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Food maverick blazes new trail

THERE is certainly something particularly striking about David Laris. Not only does the Greek-Australian tower over you, not only does his agreeable dome pate draw your eye, but, most pertinently, there is an intensity simmering beneath the surface of the chef cum restaurateur that threatens to infect anyone within a wide radius.

This is, after all, the very definition of a man who believes anyone not living on the edge is hogging up too much space. Much has already been said of Laris leaving a successful London institution to take a chance on an exciting but then risky project in Shanghai; whilst he has thrived where more established rivals have floundered, the founder of food and beverage consultancy David Laris Creates has taken every success in his stride and is constantly seeking out what is next.

The icing on the cake has come in the form of his first cookbook, "The Menu," produced in collaboration with prolific New Zealand baker Dean Brettschneider and published by Marshall Cavendish. Released late last year, the tome includes not only immaculate recipes and menus from sensational starters to decadent desserts, but also tips and tricks to throwing the sort of dinner party guests talk about for ages.

"The idea was we were creating a book that was not necessarily for professional chefs although there are definitely recipes at that level," said the Sydney native. "It was to create recipes that will inspire good quality home cooks, to pick them up and cook at home. There are a series of set menus in here, and the idea is that you prepare these and cook the entire meal.

"There are also things to think about ?? a dinner party is more than just about the food. It's an opportunity for someone who is at home, who is a real host, to show a sense of hospitality."

As he explains, a good dinner party "should always be entertaining, where you spend the entire time engaged and you leave feeling uplifted." Among the suggestions is for budding hosts to swot current affairs beforehand for conversation topics. Far from coming off as contrived, this preempts any dull silences and keeps the atmosphere jovial.


"Oscar Wilde would be the ultimate dinner party guest ?? he would be full of stories and anecdotes and clever puns, and he was an awesome speaker," Laris said. "I draw inspiration from guys like that who I admire and think what wonderful conversationalists they are. They will never let a party go quiet and you never hear them say anything contrived at any point." There are many who would factor Laris into that category he reveres. The gastronome has, in addition to making regular TV appearances in the United Kingdom, also penned a monthly column in one of the local expat rags for about three and a half years, and the experience certainly helped shape his tone for the cookbook.

"The monthly column was more anecdotal, and I could say what I pleased. I have a way of expressing myself which is good, bad or ugly, and I think it comes out in the words I've written in this book," he said. "I don't want my voice to be taken out; the editor starting changing things but I said I want it to sound like me.

"I think whenever I write something my voice is always in there and that's the thing I like most. When I get overly edited out, I lose interest to actually speak."

Laris described working on "The Menu" with Brettschneider (who had written four cookbooks) as "cool," an adjective he also applied liberally about the baker himself. The partnership between the pair dates a little further, with Brettschneider supplying Laris' eponymous flagship and his Slice line of gourmet delis with bread and pastry. Not only does Laris see him as a good customer, but also a lover of food, and the no-nonsense Australian would gladly work with his Kiwi counterpart again in the future.

That is, of course, if the head honcho at DLC decides he has enough time. The consultancy, set up in the second half of 2008, has already seen the opening of outlets in The Opposite House, a Swire group project in the trendy Sanlitun area of Beijing, and is set to unleash the same brand of cool, chic culinary creations locally as well.

One such consultancy was for Mattel, on their massive Barbie emporium on Huaihai Road. Once open early next month, the US$30 million store will also feature a caf?? run by DLC decked in the same plastic princess theme. "I really enjoyed how much freedom they've given me to be really creative, and to come up with funky packaging for the Barbie chocolates," Laris said, almost gushingly. "It's going to be all about girls ?? mums and daughters ?? and when you see the design a lot of people are going to be surprised."

His own creations will also be at the forefront of Shanghai's culinary assault. First up (around the end of March) is the Fat Olive, a trendy wine bar with a Greek twist. Laris is aiming at imbibing this potential brand ("Hopefully it is something we do more than one of; we're developing quite an interesting brand language for it.") as a hit and upbeat spot that transcends the typical stuffy wine bar.

Marketing these days is all about branding, and the Australian is keen to get in on the act. "Even the concept of non-branding is branding," he remarked. "My daughter is 10 years old, and (when she noticed a shop sign) said 'it's just branding, it's just trying to get your attention.' So even a 10-year-old can get the concept. At DLC we're looking to kick off branding consultancies, and I think it's going to be interesting."

Also on the horizon is the much anticipated steakhouse within the abattoir turned commercial hub, 1933, where Laris serves as creative director. The Hongkou District project launched to much fanfare in 2007, but, mostly as a result of the severe economic downturn, has proven thus far to be a storm in a tea cup.

Of course, fortune is swift in her changes, a fact that Laris understands all too well, and her favor can return this year or next if the right buzz gets generated. "The train did come off the rails there, and it was the economy more than anything else," he explained. "It didn't even faze me. I just had to restructure (it)."

This spring (hopefully) will see the launch of The Maverick, the oft-talked about steakhouse that pays homage to its slaughterhouse roots. The aim will be to draw local customers who have previously shunned the inauspicious locale, with a friendly price point and "sensible and reasonable" entry level. Given that almost everything old is new again, the fine dining establishment is meant to be a throwback to the glitz and glamour of heyday Shanghai.

Understandably, the economy is the topic du jour for everyone and anyone in the food and beverage business, and the big names are all feeling the pinch. Downturns, however, are cyclical, and the industry's brighter lights are not losing too much sleep in the meantime. "2009 has to be a year of cautious spending; it may not be the boom year we saw before. We've not seen the worst of it but we've also got to be careful not to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Maybe it forces us to be more disciplined about the way we approach things. We have to be more thrifty and mindful, but I don't think it's the end of the universe."

One of the foremost goals this year for the multi-talented chef is to spend more time in the kitchen, a pleasure his business obligations have hindered previously. The common complaint is that most "brand name" chefs are mostly absent from their establishments, but the former head cook at Sir Terrence Conran's Mezzo is careful to balance his appearances in chef's whites, even if for personal reasons. "I miss the kitchen, and I do love it. This year I intend to spend more time there. I was reading the paper the other day, and another chef was saying he's a businessman these days; you cannot forget your core business. By no means will I give up cooking."

Let's hope for our sakes that he does not.

From humble origins to celebrity chef

Celebrity chef David Laris is looking to expand his influence beyond the kitchen.

The former head chef at Sir Terrence Conran's Mezzo in London came to Shanghai in 2004 to man the burners at New Heights in the then-new Three on the Bund entertainment complex.

When superstar chef Nobu Matsuhisa pulled out of the project, Laris was in the right place at the right time.

The Greek-Australian, whose childhood was split between a working class Sydney neighborhood and rustic Greece, was propelled into the local limelight with his own establishment.

Four years have since passed, the food and beverage scene has changed dramatically and Laris restaurant continues to thrive.

Despite the economy taking a huge hit, Laris is looking to expand his horizons and repackage himself from chef extraordinaire to astute businessman, but still keep a hand in the kitchen.


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