Nikos Roussos may have left the family silversmith business to become a chef, but his Funky Gourmet restaurant in Athens is pure gold. With two Michelin stars and a thoroughly modern outlook on traditional Greek food, it continues to break new ground. Roussos will share his experience as mentor to the Mediterranean region finalist Constadina Voulgari at S.Pellegrino Young Chef 2018.
Ahead of the competition, the chef spoke to Fine Dining Lovers about his own mentors, his innovative cuisine and what he really thinks about Michelin stars.
Can you remember the moment you decided to become a chef – what inspired you and what obstacles did you overcome to achieve your dream?
Before I become a chef I was studying economics alongside working in my family’s silversmith business. My hobby was to plate food for our house parties when suddenly I felt the need to start exploring food deeper. In 2002, I decided to change my career and enrolled in ICE culinary school in Manhattan, New York. Even though my family didn’t expect me to leave their business, I had their full support, so no serious obstacles to overcome really.
What was your biggest triumph as a young chef, and is there anything you would consider your biggest failure?
My biggest triumph started at the end of 2009 when I teamed up with Georgianna Hiliadaki (chef/co-owner) and Argyro Hiliadaki (managing director/co-owner) to create Funky Gourmet. At around age 27, we opened our restaurant during a very bad economic crisis in our country and we quickly established it worldwide with success. In just two years it gained its first Michelin star, and after two more years it gained a second star together with international recognition as a prominent avant-garde Greek restaurant. I wouldn’t say there was a single big failure in my life. I have made mistakes, big and small, which I try to learn from and, most importantly, try not to repeat.
As a mentor, what do you expect from your young chef, and what do you think you can offer her?
I’m glad to be Constadina Voulgari’s mentor. Constadina is a great professional, a lovely person and a very focused young chef, so I expect her to be herself. I hope I will be able to guide her using my experience and knowledge.
What would victory in the S.Pellegrino Young Chef competition mean for a young chef?
S.Pellegrino is a leading and prestigious establishment in the F&B industry. Victory in the S.Pellegrino Young Chef competition is a great achievement and a very prestigious asset in a young chef’s CV.
Who were your greatest mentors?
My greatest mentor was my first chef–instructor at ICE, Ted Siegel. An amazing chef, strict and to the point. He taught me how challenging and demanding this job is, and how to behave in a professional kitchen. My family taught me to work hard and be fair with people. Georgianna’s and Argyro’s father, Lefteris Hiliadakis, a great larger-than-life personality, continues to mentor me on how to focus. Last but not least, one of the first guests of Funky Gourmet, who became a beloved friend and a very important person to me, the late Petros Vettas, taught me that in the end quality always prevails.
Your food has been described as avant-garde: how do you strike a balance between art and accessibility?
We see food as a form of art, as a way to express our feelings. With respect to our Greek culinary heritage, we use the best products of our land in order to create conceptual degustation menus and engage our guests in a culinary experience. We aspire to introduce them our point of view of a refined Greek cuisine that is innovative and activates senses using a combination of Funky and Gourmet – fine dining in an imaginative and exciting way.
The Greek Salad Granita is considered to be your signature dish –what does it represent and why did you create it?
The Greek salad is the most emblematic Greek dish. Tomatoes mixed with cucumbers, olives, onions and feta cheese, drizzled with extra virgin olive oil. At Funky Gourmet we love working with the best ingredients, and by using various cooking techniques we create conceptual dishes with interesting textures that highlight the unique character of each dish. Our salad is re-conceptualized and presented in the form of white granita. All the ingredients are mixed together, distilled, frozen and then spun in a special machine creating a texture of white snow. Although our eyes see powdery snow, the flavour and aromas are distinctly those of the traditional salad. We smell and taste fresh tomatoes but we don’t see even a speck of red in our dish. A miniature shovel is used in lieu of a fork.
You have worked in a number of countries as a chef. How have those experiences shaped you as a chef?
Working in different countries under different chefs is invaluable. Exploring each chef’s culinary perspective is the best start for building up a career. Working under pressure with fellow professionals from all over the world and sharing different cultures is what shapes you as a chef. Different cultures and culinary perspectives give knowledge and knowledge builds up experience. I thoroughly believe travelling plays an essential role in a chef’s development.
Funky Gourmet is one of only two Athens restaurants with two Michelin stars – how important are Michelin stars to you?
Michelin stars are among the oldest and most prestigious recognition for chefs and restaurants worldwide. Through the Michelin Guide you can introduce your restaurant concept to the globe. We are very honoured and proud to have gained two stars at Funky Gourmet. However, we always remember the advice a Michelin inspector once gave us: ‘never cook for the stars - the Michelin guide’s role is not to judge but to suggest'.
What are you working on at the moment and what are your plans for the future?
Funky Gourmet is always moving forward and aiming high. OPSO, our casual-modern Greek restaurant in London, progresses daily and is recognized as one of the leading Greek restaurants in town. For the future, we have just launched Modern Greek Food Group (MGFG), where we sum up all our establishments. Coming soon, our next project is a new perspective on Greek street food in London.