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Culinary

Funka Licious

Written by: Cary Wong

Asparagus Kayanas – Funky Gourmet

The Story of Chef Georgiana Hiliadaki

The moment her mother inspired her to open a restaurant called “Funky Gourmet,” it should be clear to an observer that Chef Georgiana Hiliadaki has a cool family.

She was studying the normal and plain subjects of Italian as well as European Relations at England’s Reading University. As soon as she graduated, her open-minded and forward-looking father told her that she should follow her passion instead of taking the safe route like her friends. So, he persuaded her to go to New York and study culinary arts. There, she attended The Institute of Culinary Education, one of the best cooking schools in the country.

In truth, her love of food and kitchen experience started much earlier—precisely when she was six years old.

“I remember that I asked my mom to give me something like $1 to buy a book that was called Little Chefs,” she says. “It only had pictures and (instructions on) how to cook food from around the world.” The dishes came out deliciously. And that was the moment her cooking talent first shone through.

After studying, she started working at various restaurants in the United States, Greece, and Europe. One of her most memorable experiences was staging at the legendary “El Bulli” under Chef Ferran Adrià. She observed firsthand how much research and development meant for a cutting-edge restaurant. She saw cooking from a very different viewpoint in that difficult and hectic environment. “All of a sudden, from being a student and a culinary infant, I was transported into the best kitchen in the world,” she says. “There were no fires… and no salt (in the kitchen). Everything was weighed with a scale.” She also saw the philosophical side of Chef Adrià. When he was not creating at the chef’s table, he gazed into the sky for inspiration.

Alina Rudya, professional photographer and founder of Bell Collective

Chef Georgiana Hiliadaki, Funky Gourmet

Eventually, Chef Hiliadaki returned to her native Athens and worked at numerous establishments. She met her business partner and now husband, Nikos Roussos, and they decided to open up their own business along with her sister. They looked at different houses to bring patrons into a home-like experience. The restaurant would have tasting menus with 13 courses. However, they were responsible for everything—cooking, serving, and cleaning up afterward. It was a very entrepreneurial venture.

With high-quality dishes, word of mouth spreads quickly. They grew rapidly and decided to take a more professional approach and make things more official.

They found a kitchen and a space to host larger events and continued to provide private chef services.

The restaurant bug, however, never left their hearts. So, they transformed the private event space into a restaurant in 2009. There was only one problem: they needed a catchy name.

“We were talking with my father, Nikos,” she says. “We couldn’t find the (missing) concept. And my mother suggested, ‘Why don’t you open something which is like gourmet and funky; like Funky Gourmet?’”

At that moment, they realized that the name also worked as a great concept. She explains that in Greek, funky means “very stylish and friendly” and does not have a bad connotation. It means something useful and happy. That relaxed and creative word offsets the word “gourmet,” a stuffy and self-serious term. They would serve playful food cooked with thoughtful techniques and provide explosive flavors. The guests may eat something that they have never tasted before.

Alina Rudya, professional photographer and founder of Bell Collective

Funky Gourmet restaurant

A perfect example is the Funky Gourmet Greek salad, one of their signature dishes. The classic version is made with tomatoes, onions, cucumbers, and capers. However, in Chef Hiliadaki’s kitchen, all these ingredients were presented in the form of a white granita. The textures and techniques were new, yet the flavors were rooted in tradition.

Two years after the restaurant opened its doors, it was awarded its first Michelin star. And received its second star two years after that. It was a crazy dream that came true.

These accolades, however, meant that the team could not rest on its laurels. She worked with a big research and development team to come up with new ideas. There were multiple ways of creating new items. Sometimes it was based on seasonal ingredients. “For example, cauliflowers,” she says. “Okay, what could we do with cauliflowers? Should we braise them? Should we make a stock out of it? Or should we make a juice?”

Other times, she began with an illusion. An example would be the aforementioned Greek salad. Or consider the “soft-boiled egg”—which, while it certainly looked like one, tasted anything but. Its shell was made from chocolate, with coconut ice cream substituted for egg whites and mango puree standing in for the yolk. Diners would take the “bread” (a piece of vanilla cake) and dip it into the “egg.” It was a perfect illusion.

“We would serve this dish as the first dessert after the main courses, so [some people] didn’t know it was a dessert,” she recalls. “And there was even a guest that said ‘no, I don’t want a boiled egg right now. I don’t want to eat it; take it away from me.’ Her friends started eating, and they realized that it was a dessert, so she said okay, bring it back.”

Asparagus Kayanas – Funky Gourmet

Funky Gourmet

Funky Gourmet

Asparagus Kayanas – Funky Gourmet

Funky Gourmet

Funky Gourmet

Chef Hiliadaki takes inspiration from everything. She even used the feeling of nostalgia to create a picnic course that served a host of small delicacies on a picnic stage—including the picnic tablecloth—on the table.

As Funky Gourmet became more successful, investors started getting in touch, suggesting they open restaurants in England. So, in 2014, they opened OPSO. And its success eventually led to PittaBun and Ino, all located in London, but with different setups and approaches. OPSO, which means “delicacy” in ancient Greek, seats 150 and serves brunch all the way to dinner. INO, meaning “wine” in modern Greek, is a small Greek tapas place where diners eat food cooked over an open flame and charcoal by the counter. It serves only Greek wines that can be ordered by the glass. Last, PittaBun is a street food concept, selling souvlaki and other elevated items, where the pita bread is brought from Greece using an in-house recipe.

When asked what Greek food means to her, she defines it by its land, the sea, the produce, the sun, the versatility, and the tradition.

“It’s the exquisite fish that we have… (in) a land where you see the sun almost 300 days a year.” That makes a difference in how the tomato, the cucumber, and the olive oil taste. A great example is the concept of ladera, which means “in oil.” It is a practice where vegetables, like okra, are cooked in olive oil for a very long time, similar to the French confit. “When it’s finished,” she says, “they melt in your mouth.”

Prypyat mon Amour

Octopus ‘Stifado’ – Funky Gourmet

And one can never forget the historical tradition of Greece that stretches far, far back in history. For example, the Peloponnesian pop-up she did unearthed a few recipes from those long-bygone eras. Coming back to modern times and on the topic of gender equality, she believes that women are minorities in many fields, such as law, politics, and others. To her, it is because women’s priorities change after bearing children and giving birth. It is the same in cooking, where the crazy schedule makes things difficult. One has to stay in the kitchen and toil long hours while others are having fun. However, she does think that things have improved a lot. She often gets CVs from women, and most of her restaurants’ staff, both inside the kitchen and at the front of the house, are women. She thinks that the most important thing is to treat and respect all sexes the same way. While Chef Hiliadaki decides on the next step for Funky Gourmet, as it has been on hiatus since 2019, she is busy running her restaurants and Horeca, a full-service restaurant consulting company. She is also on the verge of doing something completely new, which she will announce on her Instagram. As successful as she is with presenting traditional dishes in new ways and bringing new audiences to Greek food, the new venture will surely be a smash. We cannot wait to see it for ourselves! cropped troora favicon 1

Chef Georgiana Hiliadaki

Cary Wong
TrooRa Magazine
Written by
Cary Wong
Toronto, Canada
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