In what he says will be his last interview, Masterchef sensation Stavris impresses THEO PANAYIDES with his focus as he dreams of a Michelin star following his TV appearances to show there were good chefs in Cyprus
Breaking news: this, by his own admission, is the last interview Stavros Georgiou (popularly known as ‘Stavris’) plans to give. Not forever, of course – he’s sure to be in the public eye for a while, given his current celebrity – but it’s fair to say a chapter is coming to a close, the whirl of interviews and constant media appearances that followed his appearance on the fourth season of Masterchef. The show took the local TV landscape by storm, last month’s final attracting a remarkable 136,498 viewers (it set similar records in Greece); it also supplied him with the nickname ‘Stavris’ – a name he now plans to adopt in his public persona – mostly to distinguish him from fellow contestant Stavros Varthalitis, who was his opponent in the final.
Varthalitis was the winner of that final, Stavris a mere runner-up – yet his profile couldn’t be higher if he’d stormed to victory. He’s routinely recognised – not to say mobbed – in public; “They run after me in supermarkets,” he sighs, his fans presumably trying to see what ingredients he’s shopping for. His Instagram page (stavros_geo) has 70,000 followers. It’s well-known that he plans to open a restaurant soon – almost certainly in his hometown of Larnaca – and also well-known that his dream is to run the first Michelin-starred establishment in Cyprus. He takes his career super-seriously, having realised the importance of assembling a team while still on Masterchef; our meeting takes place in his lawyer’s office in Larnaca, having been arranged weeks before through his manager.
Why the acclaim? Coming second is no small achievement, of course – and indeed he was slightly off his game (he says) on the day of the final, distracted by a painful wisdom tooth and the blow of having just been told that he’d have to isolate for two weeks on returning to Cyprus. Even if he’d won, however, that wouldn’t necessarily explain why people find him so fascinating. What’s important isn’t just Stavris’ success but also his story, his dramatic arc on the show: he’s the lone wolf, the ‘bad boy’, the arrogant young man who barged in like a bull in a china shop – and slowly became more likeable, more human.
His Masterchef audition is a bit of an eyebrow-raiser. He prepared a calamari confit with celeriac puree and a beurre blanc (a hot butter sauce) made with yuzu – but it wasn’t just the cooking, it was also his attitude. Was he friendly with previous contestants from Cyprus? asked the judges. “Not especially,” replied Stavris coolly. His purpose in coming to the show, he explained, then paused for a moment: “I don’t know if this sounds right or wrong – and I don’t care!”– his purpose was to demonstrate that good chefs do exist on the island. Weren’t the previous contestants good enough, then? persisted the judges. “That has nothing to do with me,” he replied implacably, refusing the obvious option of a diplomatic answer. “I’m just speaking for myself.”
His persona was brusque, direct, almost bumptious – yet also refreshingly free of showbiz cant and hypocrisy. That same persona looks back at me from across the desk in the lawyer’s office, a bearded, tattooed young man with hard eyes and a surprisingly sweet smile, a 25-year-old whose mentality, he tells me, is very different from that of most 25-year-olds. “I don’t believe in luck,” he affirms. “You make your own luck.”
So he’s not afraid of anything?
“Only God.” He used to have a fear of the sea, he admits, back in childhood, but he’s over that now. What kind of boy was he, anyway?
“Crazy!” he replies, and laughs. “What can I say? Very active.”
He was too active for school, which bored and bewildered him: “I don’t like sitting behind a desk all day, waiting for one o’clock so I can go home… That’s what I love in the kitchen now, constantly doing stuff.” Much of his energy got channelled into football: Stavris played for Anorthosis, Aek Larnaca and even the national under-17 side (he’d have liked to go on to the senior team, but cooking took over) – though it’s also significant that he wasn’t a striker but a No. 6, a central defensive midfielder, a player whose job is to stop the other side by any means necessary. “The guy who breaks legs!” he admits, with another laugh.
Is that who he is? The aggressive type?
“That’s who I used to be,” he clarifies. “I’m a bit aggressive in the kitchen too, but only when I have to be – it’s not like I start yelling from the time I come in till the time I go home. I’m a professional.” Actually, muses Stavris, a lot has changed, in the past few months in particular. “I used to lose my temper very easily, both before Masterchef and during Masterchef. Now, I never do. I just take two deep breaths, I relax, I don’t overthink. I walk the line, basically”. He’s learned to listen, that’s a big part of it. “I don’t talk, I only talk when I have to. I think things over a couple of times. I weigh up, I balance… Whereas, you know, eight months ago I was exactly the opposite.”
Cynics may point out that it’s easy enough to be calm now, when he’s the hero of the hour and everyone loves him – but it’s also true, as already mentioned, that his personality seemed to change (or at least mellow) as the show went on. Reality shows tend to run on conflict – but Stavris’ increasingly close friendship with the other Stavros, the more laid-back Varthalitis, was a big reason for the high ratings, giving the rivalry a heartwarming feel. (Another reason, he says, was lockdown: people couldn’t buy ready meals so easily, so “they had to sit down and learn how to cook”.) He doesn’t come across as angry or touchy, just extremely focused; after all, he’s been working non-stop since 2011 – which was when he finally made the move from boring classrooms to technical school, landing in the Hospitality and Tourism wing.
Five years of school culminated in being named Best New Chef in 2016 – but meanwhile he also worked, at the Lordos Beach Hotel for two years, assorted restaurants in winter and the Amathus and Four Seasons (doing practical training) in the summer, a year in London after graduation, two more years of top hotels (the Amathus again, then the Parklane) before his TV adventure. The London sojourn was especially gruelling, working endless hours – sometimes 17 or 18-hour days – at Marcus Wareing’s Michelin-starred restaurant at the Berkeley Hotel in Knightsbridge: “I got beaten black and blue there,” he recalls grimly (and, we hope, metaphorically). “I lasted about a year – I went as a chef de partie, left as a junior sous chef with my own shift”. The hours were brutal – but of course that’s the job, shrugs Stavris, you don’t get days off as a chef; the work never ends. Only once in the past nine years has he taken a break for Christmas: last December when he was doing Masterchef, reality-show chefs being obviously a bit more coddled than real chefs.
That’s the strange part, though perhaps not so strange (maybe it’s the same for all chefs). Cooking is an art – yet he treats it like a sport, laying emphasis on macho attributes like strength and stamina. He comes off like a man’s man in general – which you’d think would be unpopular these days, but apparently not. His tattooed arms tell a tale, even if the tattoos themselves are a work in progress (the designs are his friend’s, he clarifies; Stavris just offers up his skin as a canvas). On the right arm are “my favourite ingredients” – cherry blossom, hibiscus, artichoke – plus a Michelin star he had done in London to celebrate Marcus Wareing holding on to its two-star rating. On the left arm are women: “a woman crying, a woman wearing a mask – though that’s still unfinished – a woman with four eyes, it’s the dark side and the bright side”. Stavris smiles, trying to look abashed: “Okay, I have lots of stories with women. We’re like that in general, us chefs who work in kitchens.” (There’s a reason why Anthony Bourdain called his book Kitchen Confidential.) “But since I met my girlfriend, I’m very focused on my relationship,” he adds virtuously.
The girlfriend in question – as anyone who’s followed the month-long media onslaught will know – is called Elena, and in fact the couple are now living together; it’s been quite a year for Stavros Georgiou, when you add Masterchef and Liverpool FC winning the title. (Yeah, he’s a fan.) I assume he cried when Jurgen Klopp’s men lifted the trophy after 30 years of hurt, just like he cried on the show when his friend Demosthenis got cut; real men cry too, “I have no hang-ups about that” – just as long as the feelings are real, he adds pointedly. Maybe that’s a reason why he won people’s hearts, because he’s real: his naked ambition was real when he came on the show – he literally didn’t care about making friends – so the friendships he ended up making were real too. He cries, he gets mad, his feelings surge to the surface; he seems, in a word, hot-blooded – which might also explain why summer is his least favourite season. What makes him angry in Cyprus? “The weather. It’s too hot!”
One thing hasn’t really been mentioned so far, and that’s food. Stavris dined at about 150 posh restaurants during his time in London, he estimates – he sampled, took notes, snapped photos; “I must have 15,000 photos [of food] on my phone right now” – but was it just for research or is he, in fact, a foodie? He’s certainly no glutton, holding on to his footballer’s physique, but that doesn’t mean much; one can be rake-thin and still be a gourmet. I suspect he didn’t grow up with haute cuisine, either, partly because the family sound unpretentious (his dad’s a British Cypriot from Middlesbrough who works at a security firm; his mum worked for Swissport at Larnaca Airport) and partly because of the kind of boy he himself was – but that doesn’t mean much either. Kids seldom appreciate good food, even when they grow up to be top chefs.
Besides, taste is largely irrelevant. Being a chef in a restaurant kitchen (or on a high-pressure show like Masterchef) is a case of perspiration over inspiration. You need to be fast, nimble, organised; you don’t have to like celeriac puree, as long as you know how to make one expertly. Stavris’ own taste in food is eclectic: he enjoys the posh places (he singles out Restaurant Gordon Ramsay in Chelsea) – but also eats a lot of fast food, especially late at night after a punishing shift in the kitchen, and he’ll also make pasta at home for himself and the girlfriend, “and I also like souvlaki, omelette, my mum’s cooking”. His mum’s koupepia will feature on the menu of his restaurant, he vows – and indeed the restaurant is likely to be a bistro, the kind of place where you eat well without breaking the bank; ‘gourmet’ shouldn’t mean tiny portions and snobby service.
The ultimate dream is to run a restaurant so famous that people come to Cyprus just to dine there, as they used to travel (for instance) to a village in Catalonia to eat at El Bulli. The more immediate dream is to stay recognisable, and keep building his profile: “I’d like my followers to go from 70,000 to 200,000 by the end of the year. And I’ll make it happen!”. I recall what he told me earlier, about comparing chefs as they do on Masterchef: “There’s no ‘better’ and ‘worse’. There’s just wanting it more than the other guy”.
Stavris wants it, all right; but he also wants it on his own terms. There’s a chain around his neck, with a silver pendant. It’s a feather, he explains, symbolising freedom – though that’s not what he usually wears. He rummages around in his bag and brings out his first-choice neck ornament – the pendant in this case being the Phaistos Disc, the ancient Minoan artefact so crammed with signs and symbols that no-one’s ever been able to decipher it. I suppose he’s a mystery too, the footballer chef, the kitchen warrior with a sensitive streak. His phone rings just as we’re winding up: “I just finished. I’m leaving now,” he says brusquely – and shakes my hand with a sweet smile, closing the chapter (at least for the moment) on interviews.