When people think of Greek Australian chef, David Tsirekas, three words always come to mind – passionate, hard-working and a go-getter. That’s because despite experiencing the highs and lows of working in the hospitality industry, Tsirekas has still managed to successfully bring some of the quirkiest Greek dishes to the Australian cuisine scene.
This quirkiness all started back in 1997, when Tsirekas was first offered his sister’s partnership at Perama restaurant in Petersham. At the time, Tsirekas’ knowledge of Greek cooking was very basic as he “rebelled against the Greek culture” and immersed himself in swimming and water polo instead.
“We were going out to Vietnamese restaurants after water polo or swimming training and I’d bring home Vietnamese and my mum would go, ‘What’s this?’ She would then taste it and try to come up with a Greek version of Vietnamese,” Tsirekas tells The Greek Herald exclusively with a laugh.
“I thought it was quite interesting because that’s how my mind works when I do Greek food. I try and get the traditional flavours and palette and then re-work it where people think ‘this doesn’t look Greek’ but then when they taste it, they say ‘that reminds me of my yiayia or my village’.”
Besides being inspired by his mum, Tsirekas adds that his cooking was also influenced by reading ancient literary texts such as The Iliad, as they helped him build a picture of where Greek cuisine had come from and how it had evolved over time.
“I noticed that Greeks in different parts of the diaspora of the ancient world also had different eating habits so that’s how I started incorporating everything into my cooking,” Tsirekas says.
It was this unique style of cooking which made Perama a success from the very beginning, winning multiple Sydney Morning Herald good food guide hats. But still, the restaurant closed in 2011 and Tsirekas moved onto ‘something bigger.’
‘I wanted to give up cooking’:
This next challenge came in the form of retail juggernaut, Westfields, knocking on Tsirekas’ door asking him to open Xanthi Greek restaurant in a special fine dining precinct in Sydney. The chef says that as a “curious and adventurous person,” he wanted to go on the journey “without thinking about the financial consequences.”
Over four years, Tsirekas built up the restaurant and people rushed to it for Greek food and the largest wine list in the Southern Hemisphere. But ultimately, the high-pressure environment saw Tsirekas’ dream sadly come crashing down and he had to close the restaurant in 2014.
“Xanthi was the next stage, it had the Ottoman influence… but it was very labour intensive. It was like going from high school economics… to trying to operate a business where I should’ve had the knowledge of an MBA,” the chef explains.
“I was ill-prepared to step up to that level operating-wise, but cuisine-wise it was probably some of my most amazing work.
“That was the last time I was in control of my own destiny. Looking back on it now, I don’t have any regrets. I understand that the mistakes made were my own and also, that the positives that came out of there were because of me.”
Since the closure of Xanthi, Tsirekas has been the Executive Chef at Universal Hotels, working on the development of the restaurant 1821, and he has also held a number of consultant roles for venues in Chicago, The Greek Club in Brisbane and Zeus Street Greek.
But he stresses that during this time, he was also struggling emotionally and felt as though he ‘wanted to give up cooking.’
“All this time I was suffering depression… I just didn’t feel like I belonged in some way. There was just something missing. I like the freedom… and I had this battle where I felt like I had no control of my life and I wasn’t going anywhere,” Tsirekas explains.
Tsirekas’ fresh start with Perama 2.0:
As is usually the case, things only became worse for Tsirekas before they started to improve.
While juggling his work with the Airport Retail Group opening a new pub and wine bar, and continuing his consulting with the other restaurants, Tsirekas suffered a transient ischemic attack (TIA), which is similar to a stroke. Later, he was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s as a result of damage from the TIA and is currently receiving experimental cognitive therapy.
But despite all this negative news, Tsirekas says his TIA was a turning point and has given him a new outlook on life. In fact, this new outlook came at exactly the same time as the original Perama site in Petersham became available again after 10 years.
Now, the chef is focused on bringing the restaurant back as Perama 2.0, but fans can expect a glossier version of the original with a small cocktail bar, as well as a rebranding tweak in line with its updated menu. The pork belly and signature caramel baklava ice cream will also be back, along with food such as gemista rice.
“We’re keeping the original elements of Perama there but it’s a new narrative. I don’t want people to stay back in the past of Perama, that was a unique time. But Perama 2.0 is going to be another unique time,” Tsirekas concludes with a smile.
A time which many people from the Greek community are looking forward to as they watch Tsirekas rise to his full potential once again.