An hour with: Georges Mavrothalassitis

In March I was lucky enough to interview Chef Mavro chef-owner Georges Mavrothalassitis for Modern Luxury Hawaii’s summer issue, on stands now. It’s a fun little Q+A. But the one-time engineer genius had a lot more to say than space allowed. Like did you know he’s part Austrian? Here’s the rest.

Star chef Georges Mavrothalassitis, of Chef Mavro, on helicopter parts, why he has Morton’s salt in his kitchen, and how you can find out what he cooks for lunch (hint: his Twitter name is @ChefMavro). I caught up with the chef—and his wife Donna Jung—as he prepared a rock cod for a quiet dinner at home.

I’ve interviewed a lot of chefs, but you’re one of the few who still talks about food with unbridled enthusiasm.
I’m still a kid (laughs). That is true. I think also that where I come from—I mean, I’m from Marseille, Provence, where people are like me, ah? I’m not an exception. We enjoy being born—that already is enough to be happy.

But you also have a driven, serious side.
I’m also 50 percent from Greek ancestor which give me also this kind of craziness, and I’m also 25 percent Italian, which is about same thing. But I’m 25 percent Austrian. My grandfather was from Innsbruck—is why I’m so organized (laughs).

How did your family make its way to France?
My father left Simi, Greece, when he was five years old. And guess where he went to? Djerba (Tunisia). I still have family in Djerba. If you want to follow the Greeks, find out where there are sponges. My family was in the sponge diving business. My grandfather who arrived with his boat wiped out all the sponges in Djerba, the son of a bitch. That’s why I was born in Marseilles. My grandfather decided to dive for coral in Marseilles.

That’s where the Middle Eastern accent on your menus comes from?
Yes, yes. My father was very big engineer, but he was an outstanding home cook, because my mother was so bad. (Laughs.) He had a style, a mix of Greek, Arabian and French. He was doing the best couscous in the world.

So your cooking talent comes from your father.
Since I was six or seven I was cooking with him on Sunday. Because he was a very busy man and sometimes he had a Sunday off and I was cooking with him. It was my passion and I was so happy. It’s why I became a cook. But when I told him I want to be a cook, when I was about 16, he almost kill me. You know, people sometimes are wondering why I’m still cooking—it’s because I start late! Because I become an engineer like him. At 25 I started my own engineering company—I’m a specialist in building helicopter parts. Can you believe it? And at 28 I had enormous success. But I decide I didn’t want to do that anymore. I sold my company to my partner and in 1978, opened my first restaurant, La Presqu’Ile in Cassis. [His ex-wife still runs it.] It was very difficult for me. I always say it was more difficult to become a chef than to become an engineer.

What do you do when you’re not working?
It took me years to be free from my obsession of doing what I do. I couldn’t talk about anything else, I couldn’t enjoy anything else. When I came here 22 years ago, I was not happy with what I was producing. This was true until about eight years ago. But suddenly I reach a level where what I was producing start to please me. I’m sorry to say, but I become my favorite chef in the world. It’s embarrassing, no? Finally, finally after so many years I like my food. Donna is very important in this. She teach me to cool down a little and to not take everything for granted and enjoy the present moment.

Um, you still talked about work. You went to Tahiti and Bora Bora recently?
There was a cyclone, the temperature was 117 and so humid, you suffocated—and I enjoy it. Maybe because it’s French. I found the people interesting and the food pure. It was maybe the first time in my life when I spent six days doing…nothing. It was great. We didn’t leave the room, because the room is on the water. So you jump in the water, come back. Don’t ask me how people at the Four Seasons look like—I have no idea, except for the room service staff. We were playing pétanque, and kayaking on the lagoon and swimming [laughs]. And I enjoy it. I cannot believe it.

Who is the pétanque champ?
Donna: He refuses to believe I can beat him. (Chuckles.) When somebody else is good, it’s not something that he likes.

Georges: You cannot compare, give me a break (laughs). She drives me nuts. I found a way to win but she drives me nuts. But she is good, she puts the ball very close to the marker.

So what do you cook at home?
We cook very simple. Monday is a big day—it’s a fish day, so Donna bought a fish from Tamashiro. [To Donna] Can you turn the oven to 415? [To me] We have a deal. I cook breakfast, lunch and dinner and she clean and go to the market. More and more we eat at home so I can control what I eat.
I’m one of the rare chefs who cooks at home. To me it’s almost meditation. In Provence my only hobby was deep-sea fishing. That was the best meditation. You forget the whole world exists. You are here, looking at your line, and waiting for the fish, and suddenly, pyuh! To me cooking at home is a little bit like that, bizarre because it’s my job. If you want to know what I eat, sometime I tweet the meal. So it’s always very simple. I think at the restaurant I cook very simple too. It took 25 years to remove all the BS from my cooking.

Well, Chef Mavro food is simple the way a Jil Sander suit is simple—no frilly embellishments, but exacting execution. It only appears simple.
I think that simplicity is the most difficult thing. How can you impress someone with simplicity? This is like pure gold. It is easy to put nitrate and make some foam, but are you extracting the flavor from a carrot? I like this simplicity in everything. In music and art. Look at Mozart, the simplicity of his music. Do you think it’s easy? It’s not!

What are you cooking right now?
Rock cod—it tastes like lobster. We are talking about simplicity. [He drizzles olive oil over the fish, sprinkles rock salt, and stuffs a few stalks of dried fennel from France into the belly.] And that’s all!
I’m very, very particular with the salt. You can see how many salts I have—Hawaiian, Molokai, Brittany…(as he pulls containers from a cupboard)

I see a Morton’s up there. What’s that for?
This is a good question. (Grab’s Morton’s Salt and pours over ice in a champagne bucket.) I use only to chill the ice because we are drinking quite a bit of this. (Laughs.) That’s why I’m a very good Morton’s customer.

Would you say in two decades that local produce has advanced?
I’ve seen a lot in 22 years. I’ve seen farmers who are growing pakalolo in the back and in the front doing some lettuce in case someone comes to check what is going on. I’ve been working with the same farmers for 22 years. It is my family. I learn to content myself with what I find. Like watercress. We have the best watercress in the world in Hawaii. I’ve been cooking watercress from Sumida Farm for 22 years. I prefer my farmer to grow something that works well, is consistent, and is good and after that, even if I never cooked with it before, I’m going to find a way to use it. You understand? I’m not a chef that is dreaming to have French ingredients on my menu.

People still talk about your Julie & Julia beouf bourgignon dinner from fall 2009.
I would like to someday open a small bistro. I’m going to do it. I have to digest my pill from downtown [referring to the closing of Cassis by Chef Mavro].

What keeps you in Hawai‘i?
I think I’ve been most everywhere, and I’ve never seen anything like Hawaii in my life. Not only the scenery—I don’t know, I have a connection with local people. I’m not sure why. Maybe because I am not American. And the weather. Excuse me! There is nothing wrong with the picture.
Hawaii is a little bit like Marseille. I’m a kind of trendy guy. And there’s nothing trendy about Hawaii. There’s nothing trendy about Marseille—it’s an industrial city, beautiful, I love it, but it’s not Cannes. I like nice things, you know what I mean, but here there’s no need, because nobody cares. I’m still living like I like, but without showing off. I’m doing a fine dining restaurant where there’s no compromise on quality at the corner of King Street and McCully. You have to be crazy to do something like that. And it’s great!

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