Chef and restaurant owner Jonathan Barthelmess owns The Apollo Restaurant and Cho Cho San in Sydney. His venues are celebrity hotspots, frequented by the likes of Nicole Kidman, Keith Urban, Naomi Campbell and Ricky Martin. The 37-year-old launched Cho Cho San in 2014 and Monocle has since rated it fifth among the Best Restaurants of the World. He took the Apollo to Tokyo in March last year and it has been booked out five months in advance. I chatted to him about the challenges of opening his restaurant in Japan and shares his favourite dining hotspots in Sydney.
How did you become a chef and restaurateur?
My grandfather was a chef and I guess my parents just kept telling me, “Don’t be a chef. Don’t be a chef.”
Why did your parents try to dissuade you from this career path?
I guess they thought the hours were unsocial if you want to grow up and have a family and all that kind of stuff.
What were you like as a kid?
As a kid, I was totally not interested in school … My main memory is skateboarding and just being down the beach and surfing all day and getting hot chips and then kicking a soccer ball or football around on the beach and then going for another surf and then going home completely exhausted.
Where did your love of food come from?
I love the art of cooking and I also love the adrenaline when you’re in the kitchen. There is a lot of pressure and you’ve got to feed people in a certain amount of time. You’ve got to be ready to feed the people and to be able to do it at a certain standard. I love the feeling of being able to push yourself and drive yourself.
You have Greek heritage but you began your career in Italian cuisine, how did that come about?
My cousin had a restaurant [with] her husband. Her husband is from Positano and his family has a restaurant there called Da Adolfo, which you catch a boat to. It’s quite famous. He opened Da Adolfo in the city here and I started doing my apprenticeship there. It’s an Italian restaurant and I just loved the simplicity. You can put something together, and it’s got only three ingredients and it tastes amazing and it’s all about the produce. That just stuck with me, through my career really.
You have two very successful restaurants but with such different cuisines. Where did your love of Greek food and modern Japanese come from?
I always cooked Mediterranean, well, more Italian than anything, for about 16 or 17 years and then I did a charity dinner with a guy called Janni Kyritsis, who was a three-hatted chef. He got three hats his first year and kept it through his whole career … He was like, ‘Why don’t we choose the topic as shared Greek heritage,’ and I’m like, ‘I don’t know anything about Greek food,’ although my heritage is Greek. And then I started thinking about it and researching what I was going to do for the dinner. I actually did know a lot about Greek food but I just hadn’t associated it [that way] because I had been so focused on Italian.
What was most difficult hurdle you faced when opening Apollo in Ginza, Tokyo?
It was really hard … The biggest thing is the cultural and language barrier, and getting the produce over there was hard. There is plenty of European, like Italian and French products, there but there was no Greek … We had to work with the Greek Embassy and the Australian Embassy to get the right suppliers.
What’s the biggest challenge of running a restaurant in Japan?
Communication is hard. I mean the Japanese are really methodical and very dedicated to their craft. So the product, even from day one, just kind of clicked into gear … I think over the course of three months we probably had about eight, maybe 10 of the Japanese team training in Sydney and then we went over there, worked on it and got the product where it needed to be at that stage and then came back and then we took a team over for the opening …
Do you cook at home?
I love cooking at home. It’s such a different thing. I actually enjoy cooking dinner for my friends more than I like sitting down and eating it. I think another reason why I am a chef is because [cooking] makes me feel good to see someone enjoying it.
What’s your signature dish when hosting a dinner party?
I always go really fresh. It’s always usually protein on the barbecue and heaps of raw vegies, fresh salads … and usually some cheese as well.
When you’re not dining at one of your venues, what is your favourite Sydney restaurant?
There are a few. I love Sean’s Panorama and I love Fratelli Paradiso.
How do you describe a top restaurant?
I think somewhere that makes you feel comfortable… [and] somewhere you can go and relax.
How do you think Sydney restaurants stand up against the big restaurants around the world?
I think Australia is one of the exciting food destinations in the world. We have such a good multicultural [mix] and we have access to such amazing ingredients … So many of our young chefs and up-and-coming chefs have travelled so much and worked with so many people around the world and bringing back their own personalities and getting in touch with their heritage…
How do you deal with tricky customers?
We just try to make them walk away happy, no matter how we have to turn it around. The goal is for them to leave and be happy even if something unfortunate happened or they haven’t liked something or whatever. Mistakes happen when you’re feeding so many people, not very many, but they do.
What’s next for you?
This year is all about getting better at what we do and refining our brands.
What do you do when you relax?
Read and eat … I love the beach. Going up to the northern beaches like Palm Beach or Avalon or something is a very relaxing weekend for me. I love that more than anything.
What are you reading at the moment?
I’m reading Tartine Bakery No. 3 and How Proust Can Change Your Life.
WE WENT TO The Apollo Restaurant, Potts Point
WE ATE Oven Baked Lamb Shoulder with Lemon & Greek Yoghurt and Village Salad With Cucumber, Tomato, Feta & Olives.
WE DRANK Mineral water.