Costa Simatos is the man behind the menu at the University Club. As Executive Chef, he writes menus for the Club’s restaurant and cafés, as well as for special events – ranging from high teas and conferences, through to weddings and Christmas lunches.
Growing up in a Greek-Cypriot family in South Africa, Costa wasn’t interested in cooking; he was far more interested in eating souvla (large meat skewers) and other Mediterranean specialties.
“I actually wanted to be an architect. That only changed when after a gap year working in hospitality, I enrolled at hotel school. As soon as I put on the chef’s jacket and tall hat, I knew that was the career for me,” Costa said.
In 1993, he gained his first chef’s job, working at a five-star hotel in Durban. Just three years later, he was chosen to open a resort hotel in the Drakensberg Mountains.
However, it was working at the Hilton which proved to be Costa’s toughest experience. When the first Hilton opened in post-apartheid South Africa, he was second-in-command, and when the Hilton opened its first hotel in Kuwait in 2001, Costa was chosen to be the Executive Chef.
“There was a culture of lavish hospitality, so we offered a buffet with traditional Middle Eastern cuisine, as well as western, Indian and Chinese food. As a chef you’re no expert in all cuisines so we had a diverse team from all over the world,” Costa said.
It was during his time in Kuwait that the United States-led coalition invaded Iraq. While Costa’s family evacuated, he chose to stay.
“Kuwait is only three times bigger than Perth, so it was very vulnerable,” Costa recalls.
“There were lots of missiles and alarms, and a fear of chemical weapons. During evacuation practice we had to shelter in the basement. All the journalists staying at the hotel would come down in their hazmat suits, while I was still in my chef’s whites!”
In 2004, Costa and his family arrived in Australia, and he joined the University Club as its Executive Chef four years later.
“The Club is very different because it is membership-based,” he says.
“People return numerous times so we need to change the menus frequently. I’ve never written so many menus as I have here – I could print a novel!”
Over the last 25 years, he’s witnessed a change in the way people approach food.
“There are a lot more dietary requirements nowadays. Veganism and vegetarianism have become mainstream, and we also get requests to accommodate low carb, keto and paleo diets, which can be a bit challenging. People are also more educated about food, and have higher expectations,” he says.
So who cooks at home?
“I’m the family cook. I never get sick of cooking; I find it relaxing, especially when you’re cooking for the people who you love,” he says.
“Life is short, so enjoy what you’re eating. You can find enjoyment and relaxation in simple cooking – whether that’s pasta, salad, or baking a cake. Don’t be scared of cooking.”
COSTA’S PORCINI RISOTTO
- 100g Arborio or Carnaroli rice
- 50ml olive oil
- 10g finely diced shallots/onion
- 100ml dry white wine
- 30g reconstituted porcini - sliced
- 200ml boiling chicken/vegetable stock
- 200ml whipping cream
- 50g diced butter
- 30g Grana Padano parmesan
- Sea salt/cracked pepper (to taste)
- 4 each of 6cm long cut marrow bones
- 50g chopped Italian parsley
- 2 each of lemon zest and juice
- 50ml capers
- Sauté onions in oil, add rice and cook until translucent.
- Add wine and reduce into rice until almost dry.
- Add boiling stock ladle by ladle while stirring until absorbed.
- Once rice is ¾ cooked add the reconstituted porcini mushrooms. Then, add more stock.
- When rice is al dente, remove from heat and stir butter through.
- Add parmesan, cream and mix well. Check seasoning and keep the risotto warm.
- Roast the marrow bones under a hot grill.
- Mix capers, parsley and lemon juice/zest together.
- Place risotto in serving bowls.
- Top the marrow bones with the caper/parsley/lemon mix. Serve on top of the risotto with more shaved parmesan, olive oil and cracked pepper.