Interview: David Laris

Digest

January 3, 2013 | BY Charmaine Mok

The Greek-Australian chef is stepping out of the shadows to open his eponymous restaurant above the winding streets of Central

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“A lot of the work I do here is invisible,” admits David Laris, the imposing Greek-Australian chef behind Laris Contemporary Dining, the latest restaurant to open on Wyndham Street, and in partnernship with local F&B group Dining Concepts. It may be the first establishment in the city to display his name, but Laris has been working, in his own words, “behind-the scenes” in Hong Kong for a good number of years already. The culinary direction of Swire’s East Hotel in Tai Koo is his doing (as are the dining outlets at Swire’s Opposite House in Beijing), for example, and the understated Fiat Caffè in Causeway Bay another pet project. But Laris has had enough. “It was time to make more of a footprint here.”

The time is right, says the chef, who has already made his mark in Shanghai (where he ran Laris at Three on the Bund, and now 12 Chairs). “Hong Kong has come out of a very time-warped approach to western dining,” he asserts. “You had your Italian hotel restaurants but didn’t have any cool stuff happening on an independent level. The local cuisine has always been fantastic, but everything else was one-dimensional.” Now, the dining scene has gotten to a point where there is a thriving market for innovative, contemporary approaches to cooking and styling, he continues, which is the ideal breeding ground for his own culinary philosophy.

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Born and raised in Sydney, Laris attributes his no-boundaries style of cooking to Australia’s level of ethnic diversity, and to his family’s obsession with growing, cooking, and eating food. “We’d pick our own olives and pickle them, grow vegetables and dry them in the sun,” says Laris. “I grew up on the west side, which was very ethnic. It was Greek and Turkish, then it went Arabic, and now it’s Little Shanghai. Having all of that around influences the way I put things on a plate.”

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Forest mushrooms with olive oil powders, truffle, carrot, and mascarpone

He began his first apprenticeship when he was 16, with the late French chef Patrick Pier Mahue, who Laris describes as “very classic, totally old school, an alcoholic and a bit of a maniac.” He adds, deadpan, “He died screaming at the pass.” (Mahue passed away from a heart attack.) But the hard knock kitchen life did him good, he admits. “He was an incredibly disciplined man and I was determined not to be broken by him. I remember people coming and going like through a revolving door. The apprenticeship was hard, but it gave me great foundation to be able to work in any kitchen.”

By 19, Laris was head chef at a major luxury cruise ship company, doing 2,000 covers a day across its various restaurants. At one point, the young chef was signing autographs and rubbing elbows with celebrities; a highlight of his career was with iconic restaurateur Sir Terence Conran in London, where Laris ran the formidable 700-cover Mezzo restaurant. Today, he remains remarkably well grounded, though admittedly a bit of a rebel in the kitchen.

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Ocean trout tataki with slow-cooked egg, XO sauce and keta caviar

“I have an approach to food and service where I don’t want to be boxed into any one category,” he explains. At his eponymous restaurant, ingredients range from Japanese ponzu to Greek bottarga, and Pecorino cheese to kombu. But even so, when it comes to cooking Laris’ dishes are not so much defined by their ingredients but by how the final result comes together to create something surprising and new.

“When you have access to so many great ingredients as an Australian chef, you just start thinking outside the box,” he says. “[Australia] doesn’t have a defined national cuisine, and this is the biggest influence that has stayed with tme. I’ve continued to cook in this way – with freedom.” In a sense, Laris is a culinary nomad, grasping and absorbing the world’s tastes and techniques to inform something that is entirely his own.

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“I think my food and flavours are grounded in tradition, but I like to surprise and delight at every moment,” he says. “It’s very accessible. You don’t feel overwhelmed by a lot of ridiculous stuff happening, but hopefully there are moments of fun and lightness that will excite you as a diner.

“I rebel against the whole conformity of having to think a certain way. I’ve never been good at fitting into systems.” Laris grins. “Which is ironic, considering I’m in a kitchen.”

Look out for our review of Laris Contemporary Dining next week

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