submitted by Sydney Magazine on 17.12.2005
Peter Conistis bringing cooked food to the table.
Sydney Magazine, Issue #33, January, 2006.
Words Scott Bolles
Photography Jennifer Soo
Styling Trish Heagerty
Recipes tested by Lynne Mullins
In a world of duplicated dishes and homogenous hors d’oeuvres, Peter Conistis is an original. With teasing creations such as anchovy baklava and confit tomato with truffled lobster pilafi, Conistis delivers the inspiring and the difficult to define. It is food that drags the anchor on his Mediterranean roots; perplexing purists and delighting the food adventurer.
Evidently it’s a family tradition. Conistis’s father, Kyriacos, joined the stream of immigrants working on the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Scheme in the late 1950s, where he mastered the diversion of more than just water.
“He used to cook us things like steak and eggs,” Conistis remembers, “And fried rice. But he didn’t use soy and he’d put tomato, eggplant and zucchini in it. He’d make it Greek.’
This playfulness with ingredients was copied by the next generation, albeit in a more refined way. Conistis’s most famous dish, scallop moussaka, was conceived with equal measures of inspiration, daring and chance.
“[Seafood supplier] John Susman brought some scallops in to try. I was working in the kitchen later making taramasalata and the flavours were still in my mouth and I thought, ‘that might go with this’,” he says. “I was in Greece recently and went to two restaurants that had it [the dish] on the menu.”
Not that cooking was the plan. Conistis, 38, wasn’t supposed to be in a professional kitchen at all. “Medicine and law were what they [Greek families] wanted for their children. It wasn’t the kudos. It was more ‘we’d love you guys to have what we didn’t’.” He lasted two semesters studying law.
“I remember walking out of a tort lecture thinking, ‘I don’t care about this’.” He switched to communications, mixing study with work in restaurants and a spell in the bar at Paul Merrony’s former restaurant at Circular Quay. “I asked him if I could work in the kitchen. I worked for free. Three months later I opened my own restaurant. I had more balls than brains.”
His first restaurant, Cosmos in Darlinghurst, was a revelation. It divided opinion, confusing Greek traditionalists who couldn’t put a finger on the food and delighting its legion of fans with its originality. It also offered a public glimpse of Conistis’s relationship in the kitchen with his mother, Eleni. “I wanted to pick her brains. But I didn’t want it to be a Greek restaurant.”
In the family home in Marrickville, everyone in the Conistis clan has their specialty. “Mum makes filo like no one else. There’s no such thing as a vegetarian in Greece, but she doesn’t like meat much. Her vegetarian dishes are always great. And the outdoors is Dad’s domain. Lamb on the spit, or he’ll go to the markets and buy half a swordfish.”
It’s usually left to Conistis to produce the more intricate dishes. It is, after all, his ability to jump from the simple to the serious that earned his city
restaurant, Omega, two hats and the gong for Best New Restaurant in The Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide 2005.
Conistis has done much for the promotion of Greek food, waving the culinary flag at the Olympic Games in Athens and hosting food tours to Greece. But at home it’s a more low-key affair, with people the most important ingredient. “My parents’ house was always a revolving door,” he says. “It wasnt entertaining, it was sharing with friends or relatives. When I entertain, it’s usually on Sundays for the people I really like to be with.”
Teacher, journalist, poet and author, Sydney NSW Australia
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