Cyprus thrill: Chef Theo Papouis of Oikos, Wellington

Theo Papouis' snacks at Wellington's The Greek Food Truck, who part-own Oikos.
Nicola Edmonds

Theo Papouis' snacks at Wellington's The Greek Food Truck, who part-own Oikos.

Tear a wodge of the homemade pita bread, take a bite, have a hearty slug of wine, laugh with family and friends, order that extra glass and reach over for some more olives. Relax.

Theo Papouis endorses this behaviour – he calls it the "Greek psyche" – and he's starting to see his customers adopt it at his newly opened Wellington restaurant.

The 32-year-old chef opened Oikos (pronounced ee-kos) in June, and he's already earned legions of fans with his fresh take on Greek and Cypriot classics. The food resonates for its simplicity and authenticity, and the Miramar restaurant is being praised for divorcing itself from the blue-white Greek stereotype. 

Theo Papouis at Wellington's Harbourside Market.
Nicola Edmonds

Theo Papouis at Wellington's Harbourside Market.

Papouis isn't welcoming plate smashers and doesn't want you to feel like you're sitting in a souvenir shop. He is inviting people to come and relax, by providing something more authentic.

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"It's about getting that cliché of bad Greek food out of the picture," he says. "I'm trying to get that food a little bit fresher, cleaning it up a little bit. I don't want to say modern, but maybe a fresher approach."

Ravioles kypriakes are a great taste of Theo Papouis' cypriot heritage.
Nicola Edmonds

Ravioles kypriakes are a great taste of Theo Papouis' cypriot heritage.

The Wellington-born-and-bred chef is humble and self-effacing. He says the food he's serving is simply his "factory settings", given his parents are Cypriot, but he's bringing something else to the table too. The days of souvlaki, gyros and baklava being defining dishes for Greek cuisine may be limited.

Papouis recently returned to Wellington after five years' working and living in his ancestral home of Cyprus, four of which he spent as chef to the American ambassador.

"I was very lucky to get that job. It was really interesting, I had gone from 100-, 80-hour weeks to having my own garden, a bedroom and a big budget."

Before arriving in Cyprus, he spent almost two years working for Jamie Oliver, part of a massive team of chefs at one of the first restaurants dubbed Jamie's Italian. There are now 60 of those restaurants worldwide.

"It was just insane, really, smashing it out with 35 chefs." Starting at 8am, finishing at midnight was a common occurrence, he says. "Anything from 400 people on a Tuesday and 1000 covers on a Saturday. It was insane, but every chef should do it. I thought I would die by the end."

That, he says, is why he went to Cyprus.But before he could do anything there, he was conscripted. It's something you have to do if your parents hail from the country, so he traded his chef knife for a rifle. "I just got sent to a camp and did a lot of watch tower duty and exercises. They didn't put me in the kitchen, as I expected them to." 

Boot camp, sentry duty and plenty of toilet scrubbing, he was "thrashed out", doing menial grunt duties for three months.

Theo Papouis shops locally for most of his food, but makes sure to get plenty of Greek-Cypriot produce too.
Nicola Edmonds

Theo Papouis shops locally for most of his food, but makes sure to get plenty of Greek-Cypriot produce too.

"They used to call me the kangaroo. The more I told them I was from New Zealand, the more they called me it.

"At the time, I wasn't very happy, but it was definitely an awesome thing to do," he says.

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Following his army duties and a couple of odd jobs, he began working for the ambassador. One day he might have cooked Thanksgiving dinner for some US Marines, the next he might be catering to the tastes of various diplomats, so there was plenty of variation.

All the while, he was making the most of the local cuisine, tasting everything he could. Now he's back in New Zealand, he's added plenty more ideas to his "factory settings".

"It's small plates in Greece and Cyprus. In five years in Cyprus, I never ordered from a menu. You sit down, they fill your table up. That's what I'm trying to do here."

The plates that make up Papouis' menu are called mezedes. You'll find slow-cooked lamb, an array of beautiful Hellenic salads, salty-sweet and sesame-crusted feta with honey, and well-known dishes like moussakas and kalamaki (like souvlaki). Don't forget the unique Greek oregano either. Authentic ingredients provide a flourish to his dishes; the likes of kefalograviera, a sheep and goat's milk cheese, and a cured mullet roe called avgotaraho, both of which you might be hard-pressed to find anywhere else.

He's also introducing a Greco taste of Turkey through what's known as politiki kouzina, with Middle-Eastern and North African influences appearing in some dishes at Oikos.

"Basically, polis is the name for Constantinopoli [Istanbul]; kouzina is the cuisine of the big city. Cumin, cinnamon, sumac – they're things that feel more Middle Eastern."

On his menu this influence is obvious: melinzana imam, a baked eggplant with tomato and whipped feta; soutsoukakia, baked pork meatballs with cumin and sumac; and pastourma, a cured beef with nigella seeds.

"It's a bit of a thing [in Greece]. It's come back and it's a bit of a trend.

"People here, Greeks included, know about the stuff that's been around for so many years, like spanakopita, your tiropita and souvlaki, but there are so many things I want to introduce.

"There are so many islands, so many different cuisines."

Some of those dishes are on his menu already, but there are plenty waiting their turn. It's just a matter of time until they start appearing, but Papouis doesn't want to overwhelm his diners. He just wants them to adopt the Greek psyche and relax. 

With the combination of these small things, he hopes to make a family restaurant. After all, that's the meaning of oikos: family. 

"The whole idea of dining out there is completely different. It's about having great conversations, not worrying so much about life, and having that extra drink."

Greeks are like Kiwis in that way, he says. "If you look at restaurants in New Zealand... the ones that are pumping are mostly smart casual. Kiwis love smart casual. No one wants to feel stuffy – I don't think it's really us."

So, it's a relatively simple formula: relax and enjoy. Chances are you just might like it. 

SEE THEO'S RECIPE FOR RAVIOLES KYPRIAKES (GREEK-CYPRIOT HALOUMI RAVIOLI)

 - Cuisine

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