Apostolos Trastelis, In all things moderation

March 03, 2016
I team up with Panos Deligiannisto submitApostolos Trastelis to a grilling... no easy task. The man behind Spondi, Hytra, Fuga and some rather unexpected projects talks about new Greek cuisine, sets new targets and envisions a third Michelin star.

Panos Deligiannis: Let’s get straight to the point. What is the best food you have ever eaten?

It depends on the moment. I was impressed overall – that is, by the people, the organisation –at Jacques Chibois’ first evening at Spondi. It may not be my all-time best, but it was characterised by exceptional harmony that left me feeling warm inside. It was then I realised that Spondi had broken the mould; it had attained the highest European standards. At that moment I felt perfectly balanced; I foresaw what would happen in the next three or four years. There was a chemistry that energised things. I wouldn’t necessarily say it was my finest moment, because it is just one moment among so many others, if I want to be objective.

P.D.: At which restaurant did you experience those other moments?

Spondi.

P.D.: B***er off with your Spondi!

Please don’t write that.

Ira Sinigalia: Of course!

Because you are a journalist who reports the truth [laughing].

I.S.: Do you cook?

No! To cook, you must have time and I have none...

P.D.: Or at least know how [laughing]. Is there some chef you envy, who you would like to have on your team?

I would like to have the conditions in which restaurants operate abroad, because I believe such a framework would also develop our own dynamic team. It would also serve as a pole of attraction; people with special talents or skills could come here from abroad. The famous chefs who do come from abroad arrive and settle in with their entire arsenal. It’s not easy to work with them. You will follow their lead, whether you like it or not. I personally would like to create a convention and evolve with it.

P.D.: Of the chefs you have worked with, who are you most proud of?

I would have to say Arnaud Bignon. He began his career as a sous chefat the Bristol and I believe that with him we were very close to a third star. I also enjoyed our personal relationship, because Arnaud is a very kind, special person. It’s not enough to be a formidable chef, you must also be able to control yourself as a human being, otherwise all sorts of problems are created which can undermine relations in the kitchen.

P.D.: In which country would you like to open a restaurant?

Certainly in London, in New York, but one city that interests me in particular, for many reasons, is Istanbul.

P.D.: Tell us something about your plans for the future.

I intend to open one or two restaurants abroad. I can’t elaborate; more details nearer the time. We are still at the discussion stage.

I.S.: Are you strict?

If you’re not strict, if you don’t maintain your standards, if you are not consistent, if the way in which you have envisaged and targeted things lacks continuity, then you will achieve nothing. If you want to overcome the conditions prevailing in this country, you have to be strict. The only way forward is through targeting and constant adjustment to the target. If you forget yourself, you’ve lost the game. And it’s very easy to lose the game in Greece, because there is no professionalism and everything suffers from shortcomings.

I.S.: What’s your opinion of the gastronomic scene in Greece? Can you envisage its future?

I can’t. In the present crisis, no way. We say that the crisis might turn out to be a catalyst for new opportunities, but private initiative alone is not enough. At present, I believe there are very many ‘players’ looking on passively. Investors aren’t investing and the state often fails to take the initiative. There is widespread inertia and I don’t know when it will end.

P.D.: You can’t see us exiting the crisis?

Unfortunately, the mindset remains the same.

I.S.: Despite all the announcements?

In Greece there is no shortage of announcements but I don’t believe them. Swimming against the tide, I personally strive to change whatever I can, with perseverance and hard work. At the moment I am trying to evolve and activate my own establishments. Efforts are certainly being made by some new faces who have potential to progress in the kitchen, but there is a great deal of mimicry. We spoke before about new Greek cuisine. If you ask me, it doesn’t exist. What do you think Panos?

P.D.: In the sense of a clearly defined trend, I don’t think it exists, but many people are joining the game and even the process of one copying the other will generate new ideas…

But does this new thing that is being generated have a distinct personality? Does it have its own identity or is it just imitation, a little bit of this and a little bit of that? I don’t believe we can speak in terms of a new current.

P.D.: If you want my opinion, I think we were too hasty defining it. I believe it is currently being shaped.

You are absolutely right. So, at the present time, the first tentative steps are being taken to give nascent new Greek cuisine an identity. As far as I am concerned, new Greek cuisine is what will shape, evolve, activate and – in revolutionary fashion – swell the current.

Such currents have appeared in other countries. We should and we could do the same, but it requires support, assistance from all agencies and of course manpower. Why do I use the word ‘nascent’? I am referring to the young people already working in kitchens who are beginning to create a certain standard; sooner or later the most capable will shine through. For if you were to count the outstanding Greek chefs at the present time, the fingers of two hands would suffice. And when I say chef, I mean fully developed personalities who achieve real progress, create and refrain from rehashing old ideas.

So, when things are moving in this direction and more people are “producing”, each player will shape his or her own distinct personality and won’t be interested in copying or regurgitating  developments in other countries. Then, it will be easier for us to speak in terms of new Greek cuisine. And because we can see some young people who appear to be quite promising (though not yet in the service area) I believe that new Greek cuisine will at some point take root and flourish.

It is in this framework that I have begun by bringing together so many personalities here, at Hytra, with the aim of making it a workshop for Greek cuisine, for the promotion and utilization of Greek products, for the activation of chains and linkages so as to create something different. I don’t necessarily want to introduce a radical change. Even if I achieve mom’s classic, home cooking to a satisfactory degree, I would consider this a success, because it stirs memories, is characterized by simple honesty and creates an initial base. I don’t know how things will pan out; we’ll see as we progress.

P.D.: At any rate it is a bold move to have two big names, Nikos Karathanos and Chrystanthos Karamolegos, working in the same kitchen, albeit on two different themes.

I would say three, not two, because Dimitris Dimitriadis too is an outstanding, immensely talented chef. He is extremely good at his job. I have worked with him for many years and his participation lends significant weight to the entire project. The time is right and enables me to take certain steps. If we take the right steps, with professionalism and maturity, I believe the potential afforded by the Onassis Cultural Centre will bring the desired result.

P.D.: After overseeing so many ventures in Crete, on Mykonos and above all at the Sani Resort and now in Kavala with the Imaret, what are your feelings about the tourist aspect of gastronomy? Are conditions ripe for good hotels to sell haute cuisine?

F&B operations are a vital component of good service and all hotels must do their utmost to offer the very best in this field. Unfortunately, this is not the case. The truth is that I have often felt great voids in many of my collaborations. The people undoubtedly had willingness and enthusiasm, but their mistake was they didn’t have the patience to build the first stepping block. They all believe that working with anyone, whether big names or small, they can bury the concept and present a transformed version. You can’t do this. This year marks my ninth year at Sani, where we change level each year, and our collaboration began to take offonly after the third year.

I do not work in order to impress, I work to build something. So, looking round a place, when you see glaring shortcomings, you will demand their immediate rectification. Also, very few people understand that this is an investment. In other words, you are starting out now with the aim of having the desired profile in three or four years’ time. Perhaps they lacked the financial means, the patience, or they didn’t like my approach, whatever. So you often see a huge deficit with regard to infrastructure, that is, the F&B operations are simply nowhere near the proper standard.  What has impressed me is the thinking of the Sani owners. The fact that we have worked together for so long means there is a certain chemistry, which by itself generates things. As for the other restaurants I have been closely involved with: I am proudof Sea You Up, the Japanese restaurant in Halkidiki, but I also take pride in certain small steps, which may not be apparent, because they have associated me with precise focusing. We have created, for example, an exceptional trattoria, Macaroni, again in Halkidiki, the like of which – in my opinion – does not exist in Athens.

I.S.:  Am I right in thinking you are a patient man?

Persistent, I would say. I am also full of anxiety, but passion too, a particular type of love. Since an early age I believed that love is written with capital letters; love for an idea, a certain course. Love in a more ancient Greek philosophical sense. It was something inherent that has helped me enormously to create certain conditions, which have in turn enabled me to surpass the mediocrity that was the rule in Greece.

I.S.: How do you achieve your targets?

With blood, sweat and… By giving a piece of myself, literally. If you don’t put your whole heart into something, if you don’t sacrifice part of your daily life, you will achieve nothing. Personally, I frequently engage in repetition. That is to say, you start out, you set your target and you strike, but because you cannot be constantly alert, you relax, and strike again… By doing so, you strengthen the system and raise the bar.

I.S.: What does success mean to you?

A person whose daily life is characterized by a state of dynamic quietude. You must control things with calm. Not indifferently; you are calm but not asleep; in a state of dynamic equilibrium. Then, you feel fulfilled.

I.S.: What makes an ideal chef?

The ideal chef is not simply someone who cooks well. They must correctly handle the ingredients, the kitchen economy and staff. He or she must be a good coach. You might have five good players and never put together a team. You may create outstanding recipes, but if you don’t develop everything else, your kitchen will fall apart and you will never have a team; you will never achieve success unless there is a team inside and outside the kitchen. A heart, a brain, structural cellsare all vitally important, but they must function as part of an entire body.

I.S.: What is your part in all this?

What do you think? Most likely the heart, but I can’t really say.

P.D.: How do you see yourself 10 years from now?

It would be easier for me to answer that question if we had not been swept into a maelstrom, in which it is difficult for me to see myself even two months down the road. So that I might balance things and structure the coming six months. In other words, I don’t feel relaxed enough to be able to consider the next 10 years and understand where I will be. I would like to have attained certain objectives; I would like Spondi to progress as I imagine in the coming period; I would like to have…

P.D.: … a third star?

I think it’s what’s missing.

P.D.: Do you think it’s feasible?

In Greece, even a second star is considered nigh on impossible. Many people I know in the business considered it impracticable for me to even try. I could also express myself abroad, with the aim of firmly establishing something truly Greek and building a solid name for it. For I believe the culinary art should have a dual impact; it should activate people abroad and at the same time promote tourism in Greece. I am absolutely convinced that such a move and such a trend is possible and I think that the players involved have begun taking steps in that direction.

I.S.: When are awards a good thing and when not?

When they correspond to reality and are objective, so that they facilitate the recognition of high standards. They do harm when they are governed by PR considerations and aimed at causing a commotion.

I.S.: Once the TV cooking show fad is over, what will be left with?

Quality in our daily eating habits, I would hope. Cooking with better ingredients, greater ardour and love.

P.D.: Say Greece manages to put its house in some order over the next three years and in the meantime you have begun your project abroad. Can you see yourself as an overseas-based entrepreneur?

As I said, I would definitely like to express myself abroad. I don’t believe I can express myself any longer here in Greece on many levels; I can create things that haven’t yet been done, but the prospect of working abroad intrigues me.

P.D.: Which Greek chef would you like to work with or which Greek restaurant would you like to have…

[Laughing] From the point of view of architecture? Well as far as chefs are concerned, I wanted to work with Chrysanthos, and that’s what I’m doing. I consider him to be incredibly creative. He is a very special personality and if we coordinate ourselves, we shall both improve. The relationship may become dynamic and spark developments. There are not many top Greek chefs; I singled out one for you. I think highly of Christoforos Peskias; I had a marvellous time working with him on the TV show and we have become very close.

I.S.: But you didn’t pick a restaurant…

I like Vezene, its aesthetic appeal, its owner, who has done some interesting things. I would also say Papaioannou, but be careful, they are not exactly chefs, it is an intermediate situation. At Papaioannou I like the way they approach and respect their work. I also really like the mother and children at Kritiko, Mavrikos on Rhodes… When you speak to him, he oozes politeness. It is a real pleasure talking to such people, and this pleasure is also conveyed in their food. I would like to have the approach of someone who achieves the maximum in terms of ingredients, cheese, meat and vegetables. There are people who strive for this in their particular field in a manner commensurate with their capabilities.

I.S.: Will Greece exit the crisis and if yes, how will things be?

Inevitably yes, the crisis will end. But what is essential is for the crisis to operate in the meantime as an opportunity for remedying the various ills and distortions.

I.S.: Do you fear failure?

There is always a cost and this grieves you. And when you struggle, you will never succeed unless you first fail. What defines me is that I experience the chagrin more intensely than the joy, to which I say “OK, let’s move on now”, as if I don’t allow myself the time to live it.

I.S.: And one last question…

Are you sure it’s the last?

I.S.: Yes.

[Laughing] Now you disappoint me.

I.S.: In a constantly changing society, with which values should we move forward?

With inner awareness.

I.S.: What do you mean exactly?

If we don’t observe and identify our structure as individuals and as human beings, I think the ship will start taking on water, so to speak. We must find the values, principles and common elements which govern each of us. We must recognize our ‘family’, develop it, create the necessary conditions within it so that it is able to foster a healthy, active present, not future.

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