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Ela at Amarillo is serving up years of hands-on research

“It’s a very traditional Greek style of serving food…Everything’s sharing, everything’s small dishes, it’s very boozy, there’s music – it’s very fun, very communal.”

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Stina Evjan

When Ella Mittas took up cooking, she cut out the middleman.

After a year working in traditional and contemporary restaurants in Istanbul, three summers in Greece, one in Portugal, a stint in London with bestselling culinary scribe Yotam Ottolenghi, and a stop-off in the kitchens of Tel Aviv, Mittas knows more about her chosen field of cooking than any book could’ve taught her.

“There’s only so much you can get from reading cookbooks,” Mittas says. “I really wanted to speak to people about why they cook food the way they do, to learn about ingredients and to have a more immersive education than just reading a book on Greek food and claiming that I know everything about it. It’s more of a research project for me.”

Mittas, an Australian of Greek descent, discovered an admiration for the traditional Greek approach to food: simple, produce-based and low on wastage. Her favourite dishes are characteristically uncomplicated; warm cabbage rolls and braised lamb with lemon potatoes.

“You’ll never eat something that’s out of season there, because everyone grows what they’re cooking in their backyards,” Mittas says. “I really admire the way that they cook because there isn’t any waste. They don’t often eat meat, but if they do, they’ll use absolutely every part of the animal. It’s how I strive to cook.”

Between her expeditions to the kitchens of Europe and Asia, Mittas has run the successful Greek food pop-up event Ela, named not just after Mittas’s own forename, but for the Greek word meaning “come” as in, “come here”. With the Ela event, Mittas has tried to bring Melbourne not just Greek recipes, but the traditional Greek attitude to dining. At Ela, diners enjoy Mittas’s cooking accompanied by Mediterranean wines and rebetiko music.

“It’s a very traditional Greek style of serving food,” Mittas says. “Everything’s sharing, everything’s small dishes, it’s very boozy, there’s music – it’s very fun, very communal.”

Of course, in a traditional setting there would be a whole community helping out in the kitchen, but for Ela, Mittas shoulders almost all of the work. She’s currently drawing up plans for the next Ela event, to be held at Amarillo, a Fitzroy bar that somehow manages to be both snug and airy. Each event features an entirely revamped menu, and the next menu will include red mullet with pickled apricots and salad, as well as a new dish: deep-fried Brussels sprouts with roast almond purée.

On occasion, Mittas is adventurous enough to try out an experimental dish at a pop-up event. At one 70-person Greek barbecue event, she tried preparing a traditional Easter dish of lamb offal: kidneys, liver, brain, and lungs, marinated, threaded onto a spit and wrapped in caul and intestines to be cooked over charcoal. It was the first time Mittas had tried the difficult dish.

“If I get excited, sometimes I try to challenge myself a little bit too much,” she laughs. “I didn’t know how it was going to go. It went well, but it was pretty terrifying. I didn’t know how long it was going to take to cook, or how long we needed to rest it for, or if the intestines were going to hold everything together, or if they were just going to burst apart. But it went well. It was a success.”

Mittas’s butcher got the organs for free, since they normally would’ve been thrown out. Aussies are missing out by rejecting organ meat, Mittas says.

“The description on the menu wasn’t as explicit as it could have been,” she admits. “But people really loved it. If people had seen me making the whole thing, I’m sure they’d have been a bit grossed out. But people really loved the taste of it, and it’s something that usually gets thrown out. In Australia, I think people think that meat being more expensive means it’s better, which is wrong.”

All the same, Aussies shouldn’t be intimidated by the menu at Ela. Most of the dishes should be recognisable to Australians, and Mittas will be on hand to take questions.

“I hope people get a different idea of what Greek food is and appreciate the way Greek people eat: by celebrating spending time with one another.”

Ella Mittas is serving traditional Greek cuisine at the Amarillo bar on Sunday August 12.