Interview with Alexandros Porfyris, Head Chef at Ultima Corfu
23rd July 2023
To Alexandros Porfyris, head chef at Ultima Corfu, food is about so much more than satisfying a hunger. It’s about crafting culinary moments woven with surprise and delight for his guests. So much so, he’s moved people through his sheer dedication to acknowledging their tastes and has been known to spend days studying them leading up to their arrival. Below we hear from Alexandros.
I started cooking at just 15, as one of four kids in the household. By age 18, I had competed in Master Chef Greece and placed 10th out of 5000 candidates. This inevitably opened many doors and I worked at some of the best and most acclaimed establishments in Greece with all sorts of awards. I travelled to Malta for a year and worked in the best restaurant there as a sous chef, then went to the UK where I found my mentor at Dukes London. I became a head chef by age 25. A few years later, I became an executive chef for Viking River Cruises in France with a large team under me. After seven years abroad, I felt the call back to Ithaca for a better lifestyle... that’s where Ultima entered my life. I feel like it was destiny. For the first time in my life, I found in the team, the same drive, passion and strong desire to be the BEST out there.
Being the child of multicultural parents, also having lived abroad and marrying an English girl, I think I have something of an open mind and this translates into a certain freedom within my creations. Having a flair for imagination and adding a twist to traditional dishes is my thing. Essentially, I feel free of barriers – anything is allowed in my cooking.
Who has inspired or influenced you most in your work and why is food the medium through which you express your creative passion?
Michelin star chef Nigel Mendham is my mentor, from Dukes London in Mayfair, we worked for two years together and he made me into the chef I am. I feel that through food, I can not only satisfy hunger but serve joy; bring out a smile for someone who might have had a tough day. As a human very in touch with emotion, my food strongly represents a desire to create a better world out there.
What’s your secret recipe for extreme guest satisfaction?
It’s all about being in the right state of mind before our guests even arrive at the property. It’s a lot of background work and internal preparation which is invisible to the eye. It starts with extensive research, including detailed preference notes so we can really understand what will move each guest. Then it’s about working with the team to learn of any tiny hints along the journey which I can use to create a perfect moment. Hearing an ad-hoc mention of one guest’s Austrian heritage and love of the traditional Sacher Torte, we used this to build something really special. We sourced a vintage Viennese Sacher box with the original old-fashioned branding, then presented our Sacher cake with a special hand-written note. Tears of joy at having awakened a special memory... it’s the small things like that which become seared in the mind.
What makes Greek cuisine so globally appealing?
Dining outside – a charcoal barbeque on the beach for example is a really special moment for a group of friends or family. Just like the Durrells on the famous TV series, showing again the simple pleasure of the original family almost a century ago. Being in nature, with good food and company is perfect.
Have you found any treasures, either real or metaphorical on your journey so far?
Here, we’re in a privileged position to have such a favourable climate and terrain that allows us to have a popular cuisine without too much effort. The core of Greek cuisine is simply the quality of the produce. A tomato tastes like a tomato, which is not the case everywhere in the world! But, the difference is, it comes hand in hand with our unique style of hospitality – an element in our DNA since ancient times. Even the Olympics are a form of hospitality, with the core values of excellence, respect and friendship in the name of building a better, peaceful world. We are proud of our cuisine, hospitality and culture.
Which flavours and ingredients are essential to the true Corfu experience?
Key to the experience: bay leaf, mountain tea, parsley, sage, garlic, onion, oregano, olives, and olive oil, through to trade spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg, clove and cumin.
Ginger beer and kumquat influences of the British in the 19th century are popular and you can even find a Corfiot fish and chips dish that’s served with potato mash on the island. Fresh pasta is a mainstay and of course, we are spoilt here with an abundance of sea treasures as I call them. Wild sea bass, grouper, red snapper, scorpion fish, tuna, sardines, squid, octopus, calamari, sea urchin, shrimps, lobsters, mussels and lots more. We choose ours daily from a fisherman who visits our private dock around 6 am so we get the pick of the haul. Whatever the dish, whatever the guest palate, we work around a seasonal list of ingredients to enjoy everything at its very best and I am always fermenting, curing and marinating.
How do you incorporate the element of surprise into each day for your guests?
You listen and learn. It’s a fine line and you can only achieve it with delicacy. Teamwork is key with good communication and discretion but if you take the right cue, you can do miracles that will be unforgettable. The beauty of being in a place like Ultima Corfu is that you get so much closer to your guests than you can say working in a restaurant. We noticed one of our guests had a preference for a certain brand of cigar. We decided to recreate a selection of those cigars as a surprise chocolate dessert and took great care to make it look absolutely realistic. Edible ash, the actual paper cigar labels...the whole thing. We assembled it all inside a wine box and filled it with smoke before presenting it so when they opened it, the smoke poured out. It was really a fun challenge and had a great impact on the table.
How can the kitchen help build a connection?
In my view, the kitchen is truly the heart of the house, not only at Ultima Corfu but in our lives and homes. If you think about it, the best conversations are always around good food and wine. Who doesn’t have fond memories of a loving auntie or grandmother cooking for everyone with unconditional love? If people are drawn to the kitchen, I am happy to include them in the process. As a chef, I believe you should take a humble approach, work invisibly and let your food do the talking.
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