Café and restaurant culture seen through the prism of high-quality cuisine is thriving in Sydney, but is that a reflection of its cultural endowment, an evolving societal palette, or an upswing in purveyors of high-quality fare? All of these play a role, says restaurateur John Lepouris from Against the Grind in Neutral Bay, “Sydney is a very lucky city because of its diverse mix of cultures and its accessibility to wonderful fresh produce. This makes it the ideal culinary melting pot.”
Success in the ‘food game’ is notoriously difficult to achieve. Yes, there is a sea of overpriced mediocrity ($18 for scrambled eggs on toast anyone?) whose failure surprises few, but many accomplished people, replete with talent-laden kitchens and impressive menus fold every week. What does it take to overcome the odds? “It’s hard to pinpoint”, John explains, but Against the Grind has been a success because of its “combination of great food, great coffee but also great people”.
Therein lies the rub: an atmosphere born of staff who love what they do is something you cannot learn at the culinary academy. “We are a family”, John continues, “and we treasure our customers and want them to always be happy. We also genuinely love what we do and I think our café is more like a little hub or community rather than a business; people come in, have a chat, relax and (as a lush bonus) enjoy exquisite cuisine”.
Quality is still the non-negotiable though. When the discussion turns to the origins of his passion for food and cooking, John takes me on a journey back to Greece in the 1970s. I ask him to what extent his Greek heritage contributed to his culinary expertise, “…to a great extent”, he quips with an expression indicating surprise that this is not self-evident. “My passion for cooking was shaped by my experience with food in Greece, especially my approach to cooking seasonally and minimally. I tend to not over complicate dishes, simplicity is key. Three ingredients are often enough to make something extraordinary, especially if your ingredients are the best available in season, and you use plenty of time – with an “i”. At Against the Grind, this heritage is evident predominately in our use of olive oil; we dress almost all our dishes with it, and in fact, the oil we use is produced by my family to this very day in small quantities from our village in Kalamata.”
The importance of understanding seasonality, he explains, began when “I would visit my grandparents each year in summer then again at Christmas. I learnt about seasonality at young age visiting the farmers’ markets with my Grandfather every Tuesday and Wednesday morning. Each period was distinctive, different produce in the summer and winter, so different recipes and dishes accordingly.” It’s not that there was a choice, “seasonal cooking was a naturally occurring thing; you couldn’t get produce that was out of season or not grown locally”.
With quality raw materials prioritised, the composition of each menu item then comes front and centre. The dishes are composed with a delightfully manicured and subtle complexity, the salmon poke bowl coming to mind. “We don’t want to give away our secrets”, John says with a knowing smile, “…but the key again is simplicity. I like to let each ingredient speak for itself. Our salmon poke is really just (high-quality NZ) salmon, soy and sesame oil, we don’t add much more than that, but we make sure our salmon is the freshest possible and of the highest quality available. We also make our own pickled vegetables that accompany the poke, and the little things like sesame seeds and a touch of (Kalamata) olive oil bring it all together.”
The secret ingredient seems to be olive oil from the Greek motherland. John elucidates, “…as I mentioned earlier, our olive oil is produced by my family from our own trees in the region of Kalamata. My mother and I travel to our farm every year around Christmas when we pick the olives. The olives are taken to the village’s communal olive press where they become olive oil. We only bottle the first press, this is the extra virgin olive oil, we don’t press the olives a second time nor do we dilute the oil, it remains in its purest form and is shipped here to Sydney, where we get to enjoy it. My grandfather was fiercely proud of it, he called it an “elixir” and believed you could use the oil to heal all sorts of ailments. My Grandmother made soap with it, it’s quite extraordinary to think about. We do look far and wide for the best quality products available for our menu. That’s our philosophy: keep it simple, use the best, and people will be happy.”
J.A Gleeson is a personal fitness instructor at Embody in Neutral Bay, Sydney