Introduction

Introduction

By
Pam Talimanidis
Contains
0 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781742704869
Photographer
Mark Roper

I had seen the premises of A La Grecque in Aireys Inlet many times. It had been built as a restaurant and had changed hands and names repeatedly. It had always seemed to me rather sad, a place you just drove past. When my husband Kosta told me it was for sale and asked me to look at it, I couldn’t see anything to like about it. Three times I said no. But, being Kosta, he bought it anyway. That was in 2004.

I met Kosta in 1977 while I was still at university. He had only just opened his restaurant in Lorne, which was then called The Steak Place. Being in love with a mad Greek distracted me from my studies but, somewhat miraculously, I passed my law degree and moved to the coast with Kosta. Lorne was then a small village and we were friends with the other shopkeepers in the main street. We partied all night and swam all day and in between managed to run the restaurant. Gradually, however, we began to take the business more seriously. We renamed it Kostas Taverna and from there, ‘Kostas’ took on its own identity. It developed into an iconic eating place on the Great Ocean Road, renowned for its great atmosphere – largely a result of Kosta’s sense of fun – and its simple, fresh food. We added dishes to the menu, some experimental, some traditional; fresh fish and seafood were mainstays, along with Greek flavours, oils and spices.

Thankfully, after we married and had children, Kosta’s parents came to Australia to help us care for our sons, Alex, Stratos and Dominic. My mother-in-law, Kyria Domna, was endlessly patient with me, carefully teaching me Greece’s beautiful language and its cooking. She showed me the importance of thoughtful preparation, being sure to avoid wasting precious ingredients.

After we had been in the restaurant industry for nearly thirty years at Kostas Taverna, what had once been fun and challenging became less so. I began to feel that being in the same place for so long was smothering us. Customers had started to dictate their expectations, protesting when anything changed and stifling creativity in the kitchen. We sold Kostas in 2003 and for a year played in the garden, went camping and spent time with our boys.

Opening A La Grecque breathed new life into us. The uncertainty of starting a new business, and in a town previously unable to sustain a restaurant, kept us on our toes. There were no guarantees. We were apprehensive, but we knew the direction we wanted to take and felt invigorated by the prospect. We knocked off all the extra bits and pieces that had been added onto the building over the years – closed verandahs, tool sheds, fences, windmills – to reveal the original structure. A new kitchen, some fresh paint, a cycle of frescoes by our friend Domenico de Clario, new furniture, new menu and we were in business with a fresh canvas.

Simplicity. That was to be our mantra. Seasonal, fresh, simple. Just the kind of food we ate at home. A family restaurant, where it was a great experience not only for the customers but also for us.

Running a restaurant in a small seaside town on the south-west coast of Victoria, primarily a summer holiday destination, meant that we worked very hard in the summer but the winter months were quiet. So each year we took off to Kosta’s village, Polypetron, in the north of Greece for a long holiday over June and July. We still do it. The boys missed school in their younger years but learnt in other ways, in particular, the history and culture of their ancestry, speaking fluent Greek, getting to know their cousins and grandparents and understanding the workings of a small Greek agricultural village.

Polypetron has become a second home to me. When we are there we live the local life. We go to the daily markets in nearby villages and our whole day revolves around planning dinner. We grow as much as we can in the garden. The excellent soil and warm climate mean that soon after we arrive we can harvest produce from our own garden. ln the interim, friends and neighbours offer whatever produce they have, so that we are never without fresh vegetables and eggs. Our cherry trees are laden with fruit at the end of spring, followed shortly by apricots, peaches and plums and, just as we are leaving, the figs and grapes begin to ripen.

In the village we relax completely in the familiar company of relatives and long-time friends. We read, take a siesta in the afternoon, drink our coffee under the branches of a massive walnut tree and walk to the next village, where we greet old friends along the way.

What I most admire about Greek family life is that the families stay together and look after one another. Many households accommodate three or more generations; grandparents look after grandchildren, especially for the long summer holiday. Keeping our family together while running a restaurant, with both of us working nights, was not always easy. I insisted on the family sitting down to meals together, at least for breakfast and lunch, and at night the boys often worked in the restaurant with us. When they were teenagers they disappeared whenever they saw an opportunity, but Kosta would find them and drag them back to work. Now they have all grown up to be excellent workers. Alex joined us as a partner in the business and is now with me in the kitchen as our number-one chef. All of our sons were proficient in the kitchen at an early age; peeling carrots and garlic, and shelling peas and broad beans were second nature to them. Everyone pitched in. Through it all, we know we can rely on one another regardless of the difficulties.

The phrase ‘à la grecque’ – ‘in the Greek way’ – perfectly conveys the style of food I had in mind when we started our new restaurant. The expression gave me the license to interpret Greek cooking to include the influences of surrounding Mediterranean countries – European and Middle Eastern – while making use of the amazing produce of Australia, and the best condiments and produce of Greece that are so readily available here.

The Greek table is a place of sharing. It reflects the yearly cycle of the garden and the foods that are unique to each season, the careful and loving preparation of fresh produce, and, most importantly, the offering of ‘filoxenia’ – friendship and hospitality. In the recipes that follow I hope to share with you the joys of an abundant Greek table and to show you how preparing and eating good food are the essentials of wellbeing.

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