I’ve seen souvla over here with the bone in, which is how my grandfather would do it.
This is what they’re known for. You can go in there any time of day, and they have so much chicken, pork and lamb souvla going on their spits you can just pick it up and be in and out. I’m interested in what you said about the table always having to be abundant. Does this also extend to how meat is valued as well? Because all the takeaways in Palmers Green are heavily meat based. Like there’s some fish, but it is almost entirely meat. So when I was growing up, my idea of Greek-Cypriot cuisine, and by extension, my idea of Greek cuisine, was not one where vegetables were involved too much. And yet there is such a rich tradition of vegetable and vegetarian cooking in Greece.
Alex: I met these people from the islands, they were about 60, and they told me they’re sick of fish. Because everything they had was fish. Their father was a fisherman. They say it was almost a trauma that “they would bring us so much fish”.
Dimitris: Everyday fish!
Alex: However my mother was from a shepherd family. So when they had guests over they would have a lamb on a spit and everything. When my dad gave her fish as a first date meal, she thought “oh that’s a poor thing” because they only knew meat.
Vasilis: In my case it wasn’t very meat based. It was mostly vegetables, I guess. With a little bit of meat and a little bit of fish.
Dimitris: Mine was very balanced. My grandmother was always very specific about how we would eat: so meat, fish, soup, beans.
Alex: Also, it’s significant that most Greeks are Christian Orthodox so they would practise fasting which is almost a balance in itself. Wednesday and Friday you don’t eat meat or dairy, so you would normally eat pulses and what is called lathera, which basically means vegetables [Lathi means ‘oil’ and lathera is a genre of vegetable dish that uses olive oil to sautée them in, often with some tomato]. Monday, Tuesday, Saturday and Sunday they would do meat. Plus also it was expensive in the 70s to eat meat every day!
Vasilis: I wasn’t in a religious household but it just happened that we wouldn’t eat much meat. Maybe because my dad was a doctor and we wouldn’t have much meat around. Lots of veg and pulses though.
Isn’t there a big separation between restaurant cooking and home cooking?
Dimitris: Oh yeah, oh yeah.
Because you’d never get many of these vegetarian dishes in a taverna, right?
Alex: No one would pay!
Dimitris: If you’re in Greece and you’re staying with your family, you go to a taverna because you want to escape the hassle of having a spit fire in your house, or lamb chops, or a big steak, or whatever. So that’s why you would go there.
Alex: No one would have, say, fassolakia (green beans) in a taverna.
Vasilis: Also, there’s something about the quality of the olive oil. At home, half the dish is vegetables and the other half is olive oil. When you go out you have no idea what kind of olive oil they’re using. Normally the places that do stews are cheap, working-mens places, you might go there if you don’t have much time for lunch. But it’s not a going out scenario. You wouldn’t have these homely dishes.
Dimitris: In my case, when our family went out to eat we would be very selective. We knew where we were going, what meat they were using, what oil they were using. Their wine was their wine. We ate at two tavernas in Agrinio, but we knew that their whole family would eat the same food that we were eating. It was very familiar to us, and that’s why we respected them. But as Vasilis said, over the years a lot more tavernas opened and you lost that quality.
Alex: There’s also a very big difference in Greek, because it’s a touristic country, between the tavernas that are for tourists which the locals would never go to, and there are the hidden gems where the locals go on a regular basis. This is very, very very common.
Well, it’s the same in London as well.
There are all the Greek and Cypriot restaurants that are famous, and which no Greek person goes to2. Which is most of them. And then there are tavernas in north London where you still have a Greek and Greek-Cypriot community frequenting them. How would you characterise the state of Greek food in London from what you’ve experienced?
Vasilis: I’ve been here 23 years and yet I haven’t really eaten Greek food. I’m not interested in that reproduction of what I have eaten over in Greece. I don’t believe it’s a type of food that travels easily or travels well, because it is based on the ingredients and how they are handled. Even so, even if you have the ingredients and you recreate the dishes, it isn’t really about the dishes but about the spirit around the table. Not only the table, but the spirit of the dish itself. I find it very difficult to recreate. With my cooking at Catalyst, I wanted to put that in glimpses in my dishes. And also, I think it’s been achieved in the social situation which we have here at Catalyst with me and Alex. This scenario of two people creating a dining situation and a whole atmosphere.
But no, I’ve never really eaten much Greek food here and I have never really felt the need to. When I’m cooking, for myself or for others, I try to put some elements of it as a recreation, but with other elements I try to push it forward. Some of it might be a bit abstract, to kind of pin point something down and amplify it. But very rarely do I miss the food enough to want to reproduce it. Besides, I go back fairly often
Alex, when you started Catalyst, did you have in mind what Vas just said, that you want ‘glimpses’ of Greekness on the menu?
Alex: No, no. When we started I actually had some guys from Scandinavia and the chef we had was from Kaffeine. He was Australian. But immediately, from the first day even, I felt I didn’t want to serve this. It was stuff like salmon with midori, rainbow cakes, nothing to do with my taste. I remember Vasilis came once and he was very shy. He didn’t tell me “Alex, what is going on here?” But it took me one or two months to say “this is not me”. Then I asked Vasilis to come and do something together. But we didn’t have that vision from the start, because I didn’t know London and I didn’t know if Greek food could be a thing here. Or that they might only think Greek food was a certain type of thing. Like I didn’t know if we could serve stews, or to serve lathera. But Vas had experience and he made me believe that this is something that could work.
Vas, what was your conception of how the food should be when Alex asked you to be head chef?
Vasilis: I left Greece when I was very young. I left as a teenager, before I had a chance to explore a lot of Greek food. My food was based on very early memories of home food or village food, or other situations. All these bits, in a way, by revisiting them and working on them, somehow I’m recreating them. Not in a disrespectful way, but using bits and recreating them in ways where I believe this elusive character and value of Greek food can be carried in a different dish. In an altogether different dish. It’s in the way that herbs sit together, in how high the umami is or how low, in the brightness of a dish, or if it reminds me of the landscape. Or something like that. I didn’t really have the knowledge of travelling around in restaurants, so it was mostly memory based and a means for me to mirror these feelings I had about Greek food and what I value in it in dishes that would not even seem relevant to a specific recipe.
Even the dishes I had at home were a bit mixed, because of my dad’s background [Vasilis’s father is Palestinian]. When I emigrated here, it was a case of ‘how do I make this new place feel like home?’ With different ingredients and a different food culture. So it was never the case of authentic food, or straightforward replication, but of recreating these things I found value in.
Do you think that your mixed heritage gave you more licence, even if just mentally, to play around with the borders of those cuisines?
Vasilis: Yes, in a sense, because even from a very early age when my dad would spike my mother’s Greek food with Arabic influences, it was almost like a bit of a game between me and my dad. Like a naughty game, because he wasn’t very fluent in Greek or confident in his language. So there was a bit of a mix up to begin with anyway that felt natural. And when I came here, it was my turn to do that. Different ingredients, different foods, but the same scenario.
In terms of flavour, I thought these two countries are very close to each other, either because of immigration or ingredients or commerce. Some recipes and ingredients travelled there and then were forgotten, and then came back, and then were forgotten again, and so on. For me, it happens in a natural way because what I’m going towards is not a specific dish to recreate, but the feeling that a flavour gives me. I don’t want to sound like I’m over-theorising, but it’s mostly about whether something has enough of this spark, or certain aromas, and then if I can do it with different ingredients. It is also fun for me, because it does remind me of how I grew up with food in relation to my dad. Some of the stuff my dad was doing, my mum would find ridiculous. So I’m kind of used to that as well!
Alex: It’s true that some Greeks find it ridiculous.
Vasilis: For me, I’m trying to carry what I consider to be Greek but this is more to do with balances and sensations, as to whether it carries that Greekness. For me, the aim is to be able to carry it in an eloquent way. Sometimes if you’re doing a spanakopita and you give that to someone, there might be an underwhelming feeling of not getting it. Even I can have that food and not get it. We grew up with this kind of food, and the accumulation of all these dishes and memories make up how we think about them. But when you have the food, especially outside of Greece, it might not carry the feeling you want. When I’m making food that has some elements of that ─ some dill, some spring onion, some lemon ─ I might push this to a degree and combine it with something else where it reaches a level that achieves a nostalgia, just before it collapses and becomes something else. It’s a bit like adding salt, you reach a ceiling and then beyond that…
What you’re saying about nostalgia, that has historically been the weakness of Greek cuisine in the UK. Because most British people encounter Greek food on holiday, they have a wonderful memory of some calamari or a salad or some grilled meat, and then they have it in London and it doesn’t live up to that memory. And the problem for anyone wanting to cook Greek cuisine in London is how do you capture that memory without that atmosphere, without the weather, without the ingredients?
Alex: I need to show you this. Today we had a salad and we had a guy who just sent this to me *holds up phone*
“That salad was beautiful, reminds me of trips to Greece.”
Alex: That was perfect, because that was our intention.
What was the salad?
Alex: It was melon, with some manouri
Vasilis: Raw courgette, lots of celery. For me the idea of the Greek spring, where you have all that grass and those herbs. I don’t know if I can carry that in a single recipe, but I can carry it in many little bits, whether it’s a soup or a stew or a salad. The acidity can come from tomato but it could also come from rhubarb.
Dimitris: It’s not very easy. When someone is on vacation in Greece, and you go somewhere to eat in a good taverna, you don’t have stress, you don’t have anything that troubles you. You’re going to go there, you’re going to have some small fried fishes, you’re going to have a salad ─ maybe the vegetables will be good but maybe they’re not so good. But that not having stress. And being hungry from the beach. You know that feeling? Of being on the beach all day and feeling hungry, and being hungry until you reach that restaurant or that taverna? Your stomach is screaming ‘eat!’ So when you don’t have stress, and you’re hungry from the heat, and you’re having a nice time, and you’re together with your family, even a mediocre meal can be great. So if you have a good meal, that can be extraordinary.
When you come back here and you’re looking for that memory, it will never happen. It can never be the same way. So you have to free your mind when you go to eat somewhere, you have to have a different approach as to what you’re going to experience. If you have that memory of that island, of that taverna, and you want to go to a Greek restaurant in London to have the same experience and the same memory, it’s never going to happen. Something will not be the same. So you need to change your perspective about food, and that depends on the chef. If the chef is very good he might be able to give you something of that memory, and, of course, the opposite is also true.
Alex: Now, even though it’s half a year after Brexit and things have drastically changed in how you can bring ingredients here, it is still easier to import goods than it was a few years ago. For example, we source one of the best feta I think there is. Like even in Greek restaurants you can’t find it.
Dimitris: It’s fucking amazing
Alex: And we can find this feta here in London.3 So it’s not the surprise of “ahhhhh that olive oil” any more, you can have anything you want here. The only thing that is difficult is the vegetables. Like this tomato here *points towards a tomato in the Paneri salad* this wouldn’t be found in the cheapest taverna. But the pork here is better, I could do a better souvla than I could do in Greece. You could do wonders. But no one is pushing to experiment, to say “lets creatively source ingredients to achieve something even better than what you might find in Greece.”
You were one of the first to use the halloumi from Kupros up in north London, right?
Alex: Yes, because what we have here in Catalyst and which I’m proud of ─ and Vas has helped me with this─ is that we respect what we can find here in the UK. If it’s really good then we will source it from here. The halloumi from Kupros, even though it was a bit more expensive, because we knew it tasted better we used it. We don’t import our meat because here you have amazing lamb, you have amazing pork. You can make Greek cuisine without Greek ingredients.
I haven’t had your food yet Dimitris, but Alex has told me you’re a bit more traditional than Vasilis in how you approach Greek food. How do you go about creating food that pushes the idea of Greek cuisine forward and evolves but still retains that core element of Greekness?
Dimitris: Like Vasilis, I grew up with lots of memories but I was in Greece for longer. When I was 19, when Vasilis left, I could still have an amazing meal from my grandmother in Patra when we visited. So before I came here, I could still experience that food, that hospitality of your grandmother in her house. What I’m trying to do is use my experience of restaurants to hone in on that flavour, to maybe close my eyes and remember what it was my grandmother was doing, but with a more professional touch, and more professional technique which might give you a better result in terms of body or texture. That’s all. I can cook lettuce without it losing its colour, my grandma couldn’t. But that’s just a chef thing.
Alex: The other day Vasilis was having his vaccine so he came in later. Dimitris brought over some breakfast. It was something that my grandfather, who died at 80 years old, was eating every day, and every grandfather in Greece ate every day. It was hot milk ─ you would get it fresh from a domestic goat ─ with dried sourdough that they would make in-house, with just a bit of salt. And when he made me this I was like, “oh my god”. When I posted it on Instagram some Greeks said “Wow! Papara!4 Who does that?” And when I gave it to a British person he was like “Oh, I love it because I love bread and butter pudding!”
Dimitris: You have the sourness from the sourdough, and the salt with the milk. You bring the milk to a boil. But the sourdough needs to be dry. It needs to be old ─ the more stale, the better. Like five, six days. You just pop it inside, let it cool and become soft, and you just eat it. That sourness with the milk, it’s just amazing. It’s the best breakfast and the best memories I’ve had.
So I’m just trying to recreate the flavours and the food I was eating when I was happy. That smile. I want to have that smile when I eat the food that I’m cooking. It’s very minimal, it’s very simple. When I used to play soccer in my neighbourhood, I used to go round to my grandmother. She was 90 years old. She had a big loaf of sourdough bread that she had made and I would say ‘I’m hungry!’. She would grab the bread, cut me a slice, put it on the stove, tomato, feta, and bake it. I would have a slice of bread like that.
Alex: This is also very important in the Greek meal. People needed bread and pita. It was the main meal because meat and vegetables were expensive.
Dimitris: Don’t forget, they survived with bread during the world wars. So bread was something divine. My grandmother was eating potatoes...with bread!
Dimitris: If there wasn’t bread on the table she wouldn’t like the food! It was something that was very necessary for her. I grew up with bread. Bread and olive oil. Bread on the stove with hot olive oil and sugar? Man, do that. You’re gonna love it.
Yeah, but are you going to put it on the menu though?6
Dimitris: *laughs* I can do that but it needs some sort of extra touch so you can sell it. We can do minimal, but if you go so minimal…. For me, if I had my own place I would probably do that.
Is it you who has been making this avgolemono that everyone has been talking about?
Dimitris: No it’s Vasilis.
Vasilis: This avgolemono, the difference is that at home we would boil the chicken for an hour. But here we do the stock all day, so the result is very intense and gelatinous. We kind of do a congee method. For Greeks, when you are sick you would do it this way! But I push it a bit further so it becomes even more about how I remember it, in a way.
Alex: He does it a little bit different to how a domestic housewife might do it.
Dimitris: Our grandmothers were doing congee, but they didn’t know it!
Vasilis: The chicken is sauteed and it’s cooked a little differently, but it’s essentially the same thing.
I find it very funny how there’s suddenly a lot of hype about this dish which you would have when you’re sick. Because my mum cooked avgolemono for me when I was sick as well.7
Alex: But it’s just so nice though. I would love for us to be known as the place for avgolemono.
Vasilis: It’s my favourite thing.
Alex: And you can use it for many, many dishes.
Vasilis: For me, it’s chasing after this idea of nostalgia. I kind of forgot about it as well, and then I’ve been revisiting it in my quest of recreating this idea for myself and others. It’s just something that can carry this idea as a message for other people.
It’s interesting how outside of you, and outside of the traditional places to get Greek food in London, there are many more non-Greek chefs getting interested in food in London. I mean look at avgolemono, just up the road you have Nick8 doing his dolmades and his giouvarlakia.
Vasilis: There is a little bit of connection between Greek food and what you call ‘Modern British’ because they have a similar simplicity and reliance on good ingredients, and without overcomplicating things. There are some flavours, which, in the last few years at least, have been overlooked or perceived as a bit more difficult, because they’ve been overshadowed by souvlaki. These more fine tuned flavours, or more herbal and comforting ones. Somehow I think a lot of people now are having a second look at them.
Alex: Everyone does taramasalata now, from Michelin starred restaurants to hipsters.
Dimitris: I also think there is a connection to younger people right now because the previous generation, guys who are like 50-55 now, when they were in Greece, they didn’t have the experience or the knowledge to understand what Greek cuisine is. But now with us here, and other Greek people with friends from different parts of the world, they’re helping people understand what Greek food is. It’s something that has a bigger connection between people right now, they can understand that it isn’t just souvlaki and moussaka and pita, it’s more than that. It’s not easy, but it’s very minimal food.
Alex: However, there’s no place that does a proper moussaka. Maybe we will be the ones. Because I think it’s time. I have British friends who say ‘Alex, do a moussaka but maybe don’t call it moussaka’. Because maybe people won’t come because they have an idea of what moussaka is. This is a challenge.
Vasilis: Definitely call it moussaka
Dimitris: *banging the table* No, you need to respect it. When you go to Greece now, you will even see that some people don’t respect their own roots. They love something that comes from outside. If you speak to an Italian about how you made spaghetti and that you added this or that, they will say “What did you add to that spaghetti?”9 They keep that tradition and have a line they will not cross. So we don’t do that ─ we want to make something but we want to use ponzu in our tzatziki or something exotic. I mean, come on guys. You have something, you have it right here. It’s here and it’s a treasure, so please use it.
Alex: Also the other thing which no one realises, is that Greece was under occupation from the Ottoman Empire for 400 years. So you can imagine how many mixes there have been in that time. We have many, many commonalities with Turkish cuisine. Even the names ─ imam bayildi ─ things like that, they’re basically Turkish. Our grandmothers would do baklava, phyllo baklava, but this is something that people brought over from Turkey. Also those who came from Russia, they brought their own traditions. So this thing is already so big. And all the different areas. You have some islands which were basically completely independent and they have crazy food.
Vasilis: Totally unexplored
Alex: Even Greeks don’t know.
Vasilis: Greeks don’t know anything about the food they do on the islands. They all have different produce, different cheeses, other milk products, and they’ve never been included in the general urban family cuisine and definitely not in the tavernas which is a kind of umbrella cuisine.
This for me is the big difference between Italian and Greek cuisine, in that Italy has managed to advertise a coherent version of its cuisine around the world, and yet Greek cuisine, from what you’re saying, is something that not even the Greeks fully understand.
Alex: 100 percent. The majority of Greeks do not know the traditional dishes served in the how many thousand of islands there are. You follow these people and you’re like “wow!” Vasilis went to Tinos last year and he came back with handmade pasta with greens ─ normally you would have it with a sauce ─ greens and lamb. And grapes, and special kinds of cheese. These combinations which you wouldn’t normally have. Or Crete. In Crete they have many things ─ snails for instance ─ that we wouldn’t eat in the rest of Greece. Cretans have amazing recipes for snails. Frygadelia, lamb liver with caul fat ─ things like that. No one would do this here, but we want to do it.
Vasilis: Well we have done some things here. We did tripe with horta [Literally “weeds”. Horta refers to any wild greens which are usually boiled and dressed with good olive oil]. That could have been from an island!
What is next for Catalyst?
Alex: Vasilis, after four years with us, he’s turning his page and will go back to Greece. And we were lucky enough to have Dimitris. Vasilis is more like an artist, he can play around with many things. With Dimitris I think we can go even more hardcore with the Greek direction. The dish of the day that we do here really gives us unlimited scope. But we won’t mess around with the classics, I will never change something for the British barristers opposite who come here for a sandwich.
Ahh, but you did put tartare in the bacon sandwich which I think is quite controversial
Alex: I don’t know if Vasilis took it from there, but the thing that reminded me of, as a Greek, was one of the biggest Greek chains, Goody’s. Their cheeseburger had exactly that tartare sauce. And it was a massive hit in Greece. All of us have that same flavour in our memory: the taste of a Goody’s cheeseburger. Do you remember Goody’s?
Dimitris: Yeah, even now they’re a big chain. In Patra, where I grew up, McDonald’s failed because they opened next to Goody’s. No chance!
Alex: They were probably not good burgers, but they were a massive success. The owners made millions. But when Vas made me that tartare, it hit me: Goody’s!
Well it reminded me of a Big Mac.
Vasilis: *reluctantly* Well yes, they are similar.
And what are you doing, Vasilis?
Vasilis: Well I’m going home and I’m going to live my life as an adult for the first time in Greece. It will be the first time after 23 years of London being my home. It’s very weird emotionally. But I’m looking forward to how I’ll respond to that change in terms of what food I produce. I’ll definitely have a different relationship with the ingredients, and also with the audience. Here I was trying to make a point to people, for people to hear what I had in my mind when I was talking about a particular dish or memory. Now there, it will be a different scenario because everyone will know what the reference is. I just want to open up to ingredients and dishes I’ve never learned because I left very early, and see how that goes.
Alex: I was having a conversation with Vas about Greeks. You know, we went to Thessaloniki and we did a pop-up and cooked for them. They loved the food, they said it was good, but they couldn’t eat all of it because “it was spicy”. All we did was put coffee sriracha on there! But Greeks, even if you put a little bit of hot sauce on there they will tell you it’s too spicy. After six years in London, I’ll put hot sauce on things because it’s part of the culture here, but everyone is like “Alex, please!” I think Vasilis will find it very interesting to be back.
Vasilis: I want to be connected more to the sourcing, going fishing, going hunting, picking stuff, seeing what you can do with this root, that root. Because there’s always something that even Greeks haven’t used, because they haven’t got into this playful approach to ingredients that they don’t know what to do with. I’m going to go in a bit like a foreigner. I know I’ll have a bit of a strange presence at the beginning because of my ignorance of things and my enthusiasm for being back.
Alex: What would you like to see from us?
Well you’ve anticipated my last question. I personally love offal so I would like to see someone do a great version of kokoretsi [Lamb or goat intestines stuffed with chopped offal and grilled]. But my simple question to you would be: if you could transport one ingredient, or one dish, or one cooking technique or concept, and make it a part of London culture and appreciated by Londoners, what would it be?
Alex: For me it would be moussaka. Because if you have proper moussaka, it is one of the best things ever. Heaviest thing ever also, but best.
Dimitris: Right now ─ maybe in five minutes it will be something else ─ but right now what I have in my mind is just chargrilled fish, sprinkled with salt, lemon and oregano. Nicely cooked.
Vasilis: I would do horta. All these different horta which people don’t know about.
Dimitris: That’s the hard part for me here: I love horta, I love all these wild greens. So I just need to find some. That would be a nice thing to bring here, because the nature here has everything. Everything you have in Greece, you also have here.
Alex: Jonathan, what they just said are the most typical things in Greece: amazing fish on charcoal, with an amazing plate of horta next to it with tons of lemon.
Dimitris: And oregano! Dried oregano, good wine and sourdough bread to dip in all the liquids after. And that’s all. You know, you’re just building up to your last dip. Because that’s your last memory, your last dip.
Of course it fucking was
Alex later messaged me to tell me the name of the feta but swore me not to publish it
Papara is also Greek slang for a soft, flaccid penis and is used to describe someone who says stupid things
I was fashioning a pita sandwich with cold potatoes and onions throughout the conversation
This will be on the Quality Wines menu within a week, I guarantee it.
Quite why my mum knew how to cook avgolemono is lost to the mists of time, but it almost certainly was due to some Greek Adonis who didn’t become my father.
Nick Bramham, the head chef at Quality Wines, notorious for his habit of culturally appropriating (stealing) humble Mediterranean food
The Gino d’Acampo gambit