Tell us a bit about you… When did you get started in the industry, and what has been your path to running your own restaurants?
I had always loved restaurant/hospitality and the service around looking after people. I wasn’t enjoying studies at university and decided to leave for Greece. I lived in Athens and worked in bars and restaurants, eventually becoming a very good sommelier before coming back to Melbourne after 11 years. I worked my way through the Melbourne restaurant scene, falling in love with managing and guiding teams to become the best that hey can be. As a restaurateur I have extended my repertoire of understanding a small business and have been frustrated with the amount of tedious, minor but important tasks that one must do. The fun part is the service but painful part is the rest of the admin, financial, network, media and cleaning. You have to love it otherwise it is difficult to stay sane and viable.
How do you feel your Greek heritage has inspired or contributed to your journey?
I believe that my heritage has everything to do with who I am and how I live. My parents are older and come from a time of the Depression, WWII and Civil War, the stories I have heard and the trauma, resilience of that generation has affected me. The Greek language itself has taught me to understand how meaningful words are and how emotive they can be. Expression is key to what I do and of course we have a particular sense of being; truly a philosophical approach which can be attractive but also isolating. I apply my Hellenic background to all things and weigh up all my interactions with this as a guide. Of course when I speak of Hellenism I am channeling a version which I don’t often see in Australia, unfortunately I am detached from the idea of Greeks being bouzoukia loving, church going and tourist food. There’s nothing wrong with that but to truly represent a cuisine and its culture you must delve deeper into its psyche. Its like watching Zorba the Greek and thinking that the film is just about that last dance. It’s not.
The impact of COVID-19 has been catastrophic to the much-cherished Melbourne restaurant industry, what initiatives have you created during the lockdowns to keep customers connected with EPOCHA?
As mentioned service is a must for me. Keeping people connected and engaged in the restaurant was important so we opened a grocery store for people to have a coffee and a snack. I felt that our sense of community was missing and it was eye opening to see people that had never stepped foot through the door, thinking we were a new cafe. It goes to show you can be right next door and never speak to anyone. We made sure our staff and neighbours knew that we were available for those connections and for people who didn’t have the means.
Eat Forward Melbourne is one of the initiatives that you have created during the restrictions, what inspired you to start this program? What is your goal?
The main inspirations for Eat Forward were to keep people employed by feeding those in need, and providing people who could help a way to donate to an initiative with purpose. Eat Forward had its genesis in March and its taken all this time to set up an NFP company that will be able to spearhead this action in the future. The idea was to involve many restaurants but this seemed a challenge with the industry's survival on the verge of collapse. We have managed to serve hundreds of meals with a small amount of donations, funded predominantly by the restaurant’s resources. The hope is to have a night a week that is dedicated to feeding those who need our help. Restaurants are better at feeding people, hands down.
Throughout your 30+ year career in hospitality you’ve no doubt witnessed the swell of trends and the momentum of change, how do you think the industry and the diner has changed through the impact of Masterchef and the rising celebrity of chefs and
I do feel that people have enjoyed having insight into how and why chefs create, most chefs have worked crazy hours to become fine stewards of their craft and if they are perceived as rock stars, so be it. But like anything, if there is no balance you do see an inflated, hyped-up version of the industry, and worthiness is only understood by the main actors of our sector. Overall measured attention is wonderful but overindulgence in idolisation is harmful. I do think that whilst it can help increase consumer interest it can also hinder the reason why restaurants exist. It is worth remembering that 'celebrity' chefs have a legion of people who help create and maintain them. Hospitality involves many faces to make one person stand out. The work of hospitality people is sometimes thankless, we need to be able to show that their work and passion is worth our acknowledgement even if they are not in the limelight like the industry’s few Hospo Gods!
Last year you started a program at Epocha to educate diners on good restaurant etiquette, what was your underpinning reason for creating this school? Do you think there will be a quantum behavioural change in customers/diners in the post-covid period? If so, what are you expecting?
My restaurant school came from an incident that made me very sad. A customer yelling at my staff. I had heard of customers at other venues, incidences like inappropriate touching, shouting, rudeness and leaving without paying. I learnt that people are frustrated with us, that we hadn’t communicated why we need etiquette guidelines, as a result there was push back from people who didn’t like to be told what to do, especially when they were paying for the experience. It was a sensitive approach to try and not offend customers, when naturally they would want to stack plates, touch glassware that was not going to be used, move furniture, place napkins in plates and use all the cutlery that was in-front of them. That was a world away from where we are now. I expect that they are now yearning for the treatment of someone caring for them and looking after their needs. I believe that restaurants also will have a different perspective too. I'm pretty sure that the future of dining will be a more thoughtful and complete process, whereby the respect and attention to the small details will be paramount and the guest will be dining less but having better experiences. It makes sense that both sides will be grateful for the opportunity to practice the careful and meticulous wonderment that is to dine.