“Paul Kelly came to dinner and took some of my potato salad home in a takeaway container,” says Ella Mittas through a wide grin. “I was so stoked.”
This delightful sincerity is the first thing you’ll notice about Mittas, chef, cooking instructor and host of a swathe of sell-out pop-up dinners. She’s both passionate and unpretentious about her food, and this trickles down into every detail of her projects.
“I was studying arts at Melbourne Uni, and then I moved to RMIT to do creative writing,” Mittas says. “When I finished there, I just couldn’t get any work. I was doing heaps of freelancing, and it was making me really anxious. I started cooking part-time so I could keep writing. Then I got totally obsessed.
“When I moved into my first share house I was constantly throwing dinner parties. I loved curating dinner and telling people exactly what they had to eat. I’d say, ‘This is the order we’re eating in’, ‘you have to drink this with that’, and ‘you have to eat this part with your hands’. I always found that really satisfying.”
That sense of curation is something Mittas has retained, and honed, since those early days – though the journey to where she is now was a winding and worldly one.
Recent Mediterranean-inspired pop-ups at Cam’s Cafe and Gertrude Street Enoteca have been meticulously organised and presented. Mittas researches and develops concepts, and sources produce for each dinner over several months. She art-directs the menu. She selects the music, and takes great care with lighting and ambiance. Because of this intricate level of care, her pop-ups have a reputation for being truly memorable experiences.
Entering the industry as a relative outsider, Mittas learned by staging (an unpaid kitchen role for chefs-in-training) at a number of restaurants, including at Rockpool Bar & Grill and under legendary London chef and restaurateur Yotam Ottolenghi.
“It’s a good way of getting experience,” she says. “But it can be either good or bad. You might get someone who’s really generous, or someone who just takes the piss and makes you pick herbs all day.”
Next, Mittas set her sights on Turkey, drawn to the Mediterranean food of her father’s heritage. She travelled to Istanbul to complete a month-long stage in the kitchen of now-closed Lokanta Maya. The kitchen was run by Didem Şenol, who at the time was celebrated as one of the best chefs in Istanbul for her modern take on classic Turkish recipes.
Mittas spent a year working for Şenol, and threw herself into researching Turkish cuisine. She also took up writing for an English language publication, the Guide Istanbul, spending her days wandering the city to find and interview local experts. Her obsessive and fastidious mind led her down endless research paths. She speaks excitedly of her discovery of pomegranate’s symbolism in Turkish culture (as a symbol of fertility), and of a climate’s bacterial setting and how it affects the yeast cultures used to make trahana (a cracked wheat widely used in the region). It’s clear that Mittas loves to learn and that none of her undertakings are half-hearted, but in industrial kitchens, Mittas was often confronted by the industry’s fiery culture.
“It’s such a creative environment, but people don’t treat it like that,” she says. “I found it so bizarre. People are so competitive … it’s really macho, and I don’t really deal with that well. I studied a creative-writing degree before getting in the kitchen, so I’m used to talking about my feelings. [In kitchens] people don’t take care of themselves or their mental health.”
This is perhaps why Mittas ended up running one-off events and cooking classes instead of working full time in restaurants. She’s afforded more creativity and flexibility, and can write her own rules. At the Cam’s Cafe pop-up earlier this year, the theme was: How much can a koala bear? The dinner coincided with an exhibition by the same name at the Abbotsford Convent, which explored all facets of Australian identity.
“I just wondered, ‘What would my family do?’” Mittas says. “The idea of the menu was basically a Greek barbeque. Although we also brought in flavours like beach bananas, samphire and lemon myrtle.”
Working with friends from Donati’s Fine Meats in Carlton, Mittas made lukániko, a traditional smoked Greek sausage flavoured with orange peel. She also prepared that fateful potato salad, the one that would later impress Paul Kelly.
“Because I go to such extremes to make things special, it’s nice when people come and appreciate me saying, ‘Hey, I made this thing, and this is the story behind it, and this is how it fits into the theme’.”
Next for Mittas; hosting a series of intimate cooking classes (she’s currently making the recipe books by hand) and more European research trips on which she’ll go on foraging expeditions. Unsurprisingly, she’s got some new obsessions, too: Georgian wines and indigenous Australian ingredients. The future looks bright and busy.
You can next catch Ella Mittas's cooking from 12pm Sunday September 9 at Amarillo.