• Andreas Labridis of Opso

Food

Q&A: Andreas Labridis

Andreas Labridis of Opso on Greek cuisine, modern techniques and the impact of austerity on his homeland

Interview: Clare Finney
Portrait: Joseph Fox

Are you from Greece originally?
Yes, I grew up in Greece—though my mother is English. I was 17 when I came to London to study finance and economics. I knew I wanted to study either cookery or business, but I think, when you are 17, money matters more.

After my studies I went into investment banking—but the cookery bug was still inside me making a noise, so after six years I enrolled on a couple of cooking courses. Then I worked in various restaurants across London—Lantana, Hawksmoor, Salvation Jane...

Very different styles of cooking, then?
Yes, very. I wanted ones who were specialists in a particular area. So you go to Lantana for brunch, and Hawksmoor for steaks. To be honest, back then I was just dying for new experiences in food, so anything I could see that was new I wanted to explore.

How did Opso finally come about?
Well, myself and our head chefs at Opso, Georgianna Hiliadaki and Nikos Roussos, have been friends for a long time. Georgianna and Nikos run a Michelin-starred restaurant in Athens and we had often talked about setting up a restaurant in London together.

For years, we were part serious, part joking—but then the day came when we were just serious. We said to each other, “Right, let’s do this”, and our ideas came together for serving modern Greek food as tapas in a relaxed atmosphere, suitable for everyone: business lunches, dates, taking your parents as well as groups of friends.

What does ‘modern’ Greek food mean?
Modern for us means the modern techniques in the presentation and preparation of food. We use the latest technology and techniques in the kitchen, and we approach each product in a way that brings the best out of that product.

Some meats we present raw, some meat we cure for 60 days, some meats we slow cook for 18 hours overnight. That is a modern cooking technique that was not done previously in Greek food—at least not here. It was becoming more popular in Greece, but we brought it over here. 

Andreas Labridis

Greece has such heritage, in food as well as in culture and history. How modern can you get before it stops being Greek?
It is a fine balance, but what we want is for someone who eats here to be reminded of something they have eaten in Greece on holiday. We want something in the texture, flavour or aroma that is reminiscent of Greece.

For example, there is a traditional Greek dish called giouvetsi, which my grandmother would often make—she would take a piece of lamb, cook it in the oven for six hours, then in the last hour of cooking add orzo to the tray so they cooked together.

Here, we cook the lamb sous vide for 15 hours at 64C, then separately cook the orzo with lemongrass before bringing them together with tomato jam. Someone who has eaten giouvetsi in Greece will find this familiar but completely different. We have Greek customers who say, “It doesn’t look like giouvetsi!” Then they try it and are always pleasantly surprised.

Tell us about the mac and cheese. That doesn’t sound very Greek.
Mac and cheese is not a Greek dish—but we make a Greek version. We use a traditional Greek pasta made with milk, which we import ourselves from a particular island in Greece, and of course we use traditional Greek cheese. It’s a Greek take on a classic.

So would you call this fusion food?
Fusion is an interesting term. In food, it is one thing to one person and to another something else entirely. We prefer to say we take the traditional aromas and flavours of Greek food and make them into something else.

You import lots of your ingredients directly from Greece. How did you find your suppliers?
The year and a half before we opened we spent a lot of time traveling around Greece, visiting different producers. We import our olive oil, our sea salt, our cheese, jams and pasta every week. Some products we import rarely—but we are always getting samples sent to us by producers recommended by friends and family, so I am always trying new things.

You seem very hands on.
Yes, I am involved every day, seeing the feedback of the customers. When it comes to feedback, the first impression is the most important, that first bite. You can tell by how a customer moves their head or their hand what they think of things. Every day I am looking for that initial move, that initial smile.

What are your main influences?
The menu revolves around childhood memories. There are dishes inspired by north Greece, where I am from, and dishes from nearer where the chefs grew up, in the south.

The pastitsio, for example, which is traditional hylopites pasta made with 12-hour slow cooked pulled beef cheek, tomato and béchamel sauce—that was something we ate all the time growing up, though our version is so good I had to apologise to my mum.

How often are the head chefs here in London?
Every month—but they are involved every day, and we have an excellent chef here on the floor too. He has been in the UK for five or six years, and he has the most extraordinary taste buds. Just from a tiny teaspoon of a meal he can tell you exactly what is in it—it’s phenomenal, his palate. It’s great to have him overseeing the day-to-day quality of the food.

What is the Greek restaurant scene like in London at the moment?
In the 1970s and 1980s there was a boom in Greek restaurants and many of them are still around. In the past four or five years only a few have opened—but several more are planned for 2016 and 2017. That’s what we want.

Greek cooking has evolved a lot in Greece, with a lot of young chefs experimenting and using new cookery techniques, and we want people in London to recognise that evolution. Just like with wine—we have moved to an all-Greek wine list because the quality of wine produced has improved and people are asking for it. People talk about their favourite Greek wine now—they didn’t do that before.

Surely the economic struggles in Greece have made it more difficult for cooking there to evolve?
Actually, the economic instability has helped it. Before, Greek chefs were using French butter, French cheese, Italian olive oil and other imports, instead of using Greek produce, and they would be more wasteful, throwing away 70 per cent of the meat from a lamb or cow.

Now they use almost everything, nose to tail. They can’t afford to throw anything away and because importing food is so expensive, they use Greek produce—which in turn has encouraged producers to operate at a higher standard. It’s early days now, but in a few years what is happening with Greek wine in Britain will happen with Greek food. It will show.