Aris Vezenes, Culinary... Aristocrat

February 18, 2016
The owner and chef of Vezene, one of the most successful restaurants in Athens, recently returned from the MAD Symposium in Denmark, the theme of which was guts, and speaks about the influences he received, his viewpoints and his objectives.

Aris Vezenes believes in treating customers ethically; he has firm values and rebuffs the “skewered meat movement”, as he calls it, by advocating quality, domestic produce and ecological awareness. A down-to-earth chat with the participation of Panos Deligiannis!

At the MAD Symposium, on the theme of guts (both in the sense of entrails and of courage), there was much talk about a broader vision beyond the quest for Michelin stars. What is the cuisine associated with the common good?

The issue relates to the way we feed ourselves. This symposium, like other smaller ones, go beyond the analysis of catering trends. Not long ago, for instance, we were discussing a new thinking behind restaurants which would combine this type of food with that kind of drink and decor. Now we think more about what we are being fed, so to speak. In a sense, “you are what you eat” is making a comeback, particularly in an era dominated by the industrial production of ingredients. At the symposium it was stressed that chefs and restaurants can change some widely held perceptions. There is absolutely no reason why residents of Ioannina – to choose a place at random – should be consuming imported cheese, canned food and mass produced ingredients in general. It would be better if they preferred local market garden produce, handmade pasta from the region and made their own sauces. So chefs should not only be thinking about how to create a very good restaurant but also how they can change attitudes, influence beliefs and contribute to the transformation of consumer habits.

Can such a “movement”gain support in Greece at a time when the main criterion for most people is cost?

I shall answer by using the example of Dario Cecchini, who opened the symposium. He is the greatest butcher in the world and what he said was quite simple. Each animal has many muscles that require a different approach when cooking and of course entail a different cost. “My family have been butchers for three generations, but you would never see tenderloin, rib eye or strip loin in the house, because we had to sell these cuts to get by. But we did have shank, tongue, cheeks and entrails. These can make up for the absence of the other cuts and even be tastier,” Cecchini said. So, in Greece we can eat good, domestically produced food at home provided there is more information and awareness. When we go to the butcher’s, we must learn not to ask for cuts at X price, for there are others at half the cost. 

Panos Deligiannis: Restaurants set fashions and trends. Just as we only recently became familiar in Greece with fashionable rib eye and tenderloin, strawberries and mushrooms all year round, so too we can now create a trend towards eating the entire animal, preferring seasonal produce and adopting the “100-mile” diet at home, in other words buying items produced within a small radius of where we live. What can you personally do to spread this message?

It is up to us, as chefs, to run this experiment. If we create a dish using pork jowls, which cost only €3 a kilo, and demonstrate that the flavour is exceptional, satisfying the stomach’s “brain”, in other words a wholesome and inexpensive dish, then we have taken the first step. You can then go along to the butcher’s and instead of pork tenderloin ask for jowls. And if the butcher takes his job seriously, he will congratulate you on your excellent choice. To the proponents of the “skewered meat movement” and €1 or €2 euro beefsteaks, I say that we should not solely consider how cheap something is but understand what is in that beefsteak. Does it perhaps contain milled fat, blood and only 3% actual meat and might it not be harmful for our stomach? We may be saving some money but if we were using another cut, we would be eating something better at more or less the same cost. And [laughing] we would avoid stomach disorders.

Every now and then we put a large rib steak on our menu. We usually work with second and third category cuts. Our aim is to show that you can enjoy exceptional dishes prepared with other parts of the animal. If you see it from a broader perspective, this has an impact on global nutrition and consumption, because if we need only two muscles weighing 20 kilos at most from a 600 kilo animal, what do we do with the other 580 kilos? We are talking about 90% wastage!

Is there such a thing as New Greek Cuisine?

Some initial tentative steps have been taken but as yet we cannot talk about New Greek Cuisine. I believe that existing Greek cuisine is being interpreted with new techniques but the result is the same. In my mind, New Greek Cuisine means developing a dish and this development in turn means using a different ingredient to the one normally used in the recipe; you must fuse two or more ingredients or even reverse them. Certain efforts are of course being made but we are in a transitional stage in which we are applying new techniques to interpret the same dish. For example, I see no evolved version of moussaka; quite the opposite, I see regression.

How do you imagine an evolved moussaka?

I have not considered the matter in depth, but, for instance, the layer of mincemeat could be given a different dimension, the béchamel sauce could be prepared with other ingredients, and instead of potato we might use celeriac. The eggplant can stay, but in a more lightly cooked form, to prevent the heavy stomach feeling that is associated with moussaka.

So, have you been carrying out any “tabletop” exercises?

I have experimented with pastitsio, which according to Mr. Deligiannis is the most boring Greek dish [laughing]. What is very important in this respect is the historical origin of a dish. It is no coincidence that the great chefs record their recipes on the basis of when they were created and the book in which it was found, just as Blumenthal does. Well, the original recipe for pastitsio, which is an Italian dish – pasticcio di maccheroni – consists of a ragout of liver, usually duck’s, the juice of which is mixed with the béchamel. All this is thenwrapped in pastry; that’s the real pastitsio. As time passed, they got tired of the crust and made it in its familiar form. I don’t mind admitting that I am working on this dish; after all, I am a big fan and order it whenever I can. You have to make a real effort to spoil pastitsio to the point where I won’t like it!

P.D.: Would you say New Greek Cuisine doesn’t place due emphasis on its ingredients?

New Greek Cuisine is in the phase of deconstruction. I shall answer your question on the basis of the progress made thus far, in the belief that we are at an intermediate stage, without wishing to belittle the efforts being made. We are in a phase of deconstruction and redefinition. It is still too early to say whether we are on the right path, because we haven’t yet entered the final stage. The fact that things are in progress, in motion, is positive. But it remains to be seen whether these developments will impact the average household. And only then will it bear the stamp of New Greek Cuisine, since it will be embraced by the average Greek. If it starts and ends only in restaurants, then it will exist solely in the sphere of leisure, but if it manages to influence households, then it will change the way we eat in Greece.

As a restaurant, what is it you want to achieve?

In terms of ethos, we want to prepare dishes that make us feel we have given our all – in fact 101% – to our customers and we can be proud of what we serve. We also wish to use locally sourced items, support Greek producers and reward excellence. We are trying to create a chain of ingredients on the basis of quality with regard to nutritional value and flavour. This doesn’t mean we choose products solely because they are produced in Greece, particularly if they are not the right quality. But we are endeavouring to gradually include Greek beef and pork on our menu, even though a large quantity is imported. Nevertheless, we do have amazing milk and yogurt. When sourcing products, a restaurant should not resort to five-kilo packaging because it’s cheaper. It should search for the best and offer that to its customers. Our prices are medium-range, €35-50, but we can’t drop to €15. I would like to address a wider clientele, but I can’t because I must keep the bar high. For example, when I can purchase seafood and vegetables from Greece when they are in season, then I have a duty – we all have a duty! – to do so. Why do I say this? Because in the provinces one sees the opposite. Yet it is the provinces that can serve as the pillar of international culinary development. All other countries speak about their distinct regions: Reggio Emilia, San Sebastian. On the islands, with so much tourism, restaurants often don’t order an entire locally raised lamb, just the chops, because this is what foreign visitors are familiar with. So they choose New Zealand lamb, instead of saying: “forget about lamb chops; let us show you how tasty lamb roasted on a spit or on a layer of vine branches can be”.

What is your favourite food?

I am a true carnivore; I eat meat in all its forms. But on a day-to-day basis I am into macaroni. It may sound odd but I can eat macaroni every day. I’m not crazy about anchovies!

P.D.: It’s not about football...

[note: ‘anchovies’ is the nicknamefor Olympiakos F.C. supporters]

No, of course not! But what should I say? That I really like foie gras? It wouldn’t be right, since I couldn’t eat it every day.

Who has inspired you in your work?

Among chefs, I admire those who have made innovative efforts. At the level of philosophy, Pascal Barbot of l’Astrance fame. He runs a small kitchen, asserting that “my menu is dictated by my suppliers, not my customers.” He opens four times a week, is permanently fully booked and has three Michelin stars. As an individual he is humble and self-sufficient with just one restaurant. I, too, try to learn from this approach. Speaking to people like this, I realised that you can feel quite fulfilled with only one restaurant and broaden your activities elsewhere. 

So you don’t intend to open another restaurant.

At present, my sole objective is to re-open Meganisi. I don’t want to do this out of market necessity or for profit, but because I would like to stay on my island four or five months a year. To me, this is more important than opening three or four restaurants. I can’t understand how some of my colleagues are able to run so many restaurants or even more, with the exception of Mr. Trastelis, who successfully manages such a large number.

Apart from Barbot, who else has inspired you?

I admire Heston Blumenthal for his scientific approach. In his book The Big Fat Duck Cookbook, which costs €60-65 (and not €500, as is the case with similar books), he explains the art of cooking to the man in the street. He has carried out hundreds of experiments to discover the best way to fry potatoes or the best brine for lamb. He also strives to evolve gastronomy in a historical context. I respect Pierre Gagnaire because before anyone else, he and Michel Bras pushed the boundaries of new cuisine without all the technology at their disposal and everyone was against them. I also admire David Chang, who has managed to open up a whole new chapter for Korean cuisine by making it more affordable. At his restaurants, with the exception of one or two, you can eat for €10-15.

What did you learn from your teachers?

They taught me to have ethos with regard to the final product I present to customers. My first boss, when I was a waiter in Chicago, may not have embraced the chef culture, but every day he checked every single thing in his kitchen. He had no problem saying “this roe isn’t going out” and we are talking about a simple Greek taverna. Then there was my second boss at an Italian restaurant, a chef and businessman, with eight eateries. He had succeeded in preparing honest, delicious and profitable food. Wealthy and acclaimed, he was friends with everyone in Hollywood. He would enter the kitchen wearing a three thousand dollar suit to cook because his friends had come, even though he had a staff of 30. It was there that I began learning about ingredients, while developing the ethos of dedication to customers. These lessons were far more important than working with a chef skilled in five techniques. In any case, I didn’t have the opportunity to work for a number of years alongside a master chef. I began with front-of-the-house operations and gradually developed a love of cooking. I committed myself to learning and what came out was the result of experimentation, mistakes and failures to the detriment of myself and no one else. My constant need to develop my skills has brought me where I am today, which is not particularly high. I simply try each day to improve the way I do my job, accepting that I started out relatively late on in life. This is why I chose to learn about intermediate sectors and broaden them. I thusbecame involved in butchery; I travelled and studied four different schools, American, Japanese, French and English. So, I don’t have a mentor in the formal sense, but I have met people who taught me to think.

What makes for a successful person?

Someone who has set a target and remains on course despite all the difficulties. And when they attain their objective, they ascertain that they were right to stay on track and that their choice was not a matter of circumstances. What’s important is to feel fulfilled; whether you make a lot or only a little money depends on the idea and how you implement it, but success is a big word. It’s one thing to talk about success achieved in an honest way, and quite another when foul means are employed. The most important thing is, on reaching your final destination, to be able to look back and say “I was right to persist”. Each day, when I leave the kitchen for a while and look around the restaurant, I feel the same joy that I felt on the first day I opened. I feel vindicated; I made sacrifices and I persisted. I am fulfilled and I don’t need anything else.

You opened in the midst of the crisis. What effect has this had?

When I left Meganisi and came to Athens, I put all my money into the restaurant. I borrowed an equal amount and took a risk. Someone else may have said “hang on to what you have” but I felt I had something to offer Athenians. Three years later, and in the most difficult economic conditions, the restaurant manages to have the same number of customers Monday to Friday. So the target has been achieved.

P.D. Vezene has remained one of the most successful restaurants in Athens in recent years. Why?

Because our objectives haven’t changed. When we started, I told myself I wanted to create a restaurant with a specific style and philosophy. Since then, we haven’t switched course; our only target is to become better. I don’t try to increase profitability, in some respects I am decreasing it, because this is how the restaurant is; it’s not getting bigger. But we do try to create better, smarter and more affordable dishes, which means that turnover may fall. This doesn’t bother me; in fact I take pleasure in it. I don’t plan on becoming super rich from one restaurant, particularly onethat respects its clientele. So I haven’t changed the style of the place: it’s a restaurant, end of story! I don’t say: “I see a lot of passers-by, I could serve coffee too”. As a team, we strive each day to be better. We don’t always succeed; it’s often a matter of trial and error. We might try ten different things with a dish and not achieve the desired result.

I do intend to have more nose-to-tail dishes using every part of the animal, and straightforward, consistently delicious food. I am committed to this.

What was the best meal you ever had? Just one! Unless you tell me there hasn’t yet been one. P.D.: [Laughing] Now you’re letting him off the hook.

Indeed, it could be the response of a clever lawyer! To me, it is important to gain something significant from each aspect of an overall experience. From this viewpoint, Blumenthal’s Dinner at the Mandarin Oriental in Knightsbridge had energy, people, voices, movement and haute cuisine.

P.D.: The Dinner indeed strikes the perfect balance between haute cuisine and comfort food. I too consider it to be the most coherent restaurant I have ever been to.

Which values will help us on our journey through the present and into the future?

Ethos, because there is always a grey zone in which we must decide with a clear conscience whether we want something more or something less. Humility is required; and I say this because people often go into our business for the wrong reasons. Pride, too, is needed. When I cook something and serve it to you, I feel pride. It is what I do, what I have chosen to do. And I use the word ‘serve’ – with reference to both my team and myself – because the restaurant business has nothing to do with servility. A lot of young people remain in the business for only a short time; they discover they don’t like it; they ask “why can’t I be sitting next to the person I’m serving?” I like being on the other side of the fence, cooking for you and serving you. I am also proud as a Greek. And the words ‘guts’ and ‘noble competition’ should be regular terms in our vocabulary. To overcome our problems we must cooperate without fearing that the other guy will get one over on you, accepting that we will earn less. My generation is tired of constantly watching their backs, fearing that a competitor or associate will do them harm. I can’t live by the philosophy of “strike first or be struck”. If Greece acquires the necessary unanimity and we all agree that we may lose a little now but possibly gain a great deal in the future, then we will have taken a major step forward. We have nothing to fear, certainly not foreigners!

Only ourselves perhaps. Thank you. 

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