From the minute people walk into Karkalla restaurant in the coastal NSW town of Byron Bay, they are instantly greeted by the tantalising scents of locally sourced, seasonal produce and native indigenous ingredients.
That’s no surprise as Karkalla Byron Bay is the passion project of Mindy Woods – a proud Bundjalung woman of the Widjabul Wia-bul clan.
Fuelled by a desire to create opportunities for indigenous and non-indigenous people to connect with Aboriginal culture, art and stories through food, Mindy decided to hire the one person she knew would help her dream become a reality.
That person was 28-year-old Greek Cypriot head chef, Michael Petrou.
“As soon as Mindy told us she was buying a restaurant in Byron Bay and it was about to open, I put my hand up and I really wanted to be a part of it,” Petrou tells The Greek Herald exclusively.
Since then, Petrou has been working hard in Karkalla’s kitchen using native ingredients such as lemon myrtle, bush tomato mojo picon and fingerlime ‘in a modern way’ and trying to ‘educate people a little bit about native foods and their history.’
Of course, he also acknowledges that some of the dishes he serves to customers have a distinct Greek Cypriot twist to them.
“There’s a lot of Greek tendencies that come into my cooking because of my Greek heritage… For example, for dinner we have this beautiful baked haloumi and then we put that with bush honey and native thyme and lemon,” Petrou explains.
“Even just being generous… I’m always over generous with food and I think that just comes from me, from my parents – where there’s always just way too much food when we go for dinner.
“Also, the whole share-style menu. That’s reflective of being Greek because personally, I don’t like just eating one meal and as Greeks we always like to share so our menu is designed to share.”
‘An honour to work with native food’:
It’s clear Petrou is extremely proud of his Greek Cypriot heritage, having always been immersed in it from a very young age.
“My grandparents owned a milk bar in Lane Cove for 13 years so I spent a little bit of time there… I have vivid memories of them, especially my yiayia always cooking and my pappou taking me out to the shops and getting food,” he says.
“We also always used to go to my aunty and uncles farm… a lemon, lime and avocado farm. We’d always be out there and I’d help pick all the fruits and I just always remember there being so much food.”
Despite these happy memories, Petrou never had the urge to work in a Greek restaurant. Instead, he found himself working in places such as a Spanish tapas bar, an Italian restaurant, and even Shirt Bar in Barangaroo where he met Mindy for the first time.
“[Mindy] was the head chef… her menu was very Asian-inspired so a lot of Malaysian, South-East Asian, Vietnamese food. For me, I’d never really had anything to do with Asian food so that was really inspiring and I learnt so much,” Petrou says.
Later, he spent roughly two years at Mr Miyagi in Melbourne before partnering again with Mindy at Lotus Dining. Their bond was so strong that Petrou has never regretted taking the next step in his career at Karkalla with the Bundjalung woman.
“To be working with native foods and to be working with Mindy, she’s Indigenous, and to learn about the history and the culture, I actually feel really honoured,” Petrou concludes with a smile.
“It’s much more than just a job for me. It’s really special to be learning and working with all these ingredients because for a long time I wasn’t educated in all these foods and how amazing they are.”
With such a strong passion and love for different cultures and food, there’s no doubt Petrou is destined to leave his mark on the Australian cuisine scene.