From the balcony of Koukoumavlos Fine Dining Restaurant in Fira-Santorini, the volcano resembles a prehistoric entity tired of laying there for thousands of years…This is my first meeting with chef Nikos Pouliasis. His answers are a surprise from the beginning. His views about his “art of cooking”, but also about the meaning of life or death are impressive: «As human beings we do not have time to become whole during our short journey through life. Cooking is a utopia, a temporal form of art. A dish can only stand through time in the sense of reconstructive memory. Each person needs to be connected with its own past. On the other hand, for a genuine creator, the relationship with cooking is connected to their own past, while experience is guiding them…. ».
Intrerview: Valy Vaimaki/Experience Greece (www.xprgr.com)
Meet the chef…
«In Santorini, I owe the continuous reformation of my dishes and the new suggestions in the menu every year. The phrase “ There is nothing more permanent than the temporary” fits perfectly both with the case of Santorini and my cooking. The vibes of the island and the sense of death –not with the biological nor with the religious notion, but with the philosophical-, can be felt everywhere in Santorini. It is this feeling of the temporal and the great at the same time. The arid landscapes exude that unique feeling of nothingness. And this is exactly what I am trying to capture in my cooking. If I was in another place, somewhere not so extravagant and tragic, my dishes might not have sharp edges. On the other hand, during winter things are quite different on the island. The Cycladic light, that has been praised by the poets, is not present anymore. This dull situation, is leading to a more meaningful and in depth soul searching. This situation affects my new menu, each season. The tranquility and the silence of the landscape exude loneliness. However, as the island has undergone so many transformations, the loneliness does not seem to be so scary. Instead, every time you realize the tragedy in the landscape, this changes your starting point”.
Various articles, reports and critics by food experts have been written about the “talented, creative, innovative, radical Nikos Pouliasis”. About his past, and his difficult early years… He is famous alright! Thousands of celebrities, princes, presidents, prime ministers, Hollywood actors and VIPs from all over the world have enjoyed his innovative cuisine. I think that this man will always be ahead of us all, no matter his age. He will always reinvent himself.
The Chef and the ingredients
“In cooking you should not exclude any ingredients which at first glance seemed that they do not match with the others. There are no specific rules that tell you what you should or should not do. I am a self-taught chef. I never joined the formalities of the educational system. The self-taught chefs are usually more innovative and provocative than those who have studied cooking. I started with steady and small steps, I was mostly inspired by the ideas of my era. However, all perceptions have something doctrinal that leads you to nothing. In order to gets you somewhere, you must analyses what happens around you in depth -both in taste and technically”.
The restless chef keeps coming and going to his kitchen. Dishes that look like small paintings are served with respect to the dining hall and the terrace with the panoramic view. Respect, this is the best word to describe the look in the eyes of Johanna and Daniella, his basic team for many years. They seem to perform an orchestral score, perfectly rehearsed each time.
-How would you define the cook? The creator?
The creator should always be more bon vivant than his clients. He should be able to step in his customer’s shoes, so as to understand how far his customer is willing to go regarding his relationship with the flavors. And that relationship should be redefined through the concept of the adventure. Cooking is not something we perform in order to satisfy someone’s biological needs. It is more of a spiritual adventure. We need to see it that way, or else we will lose the notion of culinary evolution. For me going out for dinner is an adventure. One could be inspired even by a simple dish at a small and very common restaurant.
– Should this adventure be high gastronomy?
For me, cooking has no limits. High gastronomy could be anything: the most simple food that contains a small «touch», not necessarily unpredictable. It should not even be spectacular. However, it should be authentic, evoke feelings, reveals the chef’s explorations. Cooking is an adventure, a road with many options.
– Is it easy to be constantly innovative? After all the ingredients are limited…
For me the ingredients could be unlimited. For example, all my desserts have zucchini, peas, aborigines or olives. They all have oregano and thyme. They do not contain only ingredients used in pastry. In my opinion, it is a botanical garden and with the use of the traditional ingredients from pastry a chef may compose something sweet. Desserts cease to be a one-dimensional kind of food.
– It is being said that your cuisine is extreme. Some of your combinations are highly unusual…
I don’t think that cooking is supposed to be comprehended 100% . If it does, then this leads to dogmatism and conventions. If we do not stand in front of what is called tradition and criticise it, we cannot go any further. My cooking is not extreme. Each dish includes ingredients everyone knows and has tasted before. A cooking technique can be excellent, but the important think is to have a basis. Before presenting my dishes to my guests I want to be sure that the tastes awake memories. Otherwise they will reject my cuisine.
– So you are saying that even in haute cuisine a chef should stick to basic materials…
We should not remove the memory from the ingredients, from the taste. If so, we will be dealing with an expressionism minimalism. Our guests will create a hostile relationship, as they will not be able to recognise it. All things have limits. The concept of balance is always a challenge. With the rational that cooking is never perfect. The moment a chef creates a dish and says “that’s it”, is the moment he puts his own limits, that he should overcome. There will be no evolution if a chef believes that what he has created is complete…
– You have mentioned that your cooking has “sharp edges”. What does that mean?
That food is not boring. From the first bite you should be able to recognise the ingredients. And that makes a dish interesting. Without the memory there will be no pleasure in food. The decompositions done many times, with the use of highly advanced techniques, make someone who is not an expert to keep his distance and even adapt a hostile attitude towards food. The point is to win this bet and manage to activate memory. A person cannot interact with the food and accept it as a pleasure, or as an adventure, unless food activates his memories.
– Could you describe what kind of memories can someone recall by tasting a particular dish?
A very important part of the pleasure through food has to do with our childhood and the dishes of the Greek cuisine. We can combine different ingredients, the sweet taste in food and vice versa, while in our tradition those two used to be separate. The feeling of sweet or fruits in food works in combination with the memory. In the burger with the roasted duck foie gras, I combine marshmallows and comfits. In my opinion, those two ingredients recall memories from our childhood and bring us closer to our lost innocence.
– Which is your favourite ingredient?
Bread! We should always respect the origins of our food through the centuries. After all there is a “religious” point of view in bread. We always treat it with affection and care. In Koukoumavlos we try to improve the feeling of satisfaction one feels when eating bread. So we prepare over 60 different types of bread! We use all kind of beans from the Mediterranean cuisine, in amazing combinations: bean with celery, lentils with oregano and bay leaves, prosciutto melon and fresh fruits. Our bread is made with organic flour and is kneaded and baked by us every day.
– You also love the “lava” beans which happen to be produced in Santorini…
Fava beans are a good example of an ingredient that could transform a dish. Moreover, it is easy to use and to combine. Each year we show our …respect to the Santorini fava beans by creating various recipes…
– How do you create a new recipe?
Usually, this happens during summer time, when I prepare the menu for next season. While I cook the current menu, I come up with new ideas and ingredients, on which we work in order to set the basis for next year’s menu. During winter time, I edit and sort out the scattered ideas. I am also inspired by the sense I get from my customers.
– How do you get inspired?
There are several things that inspire me to create a new dish. They usually come from various “directions”. There is a constant interaction with the environment here that inspires me. For example it could be the atmosphere that is created by my guests and their behavior…
– Do you …snoop around?
Of course I do! I keep coming in and out to the dining hall and I speak to my guests. I constantly observe what is going on, trying to sense the atmosphere.
– Do you tolerate criticism?
The composition of a dish has to do with me. However, the opinion of other people matters a lot to me. There is no point in repeating a dish out of your selfishness. What matters the most for a creative Chef, is the acceptance and the reward. Like the horses that win the race to get a sugar cube….. Another important thing for a Chef is his relationship with people. You cannot just express your personal story, your personal deadlocks, or ambitions, only to cover your narcissism. You need to create something acceptable -and not only because someone will pay for this.
End of part 1