In the kitchens in London, he is known as the chef who taught the English to taste authentic Greek flavors apart from moussaka and taramosalata. Besides, Theodore Kyriakou has a very interesting – almost cinematic – history – by Maria Th. Massoura
I have heard about Theodore Kyriakou when I was a student in London. I remember that, at that time, a great ‘fuss’ was made about his restaurant, ‘The Real Greek’ and that he was the ‘enfant terrible’ of the lifestyle magazines.
The route of his career was impressive. Exciting reviews were written for him in the most well-known London journals and newspapers and his cookbooks ‘starred’ in bookstore windows. Thus, I was very much willing to meet him one day.
Eventually, my wish came true several years after, not in London but at the Sani Resort in Chalkidiki during the Sani Gourmet Festival ’11.
The evening before our interview, I had visited the restaurant ‘Sea you Up’ in order to have a hint of the menu he prepared as a guest chef of the festival. Four months passed since then and I can still recall in my palate the flavours that he and his assistant served us that evening. Purely Greek, all those tastes were taking you to your roots. I remember the strained yoghurt served with frumenty, quince and vegetables. The glazed tuna fish served with giant beans, orange peels and fennel reminded me of the dish that I used to eat at my grandmother’s house. The best flavour I experienced from the entire festival came out from Theodore Kyriakou’s cooking. It was a dish with San Michali, the cheese from Syros, accompanied with amazed strawberry chutney which I enjoyed very much with beautiful wine.
Excited by the culinary experience of the previous night, I returned to the bar in the same place next morning, in order to meet him.
Our discussion turned out to be a nice chat. The story of Theodore Kyriakou is full of real success. I let him talk to me about his life, interrupting only to ask him with interest “…..and what happened afterwards?”.
Everything started when…
Before working as a chef, he worked as a radio operator on ships. He had no previous experience as a chef. The only fact that possibly predicted his career, was that his family had an insistence on good food. His father had a delicatessen in the central market in Athens while, afterwards, he opened his own in Pagkrati.
In 1987 he stopped working on ships and decided to stay permanently in London. After he had had intensive English lessons, he saw an advertisement one day asking for volunteers in Green Peace. Without a second thought, he joined and started travelling from the Mediterranean to Iceland in order to reach up to the Antarctica. On the ship he got acquainted with a lady cook and fell in love with her. They went together to Spain where they stayed for 18 months. Afterwards, “penniless and without any feelings” as he says, he returned to London. In order to get an authorized permission and stay in the country he got married to a local girl who recommended him and found a job in a kitchen as a washer up. There, he got the first spark: He started to like the kitchen environment.
In the particular post he stayed for only one month as the chef there died from a drug overdose. However, he decided to stay there and, beginning from “easy things”, he worked up to 1990 in American – theme restaurants. Thus, he began to learn how a restaurant operates as a business. “We opened two restaurants and next, the third one in Birmingham, where we have been very successful. There, however, we received threatening letters from the local mafia of the city. One day they put a bomb and burnt the restaurant. This fact destroyed us economically”. He, then, decided to return to the classic restaurants, making in this way a movement that was proved to be crucial not only for his life but for his career too.
In order to build a good CV, he decided to work for free as a chef de partie next to 3 or 4 chefs. He left the house he had rented, gave his things to friends and, for 14 months, he worked without a salary. He stayed homeless and ate in the restaurant. In the evening he used to sleep under the Embankment Βridge. In this way, he had no expenses and by working for free he created a CV which gave him the chance to search for a good job. His intrepid step brought soon good results. Working, henceforth, officially as a chef de partie in a restaurant in St. John, a customer “fished” him one day and took him to his restaurant in Battersea where, in one month, from sous chef (assistant chef) he became executive chef.
The first restaurant
A few months later, his partner from the American ‘diners’ proposed to him to work together. Thus, they searched and found a restaurant that belonged to Cypriots in London. They took it and created the “ Livebait”, a small restaurant which hardly accommodated 55 persons. The idea was very simple but, at the same time, very pioneering for London’s data: they would serve fresh fish that would be brought by fishermen from Cornwall. There would be only fish fished by boat on that particular day, from lobster to sole cooked in the right way.
He had a lot to say from that period. “The first time the fishermen told us that they had caught a shark, I was thrilled. The new fish wasn’t a problem for me as I would find a way to cook it. Therefore, they brought the shark at around 11 in the morning. While we were taking it to the restaurant, people saw it and got crazy and they were asking whether they could have a portion. My partner marked the fish with toothpicks and shared portions. By reaching the place the fish had already been sold”.
Very soon, in one year’s time, “Livebait” became the talk of the town. One evening two customers entered and, when the kitchen closed, they put a cheque in front of the two partners. They couldn’t say ‘no’.
Theodore stayed for one year in order to see how it is to work for a multinational company. After he had opened the first branch for them in Covent Garden and after he had written his first cookery book, he left. He wasn’t used to working for a multinational company. The most important, however, was that he was not ready to leave the kitchen.
Listening to him talking, I saw a person with passion, with sincere intentions and honest in what he makes. These elements in combination with the fact that he is not afraid of taking a risk or working for long hours, pushed him to make a lot of big steps. After fifteen years in London and after he had succeeded in becoming a piece of the London gastronomic map, he decided that it was the time to deal with his roots. One evening in 1999, he was in Hoxton, a not particularly good area then. As he got lost while he was walking, he saw a restaurant in a paved square with the label “to be let” on his door. He was very much enthusiastic about the location so he rented it with his partner. ‘The Real Greek’ was born.
The first thing that came to his mind was that he should have escaped from the fixed images of dolmadakia and mousaka. This, of course, had a risk. During the next months, most of the customers by entering the restaurant did not recognize anything from those dishes they had eaten as tourists in Greece in the summertime. “I did not have retsina, I did not have moussaka and I did not understand why they kept asking me for Greek salad in September. How could I find juicy tomatoes? ”
However, he kept trying. He and his partners knew that they had to work hard. “In the ‘Livebait’, I myself put the tiles in the kitchen. In ‘The Real Greek’, Paloma Campbell, my partner, and I were working for long hours without having any fixed wages”.
Soon ‘The Real Greek’ becomes famous
His persistence in details and the use of the best raw materials played an important role. Many of the products came from Greece, they themselves bought the wines twice a year, the meat and the vegetables were supplied by the local market. They had also a van that left on Sundays, went to markets to Italy and up to Sicily and returned loaded with Mediterranean products.
When ‘The Real Greek’ became a big hit, the story of Livebait was repeated. Shareholders bought and extended it. Theodore stayed there until the end of 2007. In the meantime, they had opened seven more branches. “Neither the change nor the leaving scare me. I needed a break, I wanted to get away for a while. We started in 1999 with a team of 12 people and now we are 425”. His need to function more as a chef than a businessman is the element that determines his route up to today.
A little ‘More’
The team of the three partners continued and created the ‘More’ in Tooley Street, London Bridge in 2009. It was a small restaurant that served breakfast from 7 o’clock in the morning and European cuisine up to late in the evening. That restaurant which, according to Theodore, “was never taken off”, found a purchaser. He himself remained as an adviser and left from there last February.
So, we have reached the present time. Theodore now is in the center of many projects. He has created a series of many Greek gourmet products for a well known English supermarket chain, and, at the same, this summer he found himself in the ‘Costa Navarino hotel in Peloponnese in order to prepare a menu based on Ω3 and 6. Besides, he gave some cooking lessons on a ship, sailing in the Aegean while he now believes that, because of the economical situation in Greece, it is the moment for people to function as representatives of the Greek culture.
Before we finished our coffee and before midday, I asked him if he had ever been afraid of taking the risk, if he had ever said that he would have had to make more careful steps. He looked at me, smiled and said: “I know one thing. I can live with money, but I can also I live without it. The most important for me is to remain a chef. This is what keeps me happy all these years”.
Update: Theodore Kyriakou’s new London restaurant called “The Greek Larder” opens in September 2014
I met Theodore Kyriakou during the Sani Gourmet Festival in May 2011
The interview was published in Taste Magazine (Vol. 46) ,in September 2011