Probably the most well known and much-loved chef in Greece, Lefteris Lazarou has a wealth of experience behind him and a Michelin star to boot. The ‘chef patron’ of Varoulko Seaside, a renowned fine dining fish & seafood restaurant on the picturesque waterfront of Mikrolimano in Piraeus, approaches his creations which the imagination of an artist and the skilled hand of a true craftsman. We sat down with him to learn more about the man behind the most acclaimed fish dishes in Greece.
Where do you take your inspiration from?
The way I am inspired is very similar to the way in which a painter is inspired, who views the world differently from how others see it. That is the same with me and food. For example, on my daily visit to the fish market, I don’t just see a fish on the stall – I see the result once it has been cooked and the expression on your face as you eat it.
Experience, technique and being able to balance your ingredients also play a part. The old idea of adding oregano to everything in order to make it tastier just doesn’t work. You have to be disciplined, which comes from experience & knowledge. When I was younger, I was definitely more ‘generous’ and over the top with my flavours, but as I have matured, I have developed a more minimal & precise style.
Would you say that this explains how the menu at Varoulko Seaside has changed over the decades?
Yes. Once upon a time, I would prepare a dish as if it were an orchestral movement, incorporating 40 instruments & all their different textures & timbres. Now, with my experience and knowledge, I prefer to create a dish with only two or three instruments – more akin to a piece of chamber music. For an ingredient to stand out in a dish, it shouldn’t be swamped; it only needs one or two extra touches. If you want to eat fish, a little olive oil and some herbs are enough. It is the beauty of simplicity. What we do at Varoulko is truly unique. We are not the only restaurant that serves fish, but to dedicate 16 hours of your day exclusively to Greek seafood – I think we are the only ones to do that.
What sort of experience do you hope to impart to your diners?
From the moment diners step into Varoulko Seaside, they find themselves in a calm & relaxed environment, without it feeling pretentious or clinical. Next comes our style of service. We don’t just hand out menus and walk away – instead, we want to take care of each guest and build a relationship with them, which leads to a fulfilling experience. Additionally, I am not only interested in how the plate looks when it leaves my kitchen, but how it looks when it returns. If I see that a meal has been left unfinished I want to know why! I know what I am doing and usually, diners wipe their plate clean – if I have made a mistake or if a customer didn’t like their meal, I want to know so I can improve it or send out another dish.
What does the word ‘gastronomy’ mean to you?
The word gastronomy means the ‘absolute’, and it can be anything from a 3-star Michelin dinner to a simple dish prepared at home. You don’t need to go to a top restaurant to find gastronomy – gastronomy is when someone cooks from the heart.
What advice would you give younger chefs?
Young chefs need to be prepared to dedicate their time! Cooking is not only a matter of studying techniques, but it is also an act of devotion which can’t be mastered with only 5-6 hours at work each day. Cuisine is both your job and your lover, and it requires the ‘rule of eight’: 8 hours of work, 8 hours of passion and the remaining 8 hours for functional things like sleeping and socialising!
Where would you put Greece on the global gastronomy map?
The culinary scene here has developed a lot in recent years. Despite our economic difficulties, we have 5 Michelin-star restaurants in Athens and over 50 more excellent dining venues, plus 7 or 8 more that deserve Michelin star status. This means that Greece is already fine-dining destination. Similarly, Greece is and always will be well known for its traditional cuisine, due in part to its abundance of natural resources, especially from the sea. The Saronic Gulf, the Aegean and Ionian Seas: all of them have a very high salt content and marvellous depths, unlike the rest of Europe or the States, providing us with excellent quality seafood.
What do you eat at home and what is your favourite comfort food?
First of all, I don’t eat at home [laughs]. Fortunately, I eat at the restaurant, which feels like home to me! But I enjoy anything that is made for me if it is cooked well, even if that is French fries…as long as they are cooked in good quality olive oil. Greece is one large table, with room for everyone – that is what we learnt from our parents! For me, food is a liturgy, it is how I function and, around the table, you can appreciate many things. When I made this restaurant, for example, I asked the architect to dine with me so we could get better acquainted and for him to understand me. I think that this is how people should function – rather than with numbers or computers. Personal interaction, just like eating, is an essential part of life!