Situated inside Sydney's Hellenic Club, Alpha feels closer to a Greek food emporium than a restaurant. It's a long way from the 32-seater eatery Peter Conistis opened in the Eastern suburbs, fresh out of a Communications degree at university and completely lacking cooking qualifications.
“24 years ago I was the first one who redefined Greek food in Australia and further abroad,” Peter recalls. “When I opened up my first restaurant it was never to cook Greek food the way most people had seen it.”
Indeed, his restaurant – Cosmos – offered an entirely different cuisine from the rustic, generously portioned dishes most tavernas served. Mixing modern techniques and Australian ingredients with the essence of Greek cooking, Peter aimed to quieten his uni friends and their criticisms of Greek food.
“I wanted to prove everyone wrong... it was a bit ballsy of me.”
“Everyone kept on saying to me: 'I’ve never really found a good Greek restaurant in Sydney',” he says. “So I wanted to prove everyone wrong. Once I completed my degree I decided I wanted to open a restaurant.”
“It was a bit ballsy of me.”
In the eight weeks it took to design and build Cosmos, Peter knuckled down to learn the basics of Greek cuisine, then completely break the rules.
“I didn’t really cook that much until I decided to do this for a career,” he admits. "Then I asked for Mum’s help and got her in the kitchen so she could teach me all the basics.”
Luckily, like many Greek women, Peter's mum was a kitchen whiz, sharing her knowledge, explaining ingredients and showing him the secrets to homemade filo (phyllo) pastry.
While he respected the recipes from his childhood – the beefy moussakas and crisp spanikopitas – Peter sensed a Sydney audience would enjoy a culinary shake-up, so he experimented with the classics, and yielded tasty results.
“For me, one of the quintessential stories was how my signature dish the moussaka came together,” he proudly remembers. “The dish came together almost [through] osmosis. I was in my little kitchen making taramasalata, and I was frying some eggplant slices for another dish. My supplier came in with these amazing Queensland scallops. I literally put one of those scallops with some taramasalata and some a piece of eggplant, took a bite and said, 'Oh my!'”
With that, Peter's 'moussaka of eggplant, seared scallops and taramosalata' was born, and while several iterations have since been created, the dish, or a modern version of it, can still be found today – on Alpha's menu – alongside a bevy of reinvented Greek classics.
Still pushing the boundaries 24 years on, Peter Conistis is as passionate about modern Greek cuisine as he was in his boisterous uni days. And now, he has a culinary empire to boot.