Interview: Philip Vakos of BAHARI
Philip Vakos launched himself into the Melbourne food scene in 2010 as a contestant on the widely popular TV show, Masterchef. Vakos is proudly a Greek Australian, meaning that although he grew up in Tasmania, he still identifies strongly with his Greek heritage—especially when it comes to cooking.
In 2015, Vakos opened up Bahari on Swan Street Richmond. Over the last two years he has worked on defining the concept of Gringlish cuisine, and bringing an interesting style of fusion to the busy food strip. We spoke to Vakos about Bahari, balancing technique with produce, and as it’s that time of the year; Greek Easter.
Bahari serve up a ‘Gringlish’ style of dining, which essentially represents Vakos’ dual nationality in food form. “Gringlish is about using Greek food and flavours, but adapting it to the ingredients that are available to us here in Australia,” says Vakos. “We have all this beautiful produce available in Australia that isn’t really available in Greece.” The cuisine at the Swan Street restaurant is influenced by Greek technique, and while respectful of authenticity, still aims to push some boundaries. “It’s good that we’re not sticking to just traditional things,” Vakos tells us, “because [by doing that] your food and your culture can’t really adapt. It holds you back.”
An example of the marriage of Greek and Aussie flavours at Bahari is the twist on an original Greek recipe of rice-stuffed zucchini flowers. “We’ve got beautiful prawns here in Australia,” says Vakos, “So I’m thinking, well, let’s get an Aussie prawn, make a mousse and stuff it into a zucchini flower. Things like that is what we do here [at Bahari].”
The team at Bahari didn’t invent the term ‘Gringlish’, Heleena Alatsas, Vakos’ fiancée who manages brand, marketing and events at Bahari, says. “It’s used sometimes. People throw it around as a descriptive word, but we’ve kind of come in and owned it in the food space,” Alatsas says. “It’s really something that describes what we do, who we are and what we produce.”
Being located in Richmond also plays into the Gringlish theme, as the area has a strong Greek community, both old and new, interspersed with other cultures and many Australians.
But Vakos says that was just a small reason for setting up shop on the busy Swan Street. “It’s a prominent foodie strip,” Says Vakos, mentioning that other fantastic nearby restaurants—such as Feast of Merit, Messina and more—only help build its popularity. “It’s the hub for food in Melbourne, I think.”
The Greek and Aussie fusion available at Bahari draws on Grecian cooking and history, but to generalise Greek technique and tradition as all the same would be a big mistake. Vakos’ family is from Crete, and he tells us that spices are a prominent component of Creteian cooking. Bahari even means “spice” in Greek, and this style of cooking helps Vakos explore flavours and use a really creative approach. “For me, Greek food is very fresh, basic and simple. I’ve always liked using spices in my food. They’re pretty heavy on spices in Creteian cooking. I find spices are a sort of alchemy to amplify food, and I love using them,” says Vakos.
If you were to visit Greece, depending on the region your experience with the food would most likely be different, Vakos tells us. “If you have a Moussaka from Athens, it’s very neutral. If you have one in Crete, it’s heavy with cloves and cinnamon; and if you have Moussaka from northern Greece it’s different again.” Creteian cooking represents the Creteian way of life, Vakos says. “Bold people, bold flavours.”
Some of the traditional Creteian recipes Vakos has learnt from his family are those such as Kaltsounia, which are Greek cheese pies that can be either sweet or savoury. Another, which is closely associated with Greek Easter, is Tsoureki, a Greek version of a brioche, baked with painted red hard-boiled eggs. “Growing up Greek Easter was, I guess, the most important event of the year,” Vakos says.
“[It was more important] than Christmas, because we have forty days of fasting where we’re not supposed to eat meat or anything that comes from an animal. After those forty days, it’s the lamb on the spit; moussaka; salads. It’s all about the meat. It’s just awesome because you’ve been forty days without eating anything… it makes you feel alive again, trust me.”
This year, Greek Easter falls on the same dates as ‘Australian’ Easter, but that doesn’t really impact the community much (aside from missing out on discount chocolate Easter eggs, Alatsas laughs).
“For me, Greek Easter, aside from the religious aspects, it’s about family, togetherness and reflecting on the year to come,” Vakos says. He jokes about growing up in Tasmania where other kids would show off their chocolate Easter eggs at school, compared to his (in his eyes) disappointing loaf of bread. “Growing up I was never really a fan of Tsoureki. Whether that had been my grandmother cooking the bejesus out of it or not… but I wasn’t really a fan.”
This didn’t stop him, however, from realising there was a foundation in the Tsoureki tradition that could serve well with Bahari’s Gringlish concept. “I wanted to make something with it [Tsoureki] that I enjoyed. So I thought, well, I always enjoyed bread and butter pudding growing up.” Enter the most decadent version of a bread and butter pudding you’ve ever tasted.
Vakos has used Tsoureki as the bread element but added the unique ingredients of chocolate and Halva. Made up of ground sesame seeds and sugar, the Halva provides a nutty flavour, and candied macadamias on top supply textural contrast to the custard and bread. “It’s an all-round favourite for me,” says Vakos.
(Across the page you will find Vakos’ own Tsoureki recipe, perfect for a touch of Greek Easter in your own home.)
In the lead up to the festive period, Bahari will feature Greek Easter dishes on the menu; the Tsoureki will be a dessert special and Kaltsounia will also make an appearance. “It gives people that Greek Easter feel and experience,” says Vakos, which, unless you have Greek heritage, or perhaps a Greek best friend, can be somewhat hard to come by.
Keep an eye out for Bahari’s upcoming Gringlish projects, including stepping outside the Swan Street locale.