The top chef who has launched a new market stall selling incredible wraps
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The top chef who has launched a new market stall selling incredible wraps

Nov 10, 2023

The chef behind Ya Souvlaki has worked in top restaurants in Greece, France, Italy and Norway

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An acclaimed Greek chef with a penchant for unique dishes has opened a stall at Cardiff Market. Antonis Alexandris, whose CV includes cooking for royalty and a Guinness world record, only launched Ya Souvlaki last month but he has described its immediate popularity as "crazy".

Although Antonis — better known as Antony — is used to working in big-name kitchens, he is enjoying life in a small street food spot that allows him to interact more with customers. When we visit one morning, his rapport is quickly apparent. Towering at 6ft 3ins, the affable Athenian warmly embraces two friends as they pass and tells them: "Come by later, I will make you whatever you want." Shortly afterwards a young man stops to say: "The chips yesterday were beautiful, I don't know what you did with them."

The key to the chips, the 48-year-old chef says with a smile, is in his secret mix of herbs. "There is one particular herb that makes the difference," he adds. The care Antony takes over ingredients is a recurring theme as he explains the philosophy behind Ya Souvlaki, which he has opened in a partnership with the owners of Woodville Road's Corfu By Night restaurant.

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Antony likes to do things differently. "In the UK, this is a new way of doing gyros," he says. "Most places have a vertical spit but I don't have that. We have locally sourced pork shoulder, fresh not frozen. It goes in the meat slicer and on the cast-iron griddle instead of a spit. From cold, you have it ready in two minutes, maybe less. With a vertical spit you are probably waiting half an hour before the first cut."

In a demonstration he throws spices and sprays brine — both his own "secret" blends — onto the meat smoking on the griddle. He also uses an emulsion of extra virgin olive oil and lemon juice. The shredded pork goes into a pita wrap holding fries and a customer's choice of salad and sauce. A standard pita — also available with chicken souvlaki, deep-fried calamari or halloumi — is priced at £5.95, while the cost is a pound extra for the larger psomaki, described on the menu as a "speciality Viennese bread roll".

"We have a really good quality of meat," says Antony. "I'm sourcing most of the meat and vegetables locally. The pita comes from Mani in Greece and it makes a big difference."

Antony, who was a chef at Corfu by Night for around a year before opening the stall, created a baklava cheesecake recipe during his time at the restaurant and it is now available at Ya Souvlaki. The inspiration came from a conversation with a friend who had told him cheesecake was the most popular dessert in the UK. "I thought, 'I can do cheesecake blindfold so why don't I do a baklava base with baked cheesecake on top?' It is amazing, the syrupy taste of the baklava and creaminess of the cheesecake. The idea is not to have a massive menu but to make dishes that no one else can touch."

The chef's passion for his craft can be traced back to his late grandmother Stavroula, who moved to Greece from Turkey as a child in the 1920s. "The genetics came from her," says Antony. "I think they skipped a generation, because my mum doesn't even know how to cook pasta, and came straight to me."

Stavroula spent a lot of time cooking with Antony in his childhood, influencing his style with Turkish cuisine. Years later, learning his trade at a Rosette restaurant in France, he was surprised to see the same technique for moussaka that his grandmother had taught him, boiling milk with onion and cloves to make béchamel sauce.

"As we say in culinary school, there is a charisma," Antony adds. "The great chefs have learned the techniques but they also have the charisma — they know by touch how much of a spice they need to put in, things like that. The techniques you can learn, the charisma is natural. If you have both of these elements, you are gonna be a legend."

Before coming to Cardiff, Antony spent time at restaurants in Paris and Venice as well as his home country. While at the Hilton Athens — which he believes had a much superior restaurant to Hilton hotels in the UK — he cooked for Queen Sofía of Spain and magician Uri Geller. For six months he was a "private chef" to Geller, who had a fondness for grilled octopus and bent around 600 of the hotel's spoons during his stay. "Eventually we had to stop him," laughs Antony.

Another memorable moment came when he and eight colleagues entered the Guinness world records for feeding 27,000 people in three days at a huge parade of Harley Davidson bikers crossing the Rio–Antirrio Bridge, says Antony, whose medal hangs in the stall.

Keen to travel and learn new skills, Antony first came to the UK around 2010 because he had heard there was a possibility of working under Marco Pierre White at Calcot Manor, near Tetbury in the Cotswolds. In fact the celebrity chef was on a cruise ship, but Antony decided to join Calcot Manor anyway and learn from Michael Croft, whom he described as one of the best head chefs in the country.

"The problem for me was Tetbury felt like a small village and I am a town boy. So the first time I came to Cardiff, I was smiling. I thought, 'I need to move here.'"

Antony got a job at the city's Radisson Blu hotel before briefly working in Norway, where he came up with a popular recipe for sausage inside a deep-fried potato, and then Mykonos. But he soon found himself longing for Wales. "I have to say I missed it. I always say I love Wales and if it had just another 14 days of good weather each year, it would be a paradise."

He returned to his now-adopted country and worked a string of jobs including a period as head pastry chef at Newport's Celtic Manor, where he enjoyed working on projects like a ginger-bread house big enough for children to play inside. Despite his impressive CV, he believes humility has been important for his first street food venture. "The best chefs are speaking with their dishes, not with their mouth," he says. "The only things that make a difference are the quality and the consistency. If you achieve those things, everything else will come."

At the moment Antony has a staff of just one, fellow chef Dimitris Kamberis, but there are plans for a second Ya Souvlaki in Mad Dog Brewery on Castle Street and potentially a third elsewhere in Cardiff. There is no delivery option yet but Antony says the takeaway could be on Just Eat soon. You can read more of the latest food and drink news here.


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