Andy Symeonakis embodies all the tell-tale signs of someone who is destined to leave his mark on the world. We spoke with Andy, a creative chef with an entrepreneurial flair, about his fascinating journey into the hectic world of hospo.
“Be the person you want to be and don’t look over your shoulder” – Andy’s Grandfather
Andy is the brother of Chrissy Symeonakis, our fearless leader at CLS. After five minutes of researching Andy, it’s clear that he is someone who is professionally impressive. He’s worked at a multitude of notable restaurants, cooked for self-proclaimed Antichrist superstar Marylin Manson, has run a number of his own business and has an enviable can-do attitude so fuelled by tenacity, that it’s hard to imagine anything would stop him from achieving anything he put his mind to.
You would think after all of this he wouldn’t have time for much else. But within five minutes of our interview it was clear that, on top of his professional accolades Andy is also the definition of people-centred. Our interview is littered with references to family members, old and young, and he glows with pride when speaking about his younger brother and his two beautiful little girls.
I spoke with him to discuss what fuels his passion and ignites his inspiration? Where did it all begin? And perhaps most importantly, what does the future have in store for Andy-the unstoppable-Symeonakis?
Andy, having achieved so much in your career I am dying to know, what was it that inspired you to become a chef?
I grew up on a farm, so we lived that “farm-to-table”life before it was cool. I had a natural talent for cooking from a young age which was definitely encouraged by being surrounded by my family. One of my first memories of being in the kitchen and making food is with my Grandmother (Yia Yia). She used to make lamb shoulder garlic soup, it had like, 20 cloves of garlic. My grandma’s family in Greece grew garlic as their crop and they use it in everything.
When I was about 6 or 7 years old we went on a family holiday to Queensland, and I made it from scratch. Even from that young, I never really was deterred by being under pressure. I think I’ve always had this mantra that you just don’t stress. You put your head down, get it done and there you go!
Wow you were that chill at 7 years old?! So obviously family is big in your journey. Are they also what inspire your dishes?
So I try to not eat the same things all the time and to eat as many different foods as possible.
I’ve always been very curious and I like to try everything, for a while, even in my work.
I tried to be an electrician for a while. But I felt like my boss was leading me on and promising me things that didn’t eventuate… Plus, it wasn’t ideal climbing on the roof being 6ft3! So after 3 weeks I was back in the kitchen with my Dad where I belong.
All my family are into food. My grandparents cook, of course me growing up on the farm and my Dad being a chef for over 25 years. He has been Executive Chef of the Renmark Hotel for as long as I can remember. My sister had her first job there and I started my chef’s journey there as a dishwasher. I was trained there on desserts, salads and the basics and it started my career.
So I guess it’s just natural, it’s in my bones. But my Dad and I do have our differences.
He tends to freak out a bit, whereas I have the mindset that we will be able to figure it out. That is, as long as no one can see behind the curtain and see exactly how I’m figuring it out!
Wow so it is almost genetic! It seems like the same genetic passion, but a different approach? Can you tell me more about that?
I guess the difference is just that I don’t worry… I have come to learn I can make anything happen. I just think to myself, “You can do it. Do it while you’re young. You enjoy making it happen”. My wife Kylie thinks I’m crazy! But I love it. I once did a function with just a ThermoMix, a BBQ and a makeshift Bain Marie. We did steaks and salmon and somehow got away with it!
There have been several times where I have been working from 11 doing a double shift, jumped in the truck to Adelaide to do a function then get back to work in time for the next day. Tenacity is the key. I want to be a big fish in all the ponds! People literally tell me “you need to sleep Andy” and I’m like “I’ll just catch up later”. It’s like the love and passion takeover and make the choices for me!
I think this “make it happen” attitude is why I’ve always done so well. I’ve been coaching my little brother to do the same. Our whole family has this intense generational work ethic. He started his own business and is making great money. He’s 17 and already owns a house. He probably doesn’t even know that we have been subliminally training him to be great. I’m very proud of him.
Is that the advice would you give to anyone looking to become a chef?
Just be calm. At the end of the day it’s just a job. Don’t stress out. I always joke that I’ve still got all my hair because I don’t stress for anybody. I don’t focus on the fight, I focus on the work.
It’s about knowing your capabilities and working with them. Play to your strengths. Take calculated risks. Make sure you know the details of the risk first of course, but don’t be afraid of it.
I know that sustainability is important to you in your food. Especially growing up on the farm. Any advice for cooking and eating more sustainably for anyone reading?
I just think why do we have to eat unhealthy food? If you wanna live long and healthy then eat good, wholesome food and know where it comes from!
I was talking earlier about my family history with garlic. My grandfather eats a whole clove of garlic every day. Even though we aren’t back in the Riverland, we still get care packages on a regular basis from our family. Bay leaves, dried oregano, citrus, honey and dried food. These items and ingredients come from our family property or friends of the family in the region. It really doesn’t get much better than that!
I’m passing this onto my kids as well, and I’m passing on all that has come from my Grandmother. They plant the garlic, pick it and dry it. It’s a game I play with them called “Let’s play chefs”. So we’re using fresh grown produce from their gardens in our meals all the time.
That’s so awesome you’re sharing that attitude and passion with your little ones. How do you manage the tough long work hours, family time and resting!
What are the challenges you face juggling family and work?
Before when I was working at Hellenic Republic I negotiated to always make sure I had time to see them. My wife works as an analyst for the Reserve Bank,(she makes the bank notes) and together we just work it out. The balance is a priority to me and it helps we’ve supportive families on both sides.
I hate being restricted to anything, business, family or anything else. I want to be able to do it my way. That’s why I always have my side businesses too. I hate someone putting a cap on me. I guess there’s a bit of a rebel inside.
When I was young I used to sell at markets on the side too. Anything from figs to organic home sun-dried fruits. Actually it’s because of that I won’t buy apricots from the supermarket, because we grew up picking, drying and eating them!
Clearly you like to be involved on the ground, Have you always had that entrepreneurial spirit?
I used to go do job trials in Sydney, not for the job, but just to see what they were doing in their kitchens.I always wanted to own a food truck and I love catering for big fat Greek weddings. So the hustle and spirit have always been strong.
I also look for what’s “smart” in business. Example being, I once hired plates for a wedding and they stitched me up on price. So I bought all the equipment I needed and now I hire that to others that need it for functions and events.
“You got an opportunity. Get it right. Do it right.”
You recently started as head chef in 1915 – How has that been so far?
On opening night everyone came in blind.
Thursday night, the tradies were still drilling when we had a function booked for 200 that Friday! On our grand opening night, we were behind and no dishes had been made; we had no recipe cards. 100 orders came in with two chefs and our apprentice chef. It is all about the positive attitude, accepting it for what it is and making it happen.
Actually I’d love to give a mention to our apprentice chef. He has so much energy and is a phenomenal hard worker. He has Asperger’s and has had some pretty rough experiences. Someone told him “just because you wear a chef’s jacket doesn’t make you a chef”. I hate that, and he is a fantastic asset to our team! I introduced him to some of the chefs from Masterchef and in a couple weeks he will be on the radio so tune in!
But yeah back to 1915, I am thrilled to be the face of the brand and venue. We are building a really good team. I think people like to work for me because I have a good attitude. I really don’t believe in being aggressive. I love to make it fun, have a good time and feed some people.
I’m settling into Geelong life and the community too. We bought a house here and I’m dedicated to making a name for myself out of Melbourne. Especially with many people moving to the country. I feel very blessed to have an amazing venue, and support from the owners to give me free reign and for putting their trust in me too.
Well it seems the times when you are most free are when you excel! You talked a little about your apprentice chef which actually leads nicely into my next question.
What are your thoughts around being a chef, working such long hours, in a high stress and sometimes toxic environment, on mental health in the industry?
In another life I was what I guess you could have called me a big party animal. I think the kitchen was a distraction for me.The more I was in the kitchen the more I was out of trouble!
Without it, I think I would have gone down a very different path. In Adelaide I was working two jobs working 70-90 hours a week and still partying. But that was never going to be sustainable. If I hadn’t been in the kitchen, who knows where all that partying would have led me!
Obviously being in the hospo industry with the pandemic has been really tough for some people. How did covid affect you personally? And what do you think the lasting effects or changes will come from covid going into the future?
I lost my job working for ex Masterchef judge George Calombaris, so I had a month off. I actually didn’t mind that time because it meant I could enjoy hanging out with my family. I especially loved spending quality time with my kids. I then got a new job at the Lorne Hotel. As a family we always went there for Christmas and I always joked I would work there one day! Goal achieved! But only weeks after starting there, Victoria was plunged into the longest lockdown and adapting in that world and environment too was a challenge,fortunately I was able to make the best out of a shitty situation, studied and continued to upskill.
And the industry?
Losing your business because of a pandemic is never a good time. Covid and the restrictions really forced a somewhat stagnant industry to roll with the punches; adapt or pretty much die.
We’ve actually seen loads of venues and industries thrive during lock-down with take home delivery boxes, online classes and tastings and by adjusting menus and offering’s. People are eating more often and wanting to support the industry. Consumers need to understand that Australia is experiencing a huge downturn in skilled hospitality staff though, new staff are training and are coming up the ranks so they need to adapt, be kind and supportive to their chefs and servers. A thanks at the pass can go a long way.
So I heard through the grapevine, that when people meet you after meeting Chrissy they say you are a nicer sibling! Do you think this is true? Was she a bit of a bitch growing up?
Yes… yes she was. It’s sort of like this. I do anything for anyone, I like to help! Chrissy is more forward spoken, and if it doesn’t involve people with good hearts, then she thinks
“why waste my time” and moves on. She is incredibly hardworking, passionate and has a different approach in life and business, which works to her strengths.
But no, my sister is awesome and she’s one of my biggest fans and anyway she can help me she does. Even though we live in different states, we try to talk most days or squeeze in a Facetime with my girls. We make the best of it and it’s good for us to always bounce ideas, and vent to each other.
Speaking with Andy I can see that one of the many reasons he has had so much success is his openness and kind way with people. It was a pleasure to interview him and he gave me lots to think about in my own life endeavours!
If you’re interested in checking out what Andy has been up to you can feast your eyes on the 1915 website for some delicious Mediterranean eats.
What do you think it is that brings success as a chef?
Let us know in the comments!