Hellenic hospitality embraced by the East in Melbourne

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By Dr. John A. Martino

Chinese food should be prepared, cooked and presented by Chinese, right? Thai food by Thais. Only Italians can make pizza and pasta. And Greek food must be made by Greeks, of course.

Not necessarily. The Lay family are breaking new ground in Melbourne with their highly successful businesses in Malvern and South Yarra, with a third outlet on the cards for the suburb of Kew within the next 12 months or so.

Originally from Jakarta, Indonesia though of Chinese heritage, the Lay’s – father George, mother Angela and their two offspring, Wilson and Britney – have taken to Hellenic cuisine like Odysseus took to the waters of the Mediterranean. With both George and Angela being trained chefs, their family long experimented with and delighted in the cuisines of other cultures, with Greek food being a family favourite.

When the opportunity arose in the post-pandemic phase, they moved from their Asian cuisine outlet in Balaclava after some 20 years – which was long my favourite source of Oriental sustenance – and took over a pre-existing restaurant within Malvern, ‘Kolonaki: Athenian Street Food’. After a brisk two weeks familiarising themselves under the former Greek owners, they revelled in the challenges of quickly mastering this new cuisine style. And succeeded, quite possibly far beyond expectations.

‘Kolonaki: Athenian Street Food’, 278 Toorak Road, South Yarra – Manageress Britney Liu embracing her new Greek restaurant, with Asian cuisine restaurants on each side.)
‘Kolonaki: Athenian Street Food’, 278 Toorak Road, South Yarra – Manageress Britney Liu embracing her new Greek restaurant, with Asian cuisine restaurants on each side.

When I sat down to chat with both Britney and Wilson, while mum and dad busily worked away in the Malvern kitchen, I was reminded of how long I had known this wonderfully warm and enterprising family – now almost 23 years, having only discovered the new Malvern restaurant when I had a sudden craving for Greek food while travelling through that suburb and was surprised and then delighted to discover that this thriving business I had walked into was actually run by old friends. ‘Kolonaki’ was immaculate, expertly run and the food was both gorgeously presented and very authentic.

Britney and Wilson informed me that when it came to the transition from Eastern to Western cuisine, Greek food had its own particular set of demands. Not only does one of the world’s healthiest cuisines require exceptionally fresh ingredients to be at its best, but there is quite a bit of careful pre-preparation required: attention to detail is everything. And the proof is always in the (rice) pudding – many amongst their regular clientele are so pleasantly surprised at how traditional the flavours are that they ask questions like, ‘Were you born in Greece? Do you speak Greek? Who taught you to cook like this?”

‘Kolonaki: Athenian Street Food’, Malvern – The Saturday Dream Team
‘Kolonaki: Athenian Street Food’, Malvern – The Saturday Dream Team.

I interviewed a couple of these regulars (husband and wife, Hamish Rotstein and Rochelle Gance) and Hamish rather cheekily quipped, “My wife has a wanted poster sign with her face on it up in every restaurant across Australia as the fussiest diner in history. She loves ‘Kolonaki’ and they don’t mind her either.” Being a discerning diner is not only the hallmark of foodie hotspots like Melbourne, but in this multicultural city the distinct health benefits of Greek cuisine are increasingly being realised by peoples of diverse heritage.

When I drove across to the new South Yarra ‘Kolonaki’ outlet, Britney showed me through the pride and joy she manages and pointed out another little irony – while the Malvern flagship restaurant was pre-existing and owned by Greeks, this new outlet was previously an Asian cuisine restaurant and is flanked by an Asian diner on each side. Greek cuisine has replaced Asian cuisine on that lovely dining strip, while now being owned and operated by an Asian family. As Britney’s brother, Wilson, also pointed out to me, the success of this East meets West culinary collaboration has also allowed them to employ at least four Greek-Victorians as kitchen and floor staff.

‘Kolonaki: Athenian Street Food’, South Yarra – Britney Liu and her Saturday afternoon Dream Team
‘Kolonaki: Athenian Street Food’, South Yarra – Britney Liu and her Saturday afternoon Dream Team.

As generous as the Greeks they admire, the Lay family wouldn’t let me depart before filling several containers with samples of their cooking. And, yet again, it was a treat for the taste buds. Being half-Greek, I’ve had the good fortune to sample some of the best of Hellenic cuisine across Australia, as well as throughout the ‘old country’ and on some of her islands. The Lay’s dining experience comfortably rank amongst the best of them (and that wasn’t written because they’ve pleasantly filled my belly on more than one occasion).  

If there was one thing that the Lay family’s successful embrace of Greek cuisine reminded me of, it was the words of Isocrates, the fourth century B.C.E. Athenian thinker: “And if a person should partake of our culture, let him be called Hellene.”

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