What were the chances of a butcher from the village of Platanias in Hania, Crete finding himself on the court of the iconic Golden 1 Center, the California home of the NBA’s Sacramento Kings?
But there was no stopping Leonidas Mathioulakis from walking into the middle of the 17,000-seat arena once graced by hoops legends like Vlade Divac and Peja Stojakovic to get a feel of the venue where he will be heading the Greek national squad at the 2020 biennial World Butchers’ Challenge in September.
Mathioulakis had the confidence of a winner as he made the trip from Hania to Sacramento, because Meating Greece had bagged the best burger prize in Belfast, Northern Ireland last year thanks to its use of Greek herbs and spices. The team is already sharpening its knives for more awards.
“Our first successful showing at the World Butchers’ Challenge in 2018 filled us with knowledge and confidence, because we realized that not only are we perfectly capable but we have what it takes to compete on the global stage,” Mathioulakis, who was responsible for getting the team into the competition, tells Kathimerini.
The national team will be competing with a new roster in 2020. “The effort began last year with an open invitation to all of the country’s butchers’ associations, calling on members to claim a place on the squad. They were interviewed and went through an assessment of their technical skills so that we could pick the team, which comprises butchers from all over Greece,” he adds.
Coming from a family that’s been in the business for 70 years, Mathioulakis likes to believe that the team he heads and coaches will be the cornerstone for a new culture of responsible meat consumption in Greece in the years to come.
Meet the team
Antonis Karamalengos is a young Athenian who works at the capital’s central Varvakeios Market and specializes in filleting and deboning. Thanasis Diamelas is a third-generation butcher from Drymos in Thessaloniki, northern Greece, with 25 years of experience.
Surrounded by butchers in his family and even baptized by one, Kostas Klados is the team’s unassuming motivational force and does not even acknowledge the possibility of failure, while 21-year-old Giorgos Armaos from Hania is the youngest on the squad.
There are also two women, Aida Bilmani, who has worked with Mathioulakis for several years, and Athanasia Kambouri from Serres, whose skill and commitment has distinguished her at numerous national competitions.
Another youngster, Grigoris Marinakis, will be competing in the solo skills challenge for trainees, while Lara Stathopoulou has the challenging role of team manager.
Meating Greece has already started training, working on the 100 cuts they will have to showcase at the competition. At the World Butchers’ Challenge, teams have to work with beef, pork, lamb and chicken, and transform them into a themed display of value-added products.
The Greek squad meets in Platanias every 10 to 15 days to prepare for the event, which they hope will serve as an important vehicle for promoting Greece’s rich food culture and scene.
To this end, it plans to showcase 50 Greek products – from olive oil and cheeses, to pulses, flours and spices – in its final presentation.