Eating out, Mediterranean style has made huge inroads into Australian menu choices over recent years.
Restaurants serving Greek food have been around since the 1970s. But the Australian dining-out scene has been influenced by generations of Greek restaurant owners going back as far as the 1800s.
The Greek influence – with dishes such as souvlaki, taramasalata and saganaki, and the relaxed informality of the taverna – continues to grow in popularity, especially in and around Sydney.
“We love loud music, a busy dining room and the smell of food coming from the kitchen onto the floor”, says Stefano Marano, head chef at The Apollo Restaurant, the last six years.
Being a “modern Greek restaurant at the high end of casual dining” also means “service is professional but not over the top”. A taverna style Mediterranean offering can be “refined to a point that looks interesting – but not necessarily fine dining”.
Cooking is “all about simplicity – 2, 3, 4 ingredients on a plate
He says he comes from a part of the world – Naples, southern Italy – where cooking is “all about simplicity – 2, 3, 4 ingredients on a plate – that’s all it takes”. It’s not surprising to find that his own food philosophy is to “keep it simple”.
“The most popular dishes at The Apollo have always been our ‘signatures’ – taramasalata, saganaki cheese and roast lamb shoulder. The BBQ seafood, and some of the desserts such as the lemon pie and the honey doughnuts, follow very closely”.
The Apollo menu is also changed seasonally – around four times a year – but not the “crowd pleasers”, it would be “unfair” to our customers!
Luck of working with some great ‘old school chefs
Stefano’s career actually started in Italy around the age of 15 when studying cooking at school. His first working experience of eating out venues was in pubs and pizzeria then making his way through trattoria and casual restaurants, before eventually discovering the world of fine dining – in Italy and then, England.
As with so many chefs we have spoken with at Life on The Pass – who highlight the importance of positive mentors – as a youngster he was “lucky enough” to find himself in “good work environments” in Italy and then England. He also says he had the luck of “working with some great ‘old school chefs’ such as Gualtiero Marchesi – considered to be the ‘founder of modern Italian cuisine’ and Raymond Blanc – the only chef honoured with both an OBE from Britain and the equivalent of a knighthood from France.
Upon his return to Australia. He found himself surrounded by key influences, including, Stefano Manfredi – leading exponent of modern Italian cuisine in Australia, Janni Kyritsis, James Parry and Jonathan Barthelmess – owner of The Apollo.
Stefano sees his current employer as mentor and friend, respected on both a professional and personal level, “Jonathan has a unique view of the industry and restaurant concepts, and for all his influence and support, I will be forever grateful”.
Amazing element which completely transforms our way of cooking
Despite expressing his instinctive desire for simplicity in his cooking style, Stefano says he “loves all ingredients” and considers he’s lucky to have access to “an incredible variety of produce”.
“Some of the produce we have access to has such incredible qualities that all we need is a simple approach in the way we treat them, prep them and cook them without altering their natural flavour”.
It may not be too surprising to learn that Stefano prefers to use oil rather than butter, and quick cooking methods over braising and poaching. He say it’s “purely because of the kind of food I like eating”. But his favourite cooking technique is using an open fire.
“It’s an amazing element and addition to our kitchen, which completely transforms our way of cooking – and the end result. I would find hard to think of any future kitchen I would be working in without some sort of fire cooking element”.
Stefano says he’s also “really passionate” about making bread. “Mostly sourdough but also focaccia, and flat breads – with that satisfying feel when you pull it apart! I love the process and the feel of the dough in your hands, and the way the dough transforms throughout the process. Particularly, the way it smells and tastes once out of the oven!”
It’s so important for anyone to be in a well managed work environment
Another element of the kitchen that can also have a big influence on a chef’s everyday life is managing the stress that can become overwhelming during particularly busy periods. Stefano sees mental health as “a serious issue in our society… and seems to definitely be something that belongs to our generation more than past ones”.
“I think the level of stress and responsibilities in this day and age is become something hard to manage for the individual. Life is so frantic and frenetic all around us. It’s so important for anyone to be in a serene and well managed work environment.
Chefs, in particular, have always been pretty hard done by – especially in parts of the world like the United States and Europe where there’s still an old school way of looking at hospitality”.
He says that the Apollo have started implementing many changes to support staff wellbeing, including shortening the chef’s working week and hours, with reduced shifts and longer breaks.
“We are well known for our amazing staff meals. I think it’s really important to feed your staff properly. It really doesn’t take that much more effort to put up a few good, tasty and nutritious dishes rather than some last minute, deep fried something”.
For me the book that should sit in every chef library
Time spent relaxing away from the pass is, of course, equally important for recharging creative energies.
When Stefano is not in the kitchen he says you will find him behind a pottery wheel, “trying to make some wonky piece of ceramics”.
“I have taken on pottery a couple of years ago and it’s really grown on me quite quickly. I find it quite therapeutic and rewarding…most times!”.
He also says he could be on the basketball court for a quick game or, more likely, home baking sourdough. “I’m also always reading about bread and looking for a different technique, or something that could give my love of creating an extra element – all the Tartine books are fantastic for that”.
Another favourite culinary read, and a book “kept handy” is, ‘On Food and Cooking’ by Harold McGee. “For me the book that should sit in every chef library”.
Don’t take shortcuts, those steps are there for a reason
Stefano also has straightforward advice for young chefs, simply, “Don’t rush it and follow what you love”.
He says that “cooking is hard – the reward and success comes with cost and conditions attached. Especially early in your career, you will come across some difficult kitchens personalities and even unusual working conditions”.
He says “It takes determination to push through those things and come out on the other side before you start actually enjoying the job. But if it’s what you love, if it’s your passion – don’t rush through your journey, don’t take shortcuts, those steps are there for a reason – it’ll all be worth it at the end”.