Damalas Unfiltered: Gastronomy and Wine at the Limit
Yiannis meets star chef Chronis Damalas and they have a revealing talk about wine and food…
Photo Credit: Evripidis Apostolidis
Yiannis: How did you enter the gastronomy scene?
Chronis: I was lucky because I grew up in a home that has a mother who is a great cook and who made freshly-cooked meals every day; of course, I also love to eat. Becoming a chef was natural evolution.
Yiannis: What do you remember from your childhood?
Chronis: I remember eating, fishing, swimming… I grew up in Athens, but I spent my summer vacations in Eleonas, near Diakofto, in the Peloponnese.
Yiannis: Did you drink wine with your family?
Chronis: Of course. Wine was part of our everyday life. We even produced some wine from the vineyards of my grandparents in Aigio.
Yiannis: Tell me a little bit about what you are doing now. Where can we find you at this time of the year?
Chronis: During the winter I work at 'Izakaya' in Kolonaki, a small Japanese bistro, and during the summer I am at 'Cavo Tagoo' in Santorini and Mykonos and also at the former '1800' in Oia, which has now been renovated and will be named 'Naos'.
Yiannis: And how do you manage all of these? How many hours a day do you sleep?
Chronis: As much as I need to, I don't know. It can be among 4,5,6,3 hours, even 8.
Yiannis: Do you mean to say that anything is possible, if you want to achieve your goals?
Chronis: Yes, it depends. To be honest, I work with a great team, we've been working together for years, so I do not need to worry that things will fall apart, every time I leave. Of course, constant contact is necessary, but when you have been working with someone for years, you know how that person thinks on the job.
Yiannis: And what is your philosophy, your signature in the kitchen?
Chronis: My choice of products. I always choose the best. I avoid working with products which are of lower quality. What I mean to say is that if the crayfish is not alive, it's not good. The same goes for the scallops. The lobster must be alive. Let me give you an example so that you can understand what I mean better – I prefer to cook a fresh sardine or a mackerel, than a frozen grouper. One of the difficulties that Greek cuisine faces in the restaurant setting- from the simplest tavern to the expensive restaurant- is the comparison to “grandma’s freshly cooked food”.
Yiannis: Yes, but isn't that very difficult to achieve? Couldn't you have terrible failures in a restaurant if everything is made at the last minute?
Chronis: It is a difficult thing. This is when you need to depend on your colleagues. For example, in my hotel in Santorini I have 13 employees and 15 cooks in the restaurant.
Izakaya, tacos with tuna tartare and wasabi
Yiannis: Which dish expresses you the most? Which one would you consider has the Damalas signature all over it, from top to bottom.
Chronis: I am in constant evolution and my taste has changed over the years, so the dish that illustrates my recent years is a carpaccio of sea bass, that I serve with chilli, sea- urchin and passion fruit. It has a little coriander and it relies on the play of the different textures. Sweet, sour, salty and bitter. Focused on taste and aftertaste.
Yiannis: And what kind of wine would you pair it with?
Chronis: This is something I need your help with. Because, this is a rather aggressive dish.
Yiannis: This is a tricky pairing. Sake for sure, German Riesling with some sweetness, Alsatian Gewürztraminer to balance the heat. Assyrtiko for sure, Robola as well. There you go, there are so many options.
Yiannis: From the experience you have in the restaurants in which you work, would you say that Greek wine is versatile? Does it pair well with flavors that are very Greek but also complex, not just a plain saganaki (grilled cheese)?
Chronis: I generally feel proud to be Greek. Especially in the last decade, Greek wine has improved tremendously. I believe it is crazy to have had a thousands of years of great history in wine and to be known only for our Retsina and Ouzo, while the New World countries have managed to lead the market with fewer years of experience. Nowadays, Greece produces high quality wines, nevertheless, there is room for improvement. There is a clientele that wants more exquisite wines. Of course, it’s not always about what we want, but what we can do to change. I have always been a man of the extremes. I either like something with weight or I like something very light. Something very expensive or something very cheap, everything has its place.
Yiannis: How about your favorite tastes, varieties or wines?
Chronis: My obsession with wine in general is that I want balance. On the whole, I prefer aged red wines; a little more rounded and polished, with refined tannins. And in white wines I prefer purity over oak and butter.
Yiannis: How do you see the pricing policy of wine in restaurants? There are a lot of complaints about the fact that one buys a wine for 5 euros and sells it for 35, or even more.
Chronis: How much you pay for a wine has a lot to do with the place that you are in. When I go to a tavern, where the food will cost about 10 euros per person and the staff is minimal, I would pay twice or three times above the wholesale price for the wine. But when you go to a restaurant like mine, where a table will amount to about 500 euros per person, and this includes a staff of 15 chefs, 20 waiters, a great view, and a huge investment, I'm sorry it cannot be 2 times the price; it must be 4 – 5 times that. In the same way, that you can get coffee at the supermarket that will cost you 10 cents, at Gregoris -Venetis it will cost you 1 euro, but if you want to drink coffee with a view of the Acropolis, or the Eiffel tower it will cost you extra.
Giannis: What about expensive wines?
Chronis: That's another story! The point is how you sell cheap wines and expensive wines. The cheap wine of 5 euros must be sold at 15, 20 maybe. But wine that costs 150 cannot sell at 500 euros.
Yiannis: Tell me, what kind of music do you like?
Chronis: I grew up with rock music. When I was young my favourite artists were the Doors, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin. In the 70's I used to go to Monastiraki to find vinyls, and I used to listen to jazz or rock at home until 9 o'clock in the morning.
Yiannis: Is Mykonos a separate ''state'', a completely different world, a different case in the price point both for food and wine?
Chronis: Well, on the one hand you have clients who can afford the expense, but, on the other hand, prices are extremely steep in every respect. If you want to open a restaurant in Mykonos you will need about 5000 euros per person, solely for the accommodation of the employees. And I will tell you this: The most important reason for which Greece has a problem in the restaurant sector is the lack of culture. For some reason we have a notion that Greece is at the same level as France, England and Spain, whereas the truth is that it is part of the Balkan peninsula. We have borders with Bulgaria, Albania and Turkey. We do not have a lunch break. We eat dinner at 7-8 o clock at night. We eat almost like ''Arabs''. Only Arabs eat that late at night. Italians and Spanish people eat dinner a little earlier in the day and as you go further North, dinner is served even earlier.
Yiannis: Favorite vacation destination?
Chronis: Good company.
Yiannis: Outside the box or inside the box?
Chronis: All around the box. I'm the type of person who enjoys going to the most luxurious hotel that includes a great view, suite, jacuzzi, spa, but also to a deserted beach with just a fire and some fresh water to rinse my hands and my face so the salt won't burn my eyes.
Yiannis: Champagne or Bordeaux?
Yiannis: What food you would pair it with?
Chronis: I like it both with food and without food. Also, with good company, but, above all, I want it to be a fine champagne.
Izakaya, Sea bass, lime, chilli, sea urchin