Cooking with Janni Kyritsis

JANNI KYRITSIS IS COVERED IN BLOOD and feeling nostalgic.

It’s 20 years since he used to make blood sausage with Gay Bilson at Berowra Waters Inn. He glances at the recipe for a prompt before memory and instinct take over, forcing the burgundy-coloured mix through a funnel and into the sausage casing with his finger.

Janni back in action with a caul wrapping

We watch amazed as the sausage takes shape, culinary archaeologists catching a rare glimpse of living history.

In the three years since he stepped out of the kitchen at MG Garage, after a cooking career spanning 25 years – he earned 50 chef’s hats in the Good Food Guide, making him the nation’s most lauded chef – Janni Kyritsis has busied working on his first cookbook, Wild Weed Pie.

He’s also been focussing on a more personal challenge, dyslexia, which makes the book an extraordinary achievement for a remarkable culinary talent. But he’s typically humble, yet pleased, declaring his most difficult challenge to be adapting restaurant-sized recipes for the home kitchen.

A compact, gentle and polite man with quietly simmering enthusiasm and cheeky laugh, he’s eschewed the celebrity chef circuit.

It’s been two years since he last gave a cooking class, but friend and admirer Franz Scheurer coaxed and cajoled Kyritsis into spending a recent Sunday afternoon cooking some of the fifth quarter – offal – with friends. Scheurer emailed out a handful of invitations. Kyritsis was expecting a dozen people and was taken aback when he walked into the Sydney Seafood School to find 30 eager disciples, from three-hat chefs to fans from Melbourne who flew up for the day, ready grapple with tripe, pig’s ears, chicken’s feet, sweetbreads and blood.

Kyritsis fondly recalls growing up in Greece where offal was always part of the menu. Pig was the animal you could eat from nose to tail and cooking at Bennelong in the mid-90s with Gay Bilson, his coyly described ‘salad of pig bits’ even included the testicles.

When he first came to Australia and made the leap from electrician to chef, Kyritsis was thrown in the deep end with Stephanie Alexander, and remembers thrilling to her dish of veal sweetbreads with pistachio and orange peel. Now he’s using them in a stuffing for pig’s ears. His hand slides intuitively between the ear’s skin and cartilage to create a pocket for the stuffing as Kyritsis scans the faces of his friends and chats.

Stuffed pigs ears by Janni Kyritsis

Later, the large triangles will be breadcrumbed, baked and served with a watercress salad and a spinach and tarragon tartare sauce. It’s irresistibly luscious and texturally fascinating, like many of the other dishes he shows us how to cook that day: chicken livers and crumbed feet; salad of brisket, pig’s ear cartilage and mustard greens; tripe and pork sausage; duck gizzards and curly endive; and tripe Lyonnaise, a dish originally passed on from Tony Bilson’s time at Berowra Waters Inn, although Kyritsis “couldn’t cope with the imprecision” of cooking it a la minute and came up with his own version.

The surprising thing about cooking with offal is that while it seems daunting, most of the challenge is actually mental, rather than physical. Small teams of first timers bring together each dish with ease as the master flits from table to table overseeing their efforts and regaling all with anecdotes from the heat of the kitchen.

Blood sausage

Elizabeth David and Jane Grigson made him curious about blood sausage – a dish Gay Bilson went on to make infamous at the 1993 Symposium of Australian Gastronomy. Alas the recipe isn’t in the book: pig’s blood is just too tricky to acquire. It doesn’t take long for the jumble of breadcrumbs, spices, onion herbs, cream and blood to coagulate. The skins are peeled away and the filling tenderly coated in breadcrumbs before being baked in the oven and served with sautéed apples.

Five hours after everyone started cooking, everyone sits down to a feast they’ve been aching for since MG Garage closed. But Kyritsis is invigorated and can’t sit still, bouncing around like the Energiser Bunny, as his instinct for hospitality kicks in.

Meanwhile, with each mouthful, we too are lost in nostalgia.

 

* Written March 1996.

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