Dimitra Melios: An instinctive cook
Dimitra Melios and her rustic home-style cooking star in the kitchen of Melbourne institution, Stalactites.
Call me a snob, but I confess I could never have imagined signing up for a culinary experience at Stalactites.
Like most Melbournians, I'd eaten my share of souvlaki under its distinctive cave-like ceiling after a big night out on the town.
Occasionally, we tucked into a bowl of their famous fish soup with crusty home made bread, but the bain marie offerings never really inspired and I dare say Stalactites hasn't been on any foodie's radar.
But things have changed at this 24-hour Melbourne institution and it's not just the modern makeover - though the wonderfully kitsch ceiling is there to stay.
Sure, the souvlaki remains Stalactites' biggest drawcard, attracting everyone from late night clubbers, city workers and tradies to high-profile sportspeople like Cypriot tennis icon Marcos Baghdatis, who made a regular beeline to Lonsdale Street from the Tennis Centre.
But in recent times, traditional Greek cooking has come to the fore. The bain marie is gone, and along with the standard menu of grills diners are presented with a daily list of home-style specials.
On this day, I tuck into a steaming bowl of youverlakia like my mum used to make, a tough choice among the day's offerings such as the youvetsi or lamb with okra.
This is the kind of rustic, traditional Greek cuisine that one finds in the old-style mayeiria in Athens or if they're lucky, their mother's kitchen. Has this been one of the city's best kept food secrets?
Dimitra Melios has been toiling in the Stalactites kitchen for more than three decades, but the modest cook from Doncaster has been recently thrown into the spotlight by new generation management keen to promote the cuisine.
"Stalactities has always been known for souvlaki and gyros. My focus has been to make it also known for its traditional Greek food and I don't mean dips and that stuff, but real home made food," says Nicole Iliopoulos, who took over in 2006, filling the shoes of her father and grandfather, who opened the restaurant in 1978 (a month before she was born).
"I love this food, I could eat it every day and be happy, and I thought 'why wouldn't everyone else love it?'
"For me, they are the stars of the kitchen, the people that can make that traditional food like your mum makes or your grandmother used to make. It's the sort of food we don't get to make these days because we are all so busy. Especially now in winter, it's such great comfort food."
Dimitra's home cooking will be on show next week in a dinner being held during Laiki Bank's Flavours of Greece food and wine festival, part of this year's Antipodes Festival events. Kalamata-born Melios will be cooking traditional Messinian food, showcasing the tastes of the Peloponnese.
"It's the food I cook at home, I don't change anything," explains Melios of her cooking style.
"I don't write down recipes. I just keep them in my head and cook. At night when I go to bed I relax and hink about what I am going to cook the following day and work out how I am going to do it, what I will put in it and my mind goes back to my mother and my aunts and how they cooked."
One of eight children growing up in war-torn Greece, Melios says subsistence shaped their lives and food. "My mother was a good cook, but they didn't have much to cook with. We didn't have many fields, and in those days the Germans had taken over our fields and built shelters there.
"I cook the old way. I want food to be tasty and simple, without too many ingredients. Today everything has preservatives in it. I make it the old style, with classic Greek herbs and flavours.
"But you have to know how to make it tasty. It has to cook very slowly, the sauce has to reduce slowly. I take two and a half to three hours to make one dish."
Along with more than half her siblings, Melios migrated to Australia in the 1960s. She was working part-time in the Coles cafeteria when she first walked into Stalactites in 1980 to get a souvlaki for a nephew in hospital.
"I didn't realise a friend of mine was the waitress here," Melios recalls. "She asked if I wanted work and went and talked to Barba Kosta (Nicole's grandfather, who still comes in from Croydon every day to have coffee and read the papers).
"They didn't want me here because it was all men and a female waitress but he insisted."
Melios worked part-time as a kitchen assistant for four years before taking over the kitchen, while the men worked the grills. But her cooking always took a backseat.
"They wanted to sell only souvlaki. They thought it was too much to have cooked food as well.
"Now I am much happier and I cook with a lot more joy."
Melios proudly says that since the specials list was introduced and promoted, demand for her traditional dishes has gone up 80 per cent.
"People are looking for something different, something authentic," she says.
For next week's dinner, she has been gathering eggs from her own chickens to make the galopita dessert.
"I'm going to make it the way my mother made it," Melios says enthusiastically.
The thought takes me back to my Peloponnesian mum's kitchen in Fitzroy, where I would devour the leftover mixture from a battered aluminium pot. Can I book for two?
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