Portfolio of Kimberly Johans

A collection of articles created during my stint as a journalist at The Macau Daily Times

It may be all Greek to some, but for David Laris, the sky’s the limit

Posted by Kimberly on November 3, 2007

By Kimberly Johans
Published in The Macau Daily Times
November 3, 2007, page 2 (1,156 words)

Australian-born chef David Laris is coming back to Macau, to where it all began, at the Mandarin Oriental. Now heading up one of the top eating establishments in Shanghai, Laris, Three on the Bund, he’s participating in Wine and Gourmet Asia 2007 between November 7 and 10.
David will be top billing at the Mandarin, presenting his menus which incorporate contemporary Asian, Mediterranean and Middle Eastern influences at a series of lunch and dinner promotions.
“I did Asia eight to nine years ago as I wanted to understand a bigger market,” he said, adding that by the time he’d decided to make his move to Shanghai, his profile in London was big enough to make the move a rather risky one.
“A lot of people in London thought I was insane, as I was just starting to break into the TV world and raising my profile. I spoke to lots of friends in the Asian region, who were not very optimistic. I thought the next big city would be Shanghai so I took the risk,” he recalled.
When asked about those initial days of setting up shop, David said he remembers being called back to Shanghai to have a look at the building on offer, over six years ago.
“Initially I didn’t want to do it. I’d attended a summit in Singapore in 2001. The guy who had the building came over to see me in London and I had to go to see it.
“I fell in love with the building. I had the concept exactly the way I wanted it, not many get that chance. I’d spoken with my wife and we thought we’d see how it turned out. It was just a matter of circumstance and following my gut really…being at the right place at the right time and I found people to share that vision,” he said, which has become brighter over the years, reflected in the number of celebrities that choose to dine at Laris, including “Cameron Diaz, Kenny G and Hilary Swank last week.”
Growing up in Newtown, an inner west area of Sydney, David admitted it had a great influence on him, with his Greek dad and a corner shop operated by his Grandfather, which he didn’t realise until looking back.
“My Australian side, my mum, was really interested in these new ingredients and cooking so we were constantly exposed to an ethnic mix, such as my Lebanese and Vietnamese friends. That does influence you later on especially the food you like,” he added.
Yet David admitted that Australia’s food scene and those involved in it, hasn’t changed much over the years.
“I love Australia and there’s a wonderful element of freedom and mix of ethnicity, but you get knocked down sometimes,” he said, adding that in Shanghai, “you don’t hear people saying you can’t do something.
“I have about half a dozen projects on and no one says you’re trying too hard. It lends itself to people working together. And networking is incredible,” he said, adding that “it’s happening all the time and it’s feeding off each other. There’s an awful lot of disposable cash.”
He added that this rejuvenation was fairly young and eternal optimism like this just didn’t exist anymore in Australia.
“There’s lot of pessimism I find at the moment in Australia. A lot of negative press about everything. This Michael Moore concept of feeding the community on fear rather than optimism and being forward looking. It’s one of the big differences I see in the two cities. It’s not a criticism of home. It’s just the way I see it,” he said.
He admitted that the Australian market was pretty small in many ways where “there are the same guys controlling the top, for example, Neil Perry, there are a few new ones mainly breaking through, but it’s almost like there’s not enough openings to let the young guys come up,” he said.
Stating his “culinary hero” as being Japanese star chef, Tetsuya Wakuda of Tetsuya’s in Sydney, he believed there “should be room for more Tetsuya’s.”
Asked if he had any regrets about his life’s decisions, he was adamant in his refusal.
“Im not the sort of person to live with regrets. China has been incredibly good to me and Shanghai has adopted me. In many ways I’m considered one of the people here in terms of what I do. One the greatest things is seeing people replicating what I’m doing,” he said.
And it’s got nothing to do with ego, he stresses, adding that “You feel like you’re really helping to change the world and you’re part of something.”
He makes no secret of the difficulties involved with the industry, adding that “You have to have a certain kind of resilience. You have to be made of rubber and be bullet proof at the same time.”
One big change that’s come about through the years of getting to the top of his profession has been getting people to believe in his dreams.
“In the early days I was on my own, unknown had to really work hard to build my dream and make people believe in me. Working hundreds of hours a week was madness! Once you get past that, there are a lot more people around you that can support you. In the early days there was just me and my dream. Having to convince my partners this was the right thing to do and going against conformity,” he said.
And that non-conformity is paying off in spades, with Laris having won ‘Restaurant of the Year’ two years running, something he attributes to “sheer tenacity and balls” rather than luck.
Gone is the young 23 year old chef with a ponytail down his back, “foolishly optimistic” who found his menu practically deleted when he arrived in Macau.
“I didn’t listen at all, went against grain, caused lots of friction and did Mezzaluna the way I wanted to, and it be came a great restaurant,” he said.
So, despite living in Asia for 13 years, David refuses to let ethnicity be connected to his food at all. And he doesn’t respond to finger-clicking either!
As for his upcoming Macau engagements, “It’s nice to be doing this from time to time. I don’t really have time but I know I have to be out there. I’m also curious about how Macau’s going. I have a huge soft spot in my heart for Macau,” he said.
His current projects read like a list of impossibilities: a chocolate company called ‘The chocolate Room’, a delicatessen called ‘Slices’ David Laris Concepts, a consultation company, a new project ‘1933’ “which you’ll be hearing about over the coming months,” a 1940s inspired steakhouse and seafood bar, and an F&B Fund “which is like a real estate fund.”
“My vision is not small,” he said but adding “my dream is to step back and realise I’ve transformed the landscape.”

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