“Il faut cultiver notre jardin” (Voltaire)
“We must cultivate our garden,” Candide says in Voltaire’s masterpiece. This is meant literally for the all-around benefits of this occupation, as well as figuratively: cultivate different points of view, ideas and opinions. One would be hard-pressed to find someone who embodies this dictum more than Mr. Mantis.
Born 1980 in Athens, he spent holidays and long Greek summers on the island of Lesvos, his father’s place of origin (His mother hails from the tiny island of Symi, near the Turkish coast). There, as a child and young adult, he loved growing tomatoes, cucumbers and beetroot in the family’s vegetable patch.
At 14, he ended his formal education and began to work alongside his father as a plumber, until his mandatory military service, where part of his duties consisted of cooking. After the army, he worked with an uncle who was a private chef working on yachts, and he saw the potential of the job. Rather than rejoining his father’s plumbing business, he decided to become a chef. It was a cool weighing of professional options at first. He enrolled at Athens culinary school and started working himself up the ladder. Two years and three jobs later, he was chef de partie at Varurlko in Athens, his first kitchen with a Michelin star, and the job had become “…a world with passion, rules hierarchy, a magic world with different people, different cultures…” his natural gregariousness and curiosity took hold.
In 2010 Mr. Mantis took over the kitchen at Funky Gourmet and was awarded a Michelin star among a long list of awards. He then went abroad to widen his horizons: Old Sluis and De Librije in the Netherlands, Geranium in Denmark, Franzen in Sweden, The Fat Duck in the UK, and Hof Van Clefe in Belgium, each one a 3-star restaurant – different people and cultures indeed. The most formative stay was at Geranium where gathering edibles in the Danish hills and by the seaside dominated the menu. After all, he had grown up with farm-to-table cooking, long before it became a culinary trend. And that his childhood rooted in the rural mentality of living off the land could be the foundation of 3-star gastronomy was an invigorating revelation.
At Hytra, where Mr. Mantis took over in the summer of 2014, there’s an herb garden next to the kitchen. His motto: “local products, new ideas.” Rural gatherers and growers from all over Greece bring black pig, cornel (dogwood berries) wild apples, sloes, chestnuts, roses, wild almonds, cedar and pine. And if he can’t find what he wants, he works with farmers to revive old local stocks of sheep and poultry to be raised with tradition and sustainability. In so doing, he revitalizes a rich and ancient food culture, with knock-on effects in the entire sector.
His latest addition to Hytra, at the top of the Onassis Cultural Center in the heart of Athens, is a hothouse he built with his father. He calls it “a dream come true.”