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Ilias the Greek

Published: Tuesday, 11 March 2014

At food shows you are likely to see him in the skirted national costume of the Greek guards, possibly shouting out Yiassu or Opa,
exuberantly. Ilias Katsapouikidis is a born showman and in the two years since he started his biscuit business has cultivated a persona
every bit as enjoyable as his products.

 

In these two years, he has come far. From a suburban home kitchen he has graduated to two factory units and an office at Billinudgel,
assisted by two full-time bakers and a handful of additional staff. And rather than expanding his range of Greek sweetmeats he has
chosen, on the contrary, to concentrate on his main lines, namely two types of baklava and an award-winning nougat.

Hisillias vision has always been to produce a high-quality product as sustainably as possible, supporting local growers wherever possible – and he has not wavered form this at all. Sitting chatting in his cool organised office I ask him about the sustainability factor. 'It's the fact I'm doing it on my own two feet without asking for financial assistance from anyone right from the beginning', he replies. 'Whatever the business has yielded, I have reinvested. If I've got a couple of quid I've put it into some more  equipment.'

Around 50 outlets between Lismore and the Gold Coast sell Ilias's authentic and utterly luscious sweets. He hopes to double this number over the coming six months but meanwhile has a hectic schedule of food shows ahead of him: Brisbane, Canberra, Melbourne, Maitland, the Gold Coast.

Ilias's baklava is the refined result of research, trial and error and tireless tweaking. He gives me a potted history of the pastry,illias 1 how it started out as an Arabic sweet without the phyllo in its original form, just 'crushed nuts layered in a specific way'; how the Greeks then came up with their version in around 10 AD, introducing sesame seeds and mastic which created a lining to encase the crushed nuts. How, around 1300 AD the Turks – famous for their flatbreads and pastries – created the baklava we know today, phyllo pastry encasing the nuts. At the time it was only fed to the elite Turkish soldiers and then only once a year on the 15th day of Ramadan. Ilias tells me that he had always found the typical Greek baklava to be disagreeable, drenched as it generally is in a cloyingly sweet syrup and the
pastry soggy. His aim was to create one more akin to the Turkish baklava – 'crisp pastry, fine phyllo sheets, light syrup, hardly any nuts' – while retaining all those flavours he remembered from his childhood. 'So what we have is through my family culture a compromise', he tells me, 'what I feel is a more balanced product that presents well, that doesn't ooze, that is crispy and that has all the flavours of the Mediterranean : cinnamon notes, citrus hints, almonds and honey.'

I ask Ilias if part of his philosophy, then, is to honour tradition and the culture of his forebears, and he readily agrees. Here is a man who thrives on industry : he tells me that the more his business grows the more energy he has, the more potential he recognises in himself. 'Love', 'passion', 'being present in the moment' are recurring words when talking to Ilias, a long-time practitioner of yoga and meditation. 'Yoga', he tells me, 'is a key aspect of maintaining my energy and my enthusiasm for the job.'

His two bakers are Benjamin Leonardi, who is French, and Manoli Tamvaklis, who is Greek. Ilias cannot speak highly enough of them, and it is evident how much fun the three have together. It is imperative, he tells me, that they go on having fun as well as working as hard as is necessary – and to that end he has initiated bi-monthly team-building exercises like sky-diving. 'It's all about team now', Ilias says.

Between the Gold Coast and Lismore the team bakes for up to ten markets every week. That's a lot of baklava! In the kitchen, Benjamin and Manoli are brushing large sheets of pastry with melted butter: the air is a heady perfume of chocolate, nuts, citrus, honey and baking phyllo. 'High quality and efficiency are words I love to use', Ilias tells me. 'And spreading beautiful food made with love… I am honouring a sweet that came from the land my father was born in.'

Ultimately – although it's a long way off for now – he would like to go organic, eventually becoming fully certified. For now there are large challenges in doing so; for now he is quite busy enough.

For further information on Ilias the Greek and his products visit his website www.iliasthegreek.com.au

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