If army cook Thomas Deliopoulos had been told a decade ago that one day his food would be the subject of a review in The New York Times, he would have simply laughed out loud. Yet Kalimera, the souvlaki restaurant he opened in the Melbourne suburb of Oakleigh six years ago with his wife, photographer Sylvia Gabriel, prompted a tribute in the respected American newspaper to its pork gyros – and a well-earned one, as Kathimerini ascertained.
Unsurprisingly, Kalimera is located in one of Melbourne’s “Greekest” neighborhoods, and is surrounded by Greek-owned shops that boast their provenance in every possible way: “Greek” fonts on shop signs, Greek-speaking employees and Greek music – occasionally at startlingly loud levels.
At Kalimera, there’s always a queue and 70 percent of customers are not Greek, says 45-year-old Deliopoulos, who quit the Hellenic Army in 2011 after 11 years of service. “I would never have dared leave a civil service job if my wife didn’t have Australian citizenship,” he says.
Even though the couple had a few connections and the know-how, getting started was not easy. “We put our trust in the wrong people,” he admits. “This is what I always tell people who ask me for advice: be cautious.”
In the six years since he and his wife made the move to Australia, Deliopoulos has spoken with thousands of Greeks “arriving with their suitcases and their babies, without having done any groundwork.” The flow, he says, has petered out recently compared to the initial arrivals at the start of the Greek crisis, and “the only ones who were able to put down roots were those who had smarts and a good resume.”
He is obviously among them. “When I realized that the person who I had trusted had done a runner, I persevered. I managed to rent a former bridal shop and laid down the tiles myself,” he says.
The savvy cook went on to offer something new in an already crowded market. “Greeks have lived here for decades, so everyone knows the Greek specialties,” Deliopoulos explains. “But many of the souvlaki restaurants in Melbourne are stuck in the 1980s, serving lamb gyros with lettuce in an old-fashioned setting.”
He opened a tasteful restaurant where the deliciously seasoned pork gyros is made fresh every day and served in fluffy Greek-style pita bread.
For its part, Australia has taught Deliopoulos what it means to live in an organized state. “I get an email every day from my son’s school – a public school – informing me of his progress. Both my parents are deaf and I know what kind of life they would have in Greece. They are here too and they get a lot of support from the state.”
The economic benefits are also more than evident: a grill cook in Greece gets paid 3 euros gross an hour on average, while in Australia the minimum gross rate comes to around 16 euros. “They don’t make compromises at work. If they don’t like something, they’ll quit. There’s plenty of jobs,” Deliopoulos says.
His success has also brought success for his employees, many of whom are Greeks who moved to Australia recently: One managed to pay off his debts, another got a university degree and yet another bought a house.
“I will be sworn as an Australian citizen on January 26. It will be the second most important oath I will take in my life,” he says, obviously moved.
Deliopoulos has also opened a meze taverna called Mykonos, also in Oakleigh, where the decor is designed to bring to mind the popular Greek holiday island. “Whenever I’m there I forget myself and think my mother will appear at any minute, sweeping with her broom.”