The passion of the Greek - Ella Mittas
Ask anyone if they have regrets in life and most folk will have a few things spring to mind. On a daily basis, we make choices about things both big and small. The choices we make tell a story about our lives. For me, I regret not doing enough things with passion. I got too comfortable, too early and settled in for easy times, at least for the first decade of adulthood. Ella is not like this. This is what I like about Ella.
I don’t pretend to know everything about food, or the people that work with it. Often people will be talking food stuff with me and mention famous restaurants and food industry celebrities that I’ve never heard of, because quite frankly I’m not very interested in the ‘foodie scene’. I’m not a fancy bloke myself, my interest in food is reasonably simple so I’m drawn to people of a similar ilk, probably why a friend suggested I reach out to Ella. I feel pretty lucky in many ways because the more people I get to meet with this ‘Searched’ project the more inspired I become from drawing on their passion, energy, love for food and living some sort of purpose.
Ella is an Australian with Greek heritage. She hosts pop up dinners in Melbourne showcasing the food she loves. But there’s a lot more to her story than just that. Of course, the food she cooks is beautiful, it serves the soul well, but it’s her journey that intrigues me most.
Ella wasn’t always into food, like many of us her vibrant passion for food was probably always there, subtle and dormant until some point when an awakening happened and she took those first steps into a life exploring food, I reckon she’s been striding gallantly ever since. Ella has had a few years many of us would envy. She moved to the homeland of her heritage spending alternating summers working in Greece and also Turkey where she worked a spell on farms and in kitchens learning from cooks and gardeners alike. But not like those like we have in Australia, the famous ones looking for recognition and achievement, no, these kitchens were little family business’s, growing and preparing food that’s been unchanged in tradition for hundreds of years. Food so integral to the community that it's the very essence that defines its people. This is where the real cooking happens, where the people that the cook the food are invested in seasonality and locality of food not because it’s the hip thing to do, but because it’s deeply embedded in culture. Ella has also worked with some big industry players, working in an Ottolenghi kitchen and for Annie Smithers in Trentham, adding more experience to her food education.
At the end of each stint working and volunteering overseas, Ella would return to Melbourne and host pop up dinners to showcase food she’d learnt overseas. Modest combinations of spices, seasonal produce, offal, herbs and flavors unfamiliar to many people here but very much appreciated. Ella isn’t just a cook, she’s an educator of food and culture, returning home to widen our understanding of another world. That’s the amazing power of food, it breaks down borders, opening us up to different approaches, unfamiliar and exciting flavors. Food introduces us to new friends; it broadens our understanding of people that live differently to us. It connects us as fellow humans and that's very powerful.
I visited Ella in her friend Camille's beautiful kitchen while she prepared a dinner for a party of guests. She busied herself peeling potatoes, marinating sardines in garlic and lemon, baking sweet potato and forming spiced lamb and Arborio cabbage rolls while we talked about overseas adventures and working in busy those kitchens and flourishing gardens of the Mediterranean. One thing that stuck in my mind was her youthful exuberance and openness to learn. She told me how her Greek family had been angry and disappointed that she’d moved to Istanbul to work and learn about Turkish food. The Greeks and Turks have a hostile relationship that seems to last forever, but this didn’t bother Ella. To her what’s important is the opportunity to learn and experience food, which really is just life. In her story, food is the conduit that breaks long held hatred and distrust between cultures. Ella’s approach is the future we need. Consider how the people of two countries can distrust and even hate one another, but with Ella’s story we have someone learning from both cultures then sharing those traditions in a completely different country writing a new story. I think there’s something very positive in that. As humans, we struggle to forgive and accept the past, but we do have the ability to make a better future. In some way, metaphorically, Ella is doing this with food.
Her focus over the last few years has its roots deeply planted in Greece and Turkey, but she’s hungry for something new. She admits she has more to learn about these cultures but feels like starting a new journey, something different, to challenge herself. This is what I admire about some people, 'the doers'. Those that have roughly formed visions of what they’d like to see in their future and they act on it. They don’t sit, grumble and wait for magic to happen, they just go make stuff happen. Their original goals may alter and morph as they journey through life, but they DO, and there's value in that. Hanging with Ella reminded me to re-focus my own hopes and aspirations. What do I do and why am I doing it? What am I adding to the conversation? What are my motivations? I like how discussions about food lead me to ask questions about my own journey, because we’re never really there, at that destination we imagine or that point of being comfortable of knowing. There’s always something more to ask, to learn, to experience.
Ella has no idea what the future holds for her, yet she has an approach that will no doubt lead her down some pretty interesting paths. An open mind, a willingness to not get stuck in one discipline, a spirit for adventure. I think in these times where gloom and doom dominate the airwaves, it’s refreshing to make contact with that sense of hope and youthful curiosity. It’s was also great come in contact with Ella’s spicy Lamb shoulder cabbage rolls, something I’ve now added to my book and will be reminded of her story every time I cook them.