Roddy Damalis, a world-known Cypriot chef, who first came to his native country only 20 years ago and fall in love with it. He publishes personal recipe-books in English, Greek and Russian, gives workshops, adores his customers and creates a new menu for “Ta Piatakia” listening to the chants.
Roddy, you are a South African born Cypriot. Tell us more about your family journey.
My grandparents went to South Africa in 1930s. My parents and me, we were born in South Africa and only 20 years ago we came back to Cyprus to learn more about our native country, culture and people.
The best thing I have ever done in my life is moving to Cyprus. Actually, I’m the biggest ambassador of Cyprus (laughs). I have never been here before as well as my parents. Just imagine: inside you are a Cypriot but you didn’t know where you were coming from. Arriving on the island fulfilled me and made me rich.
What is your favorite place in Cyprus? And don’t say it is Limassol as it is obvious.
Yes, it is! You know, my family is from everywhere except from Limassol. I thank God every day that he brought me here as this is the place where my soul belongs. Living here, in Cyprus, sometimes we forget that it is just a humble island as we get all those things that shouldn’t be here, we get spoiled. For me, to go and sit at a fish tavern on a lovely beach having a glass of local wine and fresh fish — that is Cyprus I want to show all the world.
How did you come up with cooking?
I have been in the business all these years. When I was 13 years old I started working at a restaurant as a kitchen boy just to have my pocket money, then I was a waiter and a host. I joined the army for 2 years in South Africa and I became a chef there. At the age of 21 I bought my first restaurant and that’s how it all started. This is my fourth restaurant, other three I had in South Africa.
By the end of this year, we are going to have a big celebration of 20 years of “Ta Piatakia” in Cyprus.
What is you professional goal — open more restaurants with the same concept?
Many people ask me whether I will expand this business or not. I came to the idea that when people come to my restaurant it’s like they come to my house to eat. In Johannesburg I had a 6 or 7 times bigger restaurant than this and I do not want that. I love the atmosphere we have here and I love all of my customers so I don’t want to make it into a factory. If you open other restaurants, you won’t be able to be in all of them at the same time.
What distinguishes you from other chefs?
I’m known for modern Cypriot cuisine, for traditional local dishes with a flavour of fantasy and spices from all over the world. Also as I have never been to a chef school I am very open to all the flavours — whenever I go I bring local spices back with me and make something special in the kitchen.
Could you describe South African cuisine?
South Africa doesn’t have one cuisine as it is a rather new country and it was made up of the English, of the Dutch, of the Portugese. This country is full of small communities of the Greeks, Indians, Jews, Lebanese, so what happens is that we were exposed to many different cuisines. Either at the professional level, or at school you would all end up eating at your friends’ houses which are from different communities with different flavours. That is when I fall in love with flavours from there as well. So I mix sweet and savoury, different spices. As I have never been to a chef school I am very open to all the flavours — whenever I go I bring local spices back with me and make something special in the kitchen.
Who is your favourite chef?
To be honest, I love Yotam Ottolenghi, an Israeli-English chef because he is very real. He is not posing for the picture and tries to polish the food in front of the camera. And I also love Jamie Oliver as he made cooking very cool and simple. He is not about all those chef’s decorations, his food is for everyday and anyone can do it at home. I use the same concept during my cooking workshops.
What is your favourite cuisine apart from the Cypriot one?
I would say thai. It’s very alive and fresh. During my several trips to Thailand I was able to find something new each time. I also did a three-days intensive course with one of the top Thailand’s chefs — I learnt not only technique from her but also a combination of flavours you wouldn’t expect. For example, I make traditional ‘keftedes’ which is known by everybody but I add thai flavours: such as coriander and ginger, garlic and chili, lemongrass.
Roddy, help me out here — I have put too much salt in the dish accidentally. How can I save the food?
If it’s a soup or a stew, or something with a sauce, you peel a raw potato and put it inside, it would draw the salt. But salt is a bit difficult ingredient to fix. Actually, salt and chilli (laughs).
When are you happy at work?
First, when I’m in my kitchen and I can switch off my phone and do just cooking. When I make a new menu I come here by myself, put my music (which is very often a choice of chants) and start creating.
The second part when I’m happy at work is when I’m here, in the restaurant, enjoying my customers. Of course, I’m in and out from the kitchen but when I’m out I just feel the energy that lives here. On a Saturday night I may have 4 glasses of wine at different tables and I love it! I’m always open to my visitors and just love spending time with them. When I come to the table and ask ‘how is your meal?’ and you say ‘Roddy, it’s lovely, thank you very much’ — it’s one thing. But another thing is when I stand by my kitchen and see people talking about my food at the table over there, that is a rather huge compliment for me.
What is the secret ingredient you can’t live without?
I would say that the shelf with my spices and herbs is rather important to me. It doesn’t matter whether it is a carrot, or a piece of meat or a lobster — it is nothing without spices. I feel like those spices are like paint colours: I will make a picture on any blank canvas because of the spices. I never used any measurements while cooking as always comes like an inspiration.
Name the most popular food trends you follow now.
A very good question, Alexandra, thank you.
People often do not realise that as well as in fashion, in cars, in art, in hair styles, things change in food. The psychology of food evolves. Nowadays the biggest food trend is a healthier, lighter approach, which I have always used in my work because of the fact that you use lots of fresh vegetables, fruits and other ingredients. Also people try to eat fish more than meat, some switch to veganism and find their balance in this trend. Gluten fre nutrition is also very popular. I serve a very boring pita bread with my food. People often ask me ‘Why don’t you give us a nice bread?’ – because I don’t want people to eat bread. I know when it is a nice fresh bread in front of me, I will eat the whole basket and I will not have any chance to enjoy the food then.
You have once said that you have just a few regrets in your life. What would you do differently?
I would have had more balance between my personal and my business life. I used to give 100% to my business life however, nowadays, by the age I reached today, I must say I’m in a balance. Another thing — I would have taken life a little bit easier than I did. Sometimes I feel like I have lived three or four lives already. I’m so privileged that I have the recognition, the love, the acceptance and many chances to travel and see the world. I’m a very happy man.