AGNIESZKA RAKOCZY meets a chef who is keen to evolve his own style of cuisine and who has his eye on a Michelin star being given in Cyprus
It is difficult to figure out someone so concentrated and focussed on realising his aspirations and achieving his future goals that he views any discussion of his past as an unnecessary diversion, one that might slow him down from reaching his destination and fulfilling his life’s quest. Yet how to comprehend, much less appreciate, so determined and driven a figure without stopping along the route he has travelled to savour the stories and better appreciate the experiences, the very dreams, his vision and accomplishments are built upon?
I am talking here about Petros Andrianou, the 38-year-old, Paris-trained professional chef, and founder of 3 Forks Lab. Hailed as one of the most creative cooks in Cyprus, knowing enthusiasts who might otherwise turn up their noses at being called foodies regard him as the new hope, a breath of fresh air on the tired scene of local gastronomy.
My encounter with Petros takes place at the Daily Coffee Roast, for which Petros has designed a special menu including artichoke tarts, Portuguese buns, and burgers with pulled pork, espresso-chili BBQ sauce, apple ginger slow salad and vanilla caramelised onions. Is it any wonder then that I arrive at the coffee shop savouring the prospect of more than just a long chat with Petros about French haute cuisine and the Michelin starred celebrity chefs he worked with during his years in Paris?
It doesn’t quite work out that way. Petros is so immersed in his new project that he appears almost reluctant to devote time to discussing his background and how he reached this latest, and in his view, most significant launch pad of a creative career.
When finally he agrees to tell me a little about his background, it is with a kind of bemused modesty, as though it is all incidental to the moment now that the next stage is at hand. The sense I get is that he is patiently telling me, “this was then and here I am now and where I am now it is much more important”.
Later, when I get the chance to consult his website, things fall into place and it all becomes clearer. He calls it Manifesto – an unapologetic artistic declaration of principle not unlike some of the rebellious futurists of the early 20th century.
He states by way of introduction: “In 2008, I came to a realisation that I have to evolve my own style of cuisine. To achieve this, I made a decision to withdraw from the kitchen and find new ways of approaching creativity and adapting it in cuisine. I had to get out of the shadow of the chefs who I dreamed of becoming or who I worked with, to get out of their philosophy and try to find my own and place my own DNA in gastronomy.”
Sipping a latte in a Nicosia coffee shop, Petros indulged my curiosity and filled in some of the details of what lay at the back of his future and the concept of his long-planned 3 Forks Lab.
We start with the image of a five-year-old boy whose father, an international leather import/export trader, took him all over the world. These proved to be the inaugural travels that exposed an appreciative youngster to “very good and very different restaurants”. That exposure combined with an appreciative palate that in the ensuing years grew more sophisticated and demanding were the trigger for further wanderings and multiple apprenticeships, all of which culminated in the decision several years ago to come back to Cyprus “because this is my island and I have a dream of putting it on the world’s gastronomic map”.
Despite that eye firmly fixed on the future, Nicosia-born Petros admits fondly that it was those trips with his father (“always pushing me to eat new things”) that helped him realise very early on that he wanted to be a cook.
“I don’t know too many other kids who by the age of six or seven would taste foie gras in Paris, raw lamb in Syria and real Asian food in China, and actually love all of this. I became fascinated by all these different tastes and flavours. Somehow, all of them became part of my DNA and very early on I discovered that I had a very good palate. So very early on I told my father that I wanted to be a cook. A cook because at that time we just didn’t know this term ‘a chef’. And my father just said: ‘ok’”.
But ideal as that start may have been, he still had a long way to go before his dream could be fulfilled. First was the need to complete his schooling and military service in Cyprus. It wasn’t until 2000 that Petros was finally free to go Paris to study at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts.
Was it difficult? I ask and he concedes it was. “At that time, to become a chef was still a lot of hard work,” he recalls, remembering the myriad of tests he had to pass. Nor, he readily admits, did he have any real idea about what it was he was getting himself into.
“Of course, I knew how to cook but it was just cooking for the family and at that level nobody will ever tell you if they don’t like it. But it was only in Paris and really only after I finished my training and joined my first Michelin restaurant as an apprentice that I truly realised just how hard and stressful this profession is.”
Accepted as a trainee at the well-known, two-star Les Elysees Restaurant at Hotel Vernet in Paris, Petros wasn’t too happy at first. It had not been his first choice. He aspired to the legendary three-star Le Taillevent. “My mentor told me I was not ready and I couldn’t argue with it,” he says. He didn’t have to wait long, however. “Six months after I started at Les Elysees, my boss there Alain Soliveres was invited to work at Le Taillevent and he took me with him,” he explains.
What difference does a star make, I wondered aloud. Does Le Taillevent differ all that much from Les Elysee? Petros nods his head vigorously. “Yes, of course, but the work ethos in both places was very similar. Why? Simply because on this level you just have to work 15-16 hours a day without a break. That’s a lot of hours of pure commitment and pressure and stress. And you have to be physically and mentally prepared to take it.”
And did he focus on any one particular aspect of cooking? Was he training as a patissier, a saucier, a poissonier or a rotisseur? His answer is a firm and dismissive no. He explains with the patience of the professional addressing a novice: “In a restaurant of this level, you don’t do any dishes by yourself. You are part of a team, minimally 12 in number, sometimes as many as 20 or 40. Whatever you work on, it is only a part of a dish, which, before it is ready, will have passed through the hands of at least eight people.”
But how do all these great chefs learn that there is this new Cypriot kid on the block? “Well, I don’t know if I am really good,” Petros answers. “But the way it works is that everything depends on where you worked before. If your CV includes some of these [listed] restaurants, they know you can do things and this helps you to get next job.
“I have been fortunate enough to work with some great chefs,” he says quietly. “These guys are titans of gastronomy. If you work with such names, it gives you a very strong background.”
So what was it that actually made Petros decide to abandon the beckoning stars of the ‘gastrosphere’, to call it quits and come back to the Cyprus? He smiles and points out that it didn’t happen that way exactly. First he moved to Spain, then to Japan, and, finally, back again to Europe, a three-year odyssey devoted to searching out the culinary secrets in all these places.
“The most amazing place was Japan because so many of the elements of my philosophy of food preparation are very close to those of the Japanese,” he says. “The Japanese are very strict in their working code. I respect the way they prepare everything. Do you know that they have a special ritual to prepare a knife for slicing the fish? They respect life which is a very important element of my beliefs as well.”
So did he go to a Japanese cooking school? “I wanted to but they didn’t accept me because it was only for Japanese people,” he says. “But my friend’s father was well connected so he arranged an apprenticeship for me in some of the top sushi bars. For a year I would stand in these bars, just watching how they were making sushi. I was not allowed to touch anything but I saw a lot and it was unbelievable…”
So why come back to the island when clearly by now he could have been cooking up a storm in one or other of Paris’ most exclusive restaurants, perhaps even earning one of those highly coveted Michelin stars for himself.
“I came back here because I love my country and because I want to put it at the top of the gastronomical field,” he says with conviction and passion. “I am from Cyprus. Not from Spain or France or Japan. My roots are here and I have a dream to do something spectacular for my country and to let it shine. This island has very good products, herbs and plants, and we also have very good recipes, influenced by French, Italian and Arab cuisines. So this is what I ultimately want to do in Cyprus – to open our local Michelin star restaurant and remind Cypriots of what they have in their own country. And yes, I know it is a difficult task, like climbing Mount Everest. Perhaps, it is even worse, because people lack knowledge and understanding of what I am talking about. People are usually afraid of things they don’t understand, but I enjoy this challenge and I have been fighting for years now to achieve my goal.”
Petros sees his 3 Forks Lab workshop and laboratory, the place where he develops his new philosophical concepts, techniques and, finally, his dishes, as the foundation for his future plans. “Since I came back I have been working on documenting Cypriot culture and the old recipes in order to develop them further. This research is very important to me because a lot of the things our grandparents knew are fast disappearing. So if we don’t record them now, we will lose them forever. This is why I learn how people prepared certain dishes in the old times and then I redo these processes to make something different with them. Because the basic principle of haute cuisine is to create food that tricks people’s minds and plays with their emotions. It is not about feeding your belly but your mind and senses. It is about taking old ideas and creating something entirely new that yet will remind people of their childhood. It is about encouraging people to experience food in new and unexpected ways. This is what I am planning to do in my restaurant.”
All is dishes, he explains, have something unique. He cites his stifado which features onions cooked in three ways, steamed in Japanese tea, cooked sous vide with beef stock, herbs and plants, and blanched in onion broth to boost the flavour. Then he makes a cream of it so that “my stifado is a small bomb of flavour that you can eat with one single bite.” His Sheftalia owe as much to Japan as to Cyprus and have nothing to do with tradition. The meat is top grade Japanese wagyu beef and he uses chervil, not parsley and serves the dish with one of his creations, strawberry katsuobushi sauce.
In his Manifesto, Petros the chef and idealist warns of the need to “tie ourselves to the mast of reason and logic, not being lured to demise by the sirens of money, fashion or fame”, yet he is pragmatic and realistic enough to admit that money is the biggest obstacle to this plan. “Ninety nine per cent of my project is here and at the same time the same 99 per cent of my project is missing. To achieve what I want I will need an investor who understands what this project means for Cyprus.”
Meanwhile, he continues his research, provides his consultancy services to local and foreign restaurants – three of the latter having been awarded Michelin stars – and, on a select clientele basis, prepares private dinners. And in a few weeks time he plans to launch a series of mini videos, shot and edited by a team of professionals “who understand my eccentricities”. With a mischievous glint in his eye, he explains why the series is called Cypriot Cuisine On the Edge.
“They will show how we are on the edge of losing it but that we can also push it over the edge to a completely new level of culinary art.”
In short: 3 Forks Lab coming your way – watch this space!
Petros’ Philosophy of Tecto-Sensory Cuisine
In 2008 Petros chose to evolve his own style of cuisine and vowed to leave the kitchens of others and find new ways to be creatively engaged with an evolving cuisine.
This marked the beginning of the long gestation process that led to the creation of the 3 Forks Lab. Why, you may well ask, Lab? The choice of name was deliberate because Petros envisages a culinary laboratory with the experimental aim of fusing the creativity of architects, designers, thinkers, dreamers, farmers, fishermen, any and all visionaries happy to collaborate and help create a contemporary and breakthrough cuisine that draws on island traditions and local roots.
3 Forks Lab seeks to create original crafted cuisine or food, that emphasises texture, flavours and ensures a balance of the senses on the plate. The inspiration stems from nature’s amazing diversity – from what Petros calls the equilibrium of nature’s architecture and nature’s harmony. He aims to arrive at a new gastronomical philosophy, a new tecto-ecosystem, respectful of life in all its meanings.
He firmly believes that a qualified chef needs to be open to other creative fields whether it be sculpture, scriptwriting, product design, or human studies etc. In his view, one discipline neither detracts nor distracts from another. “Whatever man creates finds itself on the same level with everything else. Expression is a continuous and unending journey on the same route.”