“It’s funny, to be honest, I only realized a couple years ago that food was my passion. I spent a lot of time being like, ‘I don’t know what I want to do. I don’t know what I want to be.’ Then I realized that food was the one thing that really excited me. Looking back now it makes more sense—I’ve always been baking and cooking since I was a kid. My parents have home videos of me doing cooking shows in the 80’s. [Laughs] I’ve always really liked food, I just didn’t realize that it was something that I wanted to pursue career-wise.
I’ve always worked part-time in hospitality. When I was 16, I worked with a large catering company in Melbourne. It was really excellent training. I very much enjoyed learning about food presentation and combinations in a professional setting. I was working in the kitchen a lot, helping chefs—they were amazing mentors, and I learned a huge amount about the hospitality industry in the 7 years I worked for them. Then, even while I was studying, all my part-time jobs were in cafés or restaurants.
When I was 24, my brother and I bought an existing café in Melbourne. What was a part-time or casual job for me suddenly became my world, day in, day out, for 5 years of operation. I feel like my interest in food naturally expanded to menu curation here, and it was the perfect space for me to play with creating specials, experimenting, and seeing how new creations were received by our customers. In the 5 years we owned and operated our business, my confidence in food, forthcoming trends, and menu development grew immensely. I have since been curating menus and food trend consulting for numerous cafés and food industry businesses in my hometown, Melbourne, and abroad.
After selling our business, I had more time to pursue my interest in food more freely and creatively. My interest in healthy, trending foods had been growing over the years, and I began posting my food experimentations on Instagram, mostly as a way of recording my recipes and ideas. Nick Stone, who owns Bluestone Lane, was following me and interested in what I was doing. He reached out with the opportunity to consult on and curate the menu for the first Bluestone Café to have a full brunch menu.
I was really focused on developing a menu that was healthy, beautiful, and tasty. For me, every dish on a menu needs to be all these things. I drew inspiration from a lot of places at home because the theme was to be a Melbourne-style café. We have a very strong café culture in Melbourne. As I started going through the process, I realized there was a lot more to it than just thinking, ‘Oh, I’d love to have this on the menu. Let’s serve that.’ There’s a huge amount of work that goes into it. The logistics of a menu in the kitchen—space constraints, staff constraints, time constraints—these were all factors that eventually changed the shape of the menu.
In New York, everyone’s running businesses out of tiny little kitchens, people on top of each other and very limited space. I developed the menu in Melbourne, refining it over time, but when I saw the kitchen plans, more refinement and adjustment was necessary. I had to make the menu work with the space we had and the appliances that we had. I narrowed the menu down, and I feel like we got it to a point where we were really happy with it. We were offering a medium-sized menu, not too much choice that it’s overwhelming, but covering enough ground to be able to offer something for everyone.
When you’re cooking for yourself at home, you’re cooking one pot of food. It’s a lot different than applying your recipes to a larger scale. I’d start with a small quantity and get that right. Then increase the quantity for everything by 10- or 15-times, and try it out again. I’d use different appliances as well—maybe moving from a stove pot to a slow cooker or pressure cooker. I needed to consider how that affects the cooking, the ratios of ingredients—there was a lot of trial and error. It was a really steep learning curve.
For recipe tasting, I had to start relying on other people’s feedback. After making things so many times, I got to a point where I was like, ‘I don’t know if this tastes good or tastes bad.’ I remember with the Quinoa Porridge before we opened, I was like, ‘Is this good or not? Should I put this on the menu? I don’t know anymore.’ I had a friend who was helping me, who’s a chef. He tasted it and he was like, ‘This is really good. You have just tasted it too much. You need to stop thinking about it. It’s great.’
The Coconut Quinoa Porridge was immediately a hit. I was so surprised because when we put it on the menu, I didn’t know which way it was going to go. Is it too healthy, too out there? The summer version is a vegan, cold quinoa porridge. But the customers really liked it.
The Avo Smash is also super popular. Our version is basically like a standard smash, but then there’s a few little differences. We serve it with a lemon tahini on thick Balthazar seeded toast, heirloom cherry tomatoes, feta cheese, rainbow micro greens, and sprouts. It’s a great combination, and I mean is there any better staple than avo toast?
In terms of eating healthy, I look for as few ingredients as possible in products. I try to avoid processed foods where possible, but also don’t restrict myself entirely to any type of diet. I definitely let myself indulge a couple of times a week…mostly on the weekends…mostly on donuts.
I take a really simple approach to food. Particularly when you’re time-poor, the best way to do it is to have fresh vegetables in your fridge. Then just start getting creative with it. I try to make things in as little time as possible, using as little ingredients as possible, and making as few dirty dishes as possible! One pot wonders are great.
I have my staples in the pantry, so there’s always something I can go to—soba noodles, oats, quinoa, or buckwheat. I always have some sort of fruit, seeds, nuts, chia, all of that. I also keep a bag of frozen bananas and other fruits in the freezer, which is really great for making smoothies, and a great way not to waste fruit that ripens quickly. Today, I had a mango smoothie for breakfast with yogurt, frozen banana, and turmeric—super healthy and super quick.
In terms of dinner, I found that I was throwing out too much stuff. I’d go to the farmer’s market and get so excited, I’d buy everything. Then I might not cook for 3 nights because I have commitments and then the food just sits there. Now my rule when I go to the farmer’s market is I’ll only choose 4 vegetables and not let myself go too crazy. I will just buy whatever looks nice and fresh. For example, my last shop, I got brussel sprouts, kale, beetroot, and green beans. Then that’s what I’ve got and that’s what I’ll use until it runs out. I’ll open the fridge and I’m like, ‘Okay, I’ve got kale and I’ve got green beans. Oh, hey, I’ve got some quinoa and I’ve got some eggs.’ I might make a little salad and some eggs. It really encourages creativity in the kitchen and makes you experiment with different foods. That’s where I find I make my most interesting and memorable meals. I just open the fridge and work with what I’ve got.”
As told to Stephanie Park, December 2015.
Sappho Hatzis photographed by Frances F. Denny.