Friday, 18 December 2009

Cafe World (Καφέκοσμος)

This is probably how most migrants entering the catering business (a popular migrant occupation worldwide) feel when they move to a new country and enter the food trade: no doubt, my parents felt like this too, as owner-operators of a fish and chip shop in New Zealand.

It all began as a bit of fun and what seemed like a profitable venture. It was never my intention to enter the catering business, nor did I have any idea about how to cook the food that was on the menu at the particular establishment that we took over. It certainly felt weird being asked to cook sliders* and French onion soup, when I'd been used to cooking things like fasolada and yemista. In fact, it was the first time I tried this food when I started cooking it in our cafe!

The most popular dishes were the ones that needed very little cooking and preparation time, like the bacon cheeseburgers and guacomole. They also tended to spoil easily if business was slow or we forgot to check the cooker. A chunky fruit salad was wholesome and you could get many servings out of one preparation round, but it was also cheap, and you couldn't make a large profit from it.

avocado guacomole and nacho chips
Due to favourable climatic conditions, Crete has become a prime Greek producer of avocado, which is mainly exported, both to the mainland and abroad. For a long time, however, the locals had no idea how to eat this particular fresh product. They initially treated as a fruit, sprinkling sugar on it because it wasn't sweet; now they also use it as an addition to salads.

The best money to be made was from the dishes that needed long cooking periods, like the oven roast chicken and homestyle pot roast. We'd get them going from the evening and they'd be fresh and ready to serve the next day. These meals also yielded a lot of servings, and I didn't feel that I was slaving away in the kitchen all day.

Mama's taverna will always be fondly remembered;
fasolada and oven-cooked rice-stuffed Swiss chard (silverbeet) dolmades

Customers are very predictable: they like to stick to old favorites. Spaghetti with meatballs and classic pizza are always sure to please. Follow this by a triple berry cheesecake or pumpkin pie, and they'll leave you a good tip, telling you that it was the best meal they ever had in their life. Didn't they ever have the home-made versions of these? I often wondered what food they had been brought up on, and what their mothers cooked for them.

Italian cuisine has practically become a staple in most restaurants, which makes it sound all too common. To attract the customers with better-padded wallets, we added a few other 'ethnic' dishes to our menu range. Chicken tikka masala and tandoori chicken have a distinct Indian ring to their names: who would have believed that tikka masala wasn't even cooked by the Indians, who invented it for the more sensitive foreign palate! To vary the menu from one week to another, we alternated between Indian and Chinese meals: crackling peking duck and kung pao stir-fry were among the most popular choices among the Chinese specials - and to think, I've never even been to China!

cafe world facebook cafe world facebook
To cook Greek food at Cafe World, you need to have been playing for a long LONG time...

There's never a day off in the restaurant business, even during the holidays. We would often tailor some few recipes to suit the season. For instance, in the period leading to Halloween, I offered vampire steaks and toffee apples. How these two paired well in the customers eyes, I shall never understand, but it kept us in pocket, as the customers turned up in hordes.

Yemista and yiro will always make popular wholesome meals, no matter what you call them.

In due time, I even added my own cuisine to the regular menu, choosing dishes that were seemingly unobtrusive, as though they had always been a part of the standard menu card: instead of 'yemista', I called my herbed rice "overstuffed peppers", while I left out the word 'souvlaki' and just called the sandwich a "chicken gyro" instead. Somehow, Greek-labelled cuisine had fallen out of favour with the general public, but as soon as you served the same food under a different name, everyone would be rushing to try it, even if they couldn't pronounce the name of the meal properly!

kalitsounia spring rolls
My attempts at fusion cuisine have been met enthusiastically by most family members - above: Mediterranean spring rolls; below: pad thai singlina.
pad thai singlina

Over time, I learnt that the melting pot culture that had become my new home had put aside their traditional meals, not necessarily forgetting them entirely - Mama may not be cooking any longer, but she could never be forgotten - but adding new ingredients to an old traditional favorite. Fusion cuisine was a dangerous field to experiment with, but some meals did manage to become popular, like fiery fish taco, which was also regarded as a healthy alternative to the regular meat version. As long as it sold, I wasn't too fussed over how much better it was for you; we simply wanted to make a profit.

cafe world facebook
Cafe World, a Facebook application (a euphemism for 'game')

The best moment would have to be when we finally retired. We had been longing to go back and live in Greece, but decided against it when we realised how different life was there and how much we had gotten used to living in another world. But we had managed to amass a small fortune by working so hard for so long, as long as we have our health, we'll be cruising back and forth, playing ping pong between the Old World we left behind and the New World we made our home. Even if we can't go back to the old Greece that we knew, it's a nice feeling to know that we can sit at a Greek taverna a few times a year and enjoy the same food we grew up with.

paleohora hania chania
How many immigrant Greeks envisage retirement...

For more standard and not so standard American restaurant favorites, visit Cafe World on Facebook, which is where I doodle whenever I have a minute to twiddle my thumbs. The inspiration for this post comes from a popular online game; the food it served could be said to be based on some standard truths about food and the restaurant trade.

* all italicised words are names of dishes mentioned in the Cafe World Facebook application.

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