Masterchef S02 ep11 : Lefteris Lazarou, Restaurant Varoulko, [Athens]
Interview with Lefteris Lazarou
Absolutely fresh fish [just caught] is the start of what goes on the plate at this very awarded and iconic Athens restaurant [with views of the Acropolis!].
Varoulko is a nautical experience and I come from a nautical family.
When I decided to open up a restaurant of my own , one which didn't move, that wasn't on a boat,
that is, that's how Varoulko was born in Pireus in 1986 ,
The restaurant is now 21 years old, and I perservered with seafood as there was already an existing
I was born in Pireus, the seas was all around me, my grandfather was a fisherman, my father was a
cook, so there was a solid foundation for me to pick up cooking skills in the kitchen and working in
particular with seafood.
You can't choose to be a good cook, Cooking actually chooses you.
So I theorise that since cooking came easily to me , I followed i t.
I started at the age of 12, and decided I would follow in my fathers footsteps. So from the age of 12
until 34, up until I opened Varoulko, I spent my time on boats as a cook.
What forced me to work on land was an incident on a boat where I was badly burnt. I was
traumatised so I decided that I wanted to work on a boat which didn't move. So that's how I ended
up in Pireus, the place where I was born.
I was cooking in Pireus for 17 years and for the past 4 years, here at the Athens suburb of Pireos.
A Chef is too busy to catch fish himself , so you need to pick carefully your suppliers. Your
suppliers are your direct connection to the quality of the fish.
Of course you can tell how fresh a fish is by looking at it, there are criteria to judge it , but what is
not known is where the fish has been caught. Only your supplier knows this.
Greece is built up from many mountains so When it rains, the water which flows towards the sea,
sweeps up all sorts of nutrients and plant materials with it.
Also, our rivers benefit from this same sweet rain water as they head out to sea.
The moment a fish finds a source of nutrition close to the land, it nests, creates a home and stays.
Also, I need to mention that the Greek seas have very a fine salt content, importantant in
enhancing flavour. The only person who likes unsalted food is a sick person.
This is why the fish from local Greek waters and particularly around the Ionian islands, in fact
have much more flavour than imported fish.
In reality the Greek fisherman alone cannot satisfy local demand for fish and so suppliers do have
to import fish as well.
The fish market also sources Messogian fish. From Egypt. Morocco has two seas, the atlantic and
Messogian. Casablanca for example is on the Messogian sea.
The moment I cook a fish, I know where it comes from. And the next day it won't be paid for if it
isn't what I ordered. It's happened a few times and my name is known to the suppliers for this. You
have to be tough with them so they don't take advantage of you.
The important thing to know when you are buying the best produce, is you don't ask how much it
costs, but how much do owe.
Fish can be eaten raw, so to elevate the flavour to a higher level, you need to really know what you
are doing. It's the same in any profession.
You need to know everything about the type of fish it is, it's texture, is the flesh soft or firm? You
need to know it's cooking secrets. Otherwise other chefs will laugh at you.
If I have a good quality small Barbouni, how should I cook it?. I can't add sauces to it as I want to
keep the honest smell and flavour of the ocean.
I can only add a few spices to enhance the flavour, not cover it. You cover this with strong flavours
only when you want to hide bad flavours.
There are many ethnic cuisines which have developed their cooking style and techniques to suit
The Japanese for example, eat their fish raw, so they use Soy and Wasabi to enhance flavours and
also particularly with Wasabi, which is very hot, it's used to kill harmful bacteria on the raw fish in
In India or South America they eat hot peppers for the same reason - as an antibacterial as well as
We shouldn't forget that Seafood has always been regarded as the most beautiful produce. A
beautiful women is referred to as a mermaid. When you see her, your eye glistens!
I actually love the challenge of working with inexpensive fish. Fish that are common. Because
these fish show the worth of a chef. Anyone can cook a lobster.
As an artist of the plate, I'm not interested in painting a picture of Manhatten. I'd prefer to climb a
hill to paint the Grand Canyon.
I love to travel as often as I can to restaurants all over the world to see and taste what my Chef
colleagues are up to.
To eat in a colleagues restaurant is a big pleasure for a chef because in your own restaurant it's
impossible to sit down, relax and enjoy a dish.
After working all day in your kitchen, your senses are overloaded from preparing your food. No
chef can fully appreciate the food in his own restaurant.
There can be a 2-3 days difference between Just-caught and Fresh fish.
Just-caught fish glistens and inspires a chef to cook it well.
Different fish species have their own cooking requirements. The whistler fish for example, allows
me to work with it in many ways because the flesh is firm.
Monkfish has a texture which is almost like meat. Don't forget that in France the Lott or monkfish,
is regarded as lobster for the poor.
I introduced these and other species to the local customers as they were previously only known and
eaten by fishermen.
When I take the liver of Pescathitza and process it in my kitchen, it's not just foie gras, but better
than foie gras. And it's a pity I don't have any today for you to try.
I'm very fortunate that at Varoulko, for the past 21 years, I've created a following of believers. I've
grown up with my customers. I was 34 when I started and now I'm 56. Many of them have become
close friends who I visit on my days off.
I can say with conviction, and this also applies to my colleagues who take cooking very seriously
and push the gastronomic envelope, great chefs are driven by passion. I have a cook in my kitchen
who is 80 years of age and I'm sure he'd die if he wasn't in the kitchen on a daily basis.
A good cook loves his work and does it to please his customers first and foremost. His appreciation
by his customers is important, but at the same time, he needs to survive as a viable business.
Chefs who rise to the top of their profession do so because they are gifted and passionate, not
because they want to become rich.
If they were simply businessmen, their passion would subside when they look at the cash register.
They'd be more preoccupied with food and running costs than creating a great dish.
Very few Chefs have become rich from their kitchen. The Chefs who have succeeded
internationally became rich through publishing books, doing consulting work, or opening up a
string of restaurants.
To back up this point, half of France's 3-star Michelin restaiurants are indebted to their banks.
In Athens, Varoulko has often been used a stage to broker many important business deals.
Sharing a meal between strangers seems to break down barriers and allow people to get to know
each other better.
Often when we think of getting closer to our business partners, we schedule a business lunch and
many are held here. These are opportunities for mergers and outcomes.
When my regular customers have an opportunity to gain an advantage by using my restaurant in
this way, I cheekily monitor how the transaction is going.
Then, if it goes extremely well, in humour, I ask what commission I'll receive.
OFFICIAL WEBSITE: Lefteris Lazarou, Restaurant Varoulko, [Athens]