Believe it or not, food and cooking were not always a focus in David Tsirekas’ life. Before embarking on the chef’s life, the former swimming coach recalls a childhood full of fond memories of swimming and playing water polo.
But his career took a turn when, at the age of 28, he was offered a partnership at Perama, a Greek restaurant run by Tsirekas’ sister Ula and business partner Harry Tamvakeras, also the original owners of the iconic Sydney tavern Steki.
It was there in Sydney’s inner-west that his connection with his heritage and food flourished beyond what he could have ever imagined.
Though he was the son of migrant parents, who ventured Down Under in the late ’50s from Ano Komi Kozani, the 46-year-old found himself growing up in what he describes as a predominantly “WASP surrounding”.
“I didn’t do much of Greek tradition, or to be very honest, I didn’t have an enjoyment of the food and culture.
“I only became more connected with Greece and my heritage when I started cooking and began to read about food and all its history,” Tsirekas admits.
At Perama, Tsirekas was taken under Tamvakeras’ wing. But he soon found himself intent on taking his skill set to the next level, craving knowledge and a deeper understanding of the cuisine.
“I wanted to understand where Greek food had evolved from because I believed it to be more than the westernised white Anglo Saxon Protestant palate the Greeks of the diaspora were dishing out in their country cafes and city tavernas in the USA, Canada and Australia,” he tells Neos Kosmos.
But rather than consulting the work of fellow chefs, Tsirekas found himself immersed in the writings of the ancient Greeks and historians.
“I thought, where better to get an understanding of the culinary history than to begin in the oldest literary work – The Iliad. I then moved on to works by Archestratus, Mithaikos, physicians like Hippocrates and Galen, historian Herodotus; Plato was a great source, Pythagoras being the original vegan.”
Moving forth chronologically, he went on to study Alexander the Great, “when the trading routes opened up and ingredients were introduced from the East”, and onto the collapse and breakup of the Hellenic Republic, the influence of Greek cooks in the Roman world through to the Middle Ages, the Byzantine empire, and on to the 20th century.
“The Ottomans had a major effect and change on Greek cuisine over the 350 or so years and beyond. Then there was the Tselementes effect in the early 20th century and then the traditional cuisine of the Greek diaspora within and outside its natural original borders,” he adds.
Geared with this historical knowledge, Tsirekas has found himself a teacher that he can continually consult where need be – and the unique formula has proven successful.
In his fourth year on the job, the chef received his first hat in 2001, which he held until 2010, all the while receiving multiple awards for Best Greek from the Sydney Morning Herald (SMH), and was named in the Top Ten restaurants in the Wall Street Journal’s Asia edition.
In 2011 he embarked on a new venture in Sydney’s CBD; a Greek restaurant named Xanthi, where Tsirekas once again achieved a hat through the SMH’s Good Food Guide.
While the chef agrees that Greek cuisine is well represented across Australia, in his experience, it is tradition that has prohibited its evolution.
“There is a sense at times that we haven’t left the village in how we approach developing our cuisine,” he says.
For this reason, he chooses to continually challenge himself and think outside the box, inspired by the subjects of his readings, who throughout the ages lived physically, spiritually, scientifically and philosophically “beyond their physical bodies”.
“The world is a vast journey of learning beyond what we know as tradition,” he says, which he translates onto the plate.
Drawing from traditional flavours, they are often presented in an unconventional format; and it is in this way that Tsirekas successfully achieves his objective.
“My philosophy is that it doesn’t have to look or present like we have been used to, but basic techniques and the basic elements and tastes have to be present.
“Flavours, textures, smells have to be in the forefront which activate a memory of a meal cooked by a mother, grandmother, aunts, relative, beachside tavern, street side vendor or a moment that relates back to some connection with Greek or Greece and the philotimo that is translated through food,” he says.
While his signature dish is a mouth-watering caramel baklava ice cream, of late he admits to going “back to basics, no nonsense cooking”, relishing in cooking and trying to perfect the lamb on the spit.
“As that smell rises and tantalises the gods and the flesh is golden and moist, it’s certain to bring happiness to those who consume it!”
After a successful three-year run at Xanthi, the business owner decided to shut up shop in 2014. But if you have never had the pleasure of feasting at one of Tsirekas’ tables, don’t fret; the chef is far from calling it a day. Continuing to draw inspiration from Greece’s past, he is now working on a new project with Jim Kospetas of the Universal Hotels Group, named 1821, due to open in May.