ATHENS – Cheese and olives abound in Greek cuisine but all meals in the Mediterranean nation share a common ingredient – hospitality.
This notion is as true for a casual family lunch as it is for fine dining in restaurants like Varoulko Seaside, located on the banks of a luxurious marina in the outskirts of Athens, or Hytra, which is perched opposite the Acropolis in the capital.
“Greek cuisine is creative, intelligent and founded on tradition,” Lefteris Lazaru, the first chef to be awarded a Michelin star for a Greek restaurant in Greece, told EFE.
He added: “A Greek chef or even a simple cook can cook from memory.
“That’s something I’ve not seen in other known chefs in Europe.
“They bring new techniques but they forget tradition.”
In his restaurant, Varoulko Seaside, in his native Piraeus, a port city near the capital, Lazaru offers traditional but creative dishes with a heavy dose of local seafood, which is subject to change depending on the daily catch.
Lazaru began his career working with his father, a ship-chef, at the age of 15.
There he learned to tailor Greek cuisine to the varied palates of those dining on the ships.
Just as Lazaru’s menu oozes seaside cuisine, Tasos Mantis’s offerings over at Hytra are inextricably linked with fresh produce from the garden.
“The herbs and the flowers are the most important thing in my kitchen,” Mantis said.
He added that his dishes begin as a seed and end when the diner consumes the food.
His innovative creations based on herbs, vegetables and flowers plucked from the garden he tends to with his father helped him land his own Michelin star.
In his plot, which overlooks the Gulf of Corinth, Mantis organically grows everything from household spices to unusual flavors like sagebrush or mountain savory.
Edible flowers like pansies, monarda and alyssum, which smells of honey, give color to his delicate dishes.
His love for garden produce came to him as a child but his passion for cooking came to him by accident as a cook during his military service.
The restaurant itself, at the top of the Onassis cultural center, which rises above a sea of buildings in the Greek capital, is flanked by plants and herbs.
With views over to a sun-bathed Acropolis, diners at Hytra can select from a sample menu dishes such as Vitamin Sea with oysters, capers and chives covered with nasturtium flowers or blue Kozani crab in a tartlet of sea buckthorn, carrot, sagebrush and pot marigold.
Despite the general high quality of food and the variation in the cuisine, only five restaurants in Greece boast a Michelin star and none of them have so far been awarded three.
For many of the chefs in Greece, innovation is a long-distance race that must never come at the expense of tradition.
For Lazaru, this is an essential part of his kitchen, where he puts an innovative twist on all his dishes but never in a way that supersedes the roots of a meal.
Credited with popularizing monkfish, which Greek fishermen used to toss back into the sea, Lazaru’s menu also helps to make haute cuisine available to a wider audience with affordable pricing.
“I want the restaurant to be accessible to everyone, Greece is going through tough times and I do not want to take this pleasure away from anyone,” he said.