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Profile-Cyprus’ most famous chef
THEO PANAYIDES meets Cyprus’ most famous chef – who brought a Michelin star to the island and is now the man behind a large new restaurant in Nicosia, although he seems to run on anger
Pericles Roussounides has been Profiled before in the Sunday Mail. That was in March 2000 when he mentioned, among other things, that he was on his third marriage. “I’m a difficult person to put up with,” he admitted. “I give so much of myself to my work”. 12 years later, we’re sitting in Mamasita, the new Nicosia restaurant where he’s chef and long-term consultant, and I notice that he still wears a wedding band. ‘So how’s that going?’ I ask. Is he still on his third marriage?
“My sixth,” he replies matter-of-factly.
Really? He’s been married six times?
“Yes,” he replies, “because I don’t compromise. I meet you in this job,” he explains with a touch of exasperation, rattling off the problem like a puzzled outsider, “I fall in love with you in this job, we have a relationship together for one, two years – still in this job – you know my hours and everything. Then, when you marry me, you want me to change my hours! No!” he says indignantly. “No thank you. So I pack my bags, and I’m out of there. Simple. Very nice, very civilised.”
His hours are indeed quite daunting, especially for a man of 57. He’s at work – mostly in the kitchen – around 17 hours a day, he says, starting around 6am and finishing at 1 in the morning. He sleeps around three hours at night, but the sine qua non is his afternoon siesta; as long as he gets that one-hour nap in the middle of the day, he’s usually fine. This is a daily routine, at least when he’s running a large restaurant kitchen like he is at Mamasita – which is usually the case, but not always. His projects, starting with the Hexagon Restaurant shortly after he arrived in Cyprus in the early 80s, have a chequered history of openings and closings spanning 30 years, taking him from a Michelin star to personal bankruptcy, making him undoubtedly the best-known chef on the island.
His decades in the limelight may also have helped develop a certain persona, tying in with his personal appearance. He’s intense, sitting in his white chef’s smock with “Ecole Lenotre, Paris” on the sleeve, chain-smoking madly – though he switches to one of those nicotine-free electronic ‘cigarettes’ towards the end – with bags under his eyes, an earring in his left ear and what looks like a permanent frown on his stubbled face. He’s Mr. Grumpy, Mr. Angry, Mr. Tell-It-Like-It-is. The media love him – at one point he mentions he was recently on TV, “on my friend Elita’s show” – because he’s so outspoken, the volatile chef, our own Gordon Ramsay. He’s not afraid to say anything, especially on the subject of food – because he knows (and we know) that no-one knows more than he does on the subject of food.
His dedication is complete. He seems to have no other interests – certainly no other passions – than gastronomy. He goes on at least 10 “refresher courses” a year, mostly in France and Spain, and even when he travels (allegedly) for pleasure he’s mostly to be found browsing delicatessens, looking for new ideas. On one recent trip, he reports, he found something shocking while trawling through a food-hall in Milan: a small jar of rock-salt from Cavo Greco in Cyprus, the 20g jar selling for around €18. This sparks a rant on how we in Cyprus have such excellent raw materials yet refuse to make use of them, leaving it to the French and Italians to poach them. It makes him angry.
A lot of things make Pericles Roussounides angry. Potato producers who give him the wrong kind of potato (humidity should be between 18-22 per cent in a good potato) then blame blackened chips on the potato having come “from the fridge” make him angry. People in supermarkets who rummage through crates of vegetables – “they take one tomato and throw it against another so they can find the one they think is best, and meanwhile, pardon the expression, they’ve f***ed up the whole crate!” – make him angry. Cypriot political parties, and the culture of mutual back-scratching, make him angry. Customers who demand their lamb well-done (as opposed to pink, or at worst medium) make him angry. Local croissants and even tyropittas, the flaky cheese pies sold in all the big bakeries, make him angry.
“I had this conversation with a customer recently,” he recalls, “who said to me, ‘Pericles, you know what I miss? A real butter croissant!’. We’re seeing all these generic, bread-like croissants now, which are anything but croissants, filled with Nutella and jam and god-knows-what. They’re like sponges, full of preservatives, flavour enhancers, artificial colours – and [people] not only buy them but they also enjoy them, and they even feed them to their kids! It’s not a croissant! It’s anything but a croissant.”
Or take the tyropitta, the humble tyropitta, “which is part of our culture [yet] even that is being debased today”. Really? How? A proper cheese-pie should be made with butter, he replies (his frown deepens, his eyes seem to glare), but these are made with margarines, vegetable butters, carotene, “and you know this when you eat it, because it sticks to the roof of your mouth. Because the melting-points of butter and margarine are two different things! When you eat a tyropitta with butter, at 32 degrees – which is the temperature you have in your mouth – it melts and becomes one, and you eat it happily. The other one, its melting point is at 45-50 degrees, so you get this thing which is like glue, and sticks to the roof of your mouth.
“That’s one thing. The second thing is that the cheese they put in is the very worst you can imagine. The very worst! And I’m not embarrassed to say it, or afraid to say it. Because it’s become a matter of cents – there’s so much competition between the bakeries that it’s a matter of cents, this one’s two cents cheaper than that one or whatever. So what do they do? They go to the cheese-maker and put so much pressure that the cheese-maker, to lower the price of the cheese – halloumi, anari, whatever – uses casein”. Uses what? Casein, he explains, a milk by-product which is used to make cheese – but can also be used to make things like oil-paints and plastic keys. (He’s right; Google it.) He used to be a cheese-maker himself, adds Pericles; he knows chemical cheese when he sees it.
Needless to say, cheese-pies and cheese aren’t the main point of our interview – but that more-or-less-unedited rant gives a flavour of the man, his air of the zealous high priest relating the outrages being perpetrated in His name. At other points he talks about rocket (real Cyprus rocket may be the best in the world – “full of flavour, peppery” – yet producers insist on using bland Italian rocket which is “nothing but a green leaf”) and lamb (butchers insist on giving him the whole rack of lamb, when he only wants the first eight ribs) with the same obsessive passion. Does he ever lose his temper in the kitchen? “Out of the 15 hours I spend in the kitchen every day,” he replies instantly, “I would say 14 and a half.”
Once again, I get the sense of a deliberate persona, cultivated over decades of chef-dom. “There’s a rumour that Pericles is crazy,” he reports with a wolfish grin, and nods: “I confess to being crazy”. And why not, if it makes him a celebrity and brings people to his restaurants? Yet there’s also something else – a real disappointment in his long career, and perhaps a true source of bitterness. Flashback to his previous Sunday Mail profile, when we spoke excitedly of “his biggest-ever project – the first Michelin-starred restaurant in Cyprus, due to open its doors in February 2001. He’s already taken, and passed, a Michelin cookery test, and is all but assured of a star in the next Guide.”
That was XO Emotion, the Nicosia restaurant that did indeed open in 2001, and did indeed win a Michelin star – but only on the day it closed, in 2003. “We had to give it back,” he says sadly, “since the restaurant didn’t exist anymore”. Pericles went all-out on that project, sparing no expense: “We had a sommelier from a three-star restaurant in Paris,” he recalls. “I had, as my assistant, the sous-chef of the Louis XV Restaurant in Monte Carlo, plus a team of three others from Plaza Athénée, Creon, Arpège – all three-star restaurants. We had a baker, a 60-year-old man who’d spent his whole life doing nothing but baking bread…” The timing wasn’t great, coinciding with the collapse of the stock market bubble. There was also a “wrong impression given out that it was THE most expensive restaurant, inaccessibly expensive,” he recalls – even though you could get an 11-course set menu for 21 Cyprus Pounds, and prices were only prohibitive if you went à la carte and chose dishes like Kobe beef from Japan. That was indeed 45 Pounds, he shrugs – but it cost him $185/kilo, and the animal came with a pedigree going back five generations!
XO Emotion was “one of the most traumatic experiences of my life,” he says now, and shakes his head: “The Cypriot consumer wasn’t ready for it”. How did he react to the restaurant’s failure? “I would say I reacted in a totally commercial, and totally Cypriot manner,” he replies acidly. “I said OK, you want a great big 500g chop, which is 40cm long so it fills your plate and you go ‘Aaahhh…’” – he mimes a satisfied customer – “with, as they say in Cypriot, a charta of potatoes and a charta of salad” (charta means ‘a pile’, but may be better translated as ‘a shitload’), “then by all means. Take it, just as long as you pay me for it, and that’s all. On the other hand, I’d leave the restaurant [Pralina] every day with a cloud hanging over me.”
Is it bitterness that drives Pericles Roussounides? Unlikely. You don’t spend 17 hours at your job unless you love what you do – but there is perhaps an ambivalence about him, maybe wondering what might’ve been. Cyprus is his country, but not completely; “I belong in two worlds,” he confirms. He didn’t grow up here – he grew up in the Belgian Congo (his Greek still carries a slight French intonation), where his dad worked in trading and his mum was a wonderful cook. What was her speciality? Lots of things, he shrugs, from sausages to pigeon in wine sauce. This was in colonial times, with a big spread behind the family home: Mum “had her 20 goats, her henhouse. We ate a fresh egg every morning”. Everything was fresh. “I lived in a more natural environment,” he says, thinking perhaps of his own grown-up kids – a son and two daughters – who never had the opportunity. “I grew up with natural tastes.”
That, in the end, may be the key to the man – an abiding interest in ingredients and raw materials, food that’s real, natural, unprocessed. One of the (many) things that make him angry is the way supermarkets make huge profits and the actual producer – “who might not sleep all night, looking to see if it’s going to rain or not” – gets left behind. He waxes sentimental over the small farmers in the Pyrenees who supply the lamb for Mamasita, or the old guy with a fishing-rod off the coast of France who fished for the sole that made its way to XO Emotion. That’s why it pains him when he sees a chef “abusing” food, he says – and the eyes glare again, the words emerging through gritted teeth: “It makes. Me. Crazy.”
People have a strange relationship with food, I point out: we love it, but don’t really respect it. “No respect for food,” agrees Pericles sadly. “Zero. Zero times zero is zero.” He pauses, as if thinking about it might somehow change the situation, then shakes his head: “Zero times zero is zero”. At least things are different in his own life, his resilient bubble of never-ending work and total, uncompromising control. He doesn’t even like hiring professionals in the kitchen, he explains, preferring to find young people with no bad habits, whom he then mentors and moulds.
One of the kitchen staff interrupts us now, looking like the bearer of tragic news. There’s no mixed salad, he says in a low voice. “I didn’t order mixed salad today,” replies Pericles, and the man looks relieved. I recall something he said earlier, that “it gives me pleasure to explain to my chefs what it means to speak of raw materials, how to handle them and so on. It gives me pleasure to do it” – but here his face grew dark, Mr. Grumpy peeking through again: “It gives me pleasure once, twice, to explain to the same person. The third time it doesn’t give me pleasure”. 12 years on, Mr. Roussounides is still a difficult customer.