Started his cooking career late in life, now travelling very fast powered by his M.G.
Janni jokes that it is his mid-life crisis, acquiring a red MG and the Sydney restaurant, MG Garage. "Fancy at the age of 50 when everyone else is retiring, I am starting my first restaurant. Always in my life I have been so careful, so I thought I will go mad for once."
He was born in the north of Greece, trained as an electrician and came to Australia in 1970 where he found work at the Melbourne Zoo. He read and practised cooking at home from recipe books. "It became an obsession, David Bradshaw (Janni's partner) told me that I should take it seriously and apply to become a cook. Stephanie's had just started and I knew someone was leaving so I applied. I was about 30 at the time. I have never looked back". Janni has really only worked for two people, both women, and amongst the most influential cooks of their generation - Stephanie Alexander and Gay Bilson. From working one day a week and keeping his real job, Janni then became fully committed and stayed with Stephanie for five years. Next he moved to Sydney and worked with Gay Bilson at Berowra Waters Inn, and later at Bennelong.
Over this time he learnt about food and learnt to identify his strengths. For Janni it is the pursuit of an idea with food - be it a flavour or a form or a vision, as in the shellfish rock pool he created at Stephanie's. Now he is experimenting with Greek flavours and revisiting his childhood. Particularly with his mezze plate, where he comes up with completely different applications and presentations of traditional dishes, like fried quail, marinated octopus, homemade filo with a kibbeh stuffing (he has given us the recipe for a very special olive oil filo), and a capsicum and eggplant roulard. And he uses Australian made fetta which he thinks is better than the Greek, and South Australian kalamata olives.
Some of the Greek style dishes are a bit nostalgic and a bit playful. Janni really likes to make people relax, sit back from the plate, not take themselves or his food too seriously. And he likes "to have a little bit of a joke at the end," so now he serves an Iranian version of fairy floss, a taste many of his serious diners have not had since they were kids. Playing games within such a sophisticated setting (MG Garage is a very smart and elegant restaurant, but it is still a showroom for sports cars) is part of the role of a restaurateur - to create ambience and to relax people. "It is not just food alone. It is the theatre element, be it a grand theatre in Paris or a small theatre in Fitzroy."
When we talk about the state of food in Australia, it is not about what comes from restaurants. "It is what the person is going to eat at home, and how that develops. When the home cook decides to buy some bok choy and steam it to go on the side with a steak, instead of cabbage, they do that because the bok choy is better value at the market. That is part of Australian cooking, it is not 'East meets West'".
"One constant problem here is undercooking vegetables. I have eaten so many raw beans. Cook the beans how they should be, the asparagus how it should be. I like the line in Joan Campbell's book that says 'if you can cook a bean, you know how to cook'. That is a very good line. The pressure seems to be to undercook. The young ones don't know how to braise, they take everything out of the oven too soon. And that is the problem of being the chef of a big place because you are not always there to say that should be more cooked. Braising meat means it should fall off the bone. But the difficulty is, that slow cooking isn't in their memory, it's all from another era, which they don't know. It's those things that I want to explain to young ones - Not to confuse naivity for creativity, to learn the classics, to open Escoffier and see how to make a fish stock, a good chicken stock. And when it comes to that, always look at how they did it in France, Italy, Greece, hundreds of years ago and learn from that".
Then for Janni, it's about taking that knowledge and making it your own, giving it your individual stamp. He is very proud of his classic beef dish served with a steamed beef and bone marrow dumpling, and Madeira sauce. It is so successful that he can't take it off the menu, but he makes a joke about it being "Australian beef flavoured with Mediterranean tapenade, wrapped around English marrow dumpling, served with spinach crispy fried in a Chinese wok, and a classic French Madeira sauce, and all assembled by a Greek electrician, - that makes Australian cuisine for me".
Stephanie Alexander, Gay Bilson, Elizabeth David, Auguste Escoffier