Sometimes being challenged by our greatest fear leads us to stepping into our greatest selves. The chance to interview the amazing Kathy Tsaples of Melbourne’s Sweet Greek, revealed the enormity of what can happen when we come face-to-face with that challenge and choose Love over Fear. This is a woman who’s experienced her fair share of adversity. An aggressive cancer diagnoses several years back presented her with an all-imposing fork in the road. There were only two options for Kathy: Give Up or Fight. She chose to fight. That fight led her back on the path she’d always wanted to pursue, but struggled to bring to life: Expressing her love and giving back to others through food. A friend once said to me: Paula, it’s a gift to hear someone’s story. I’ve never forgotten those words. It is rare to take the time these days and listen to eachother’s story. We rush, we struggle, we’re just too busy. But what we miss out on is the gift of what that story presents, the opportunity to recognise how universally entwined our narrative is and that just maybe, if we took the chance to listen, we might just recognise how impactful we can be to oneanother. Here’s Kathy’s story:
You faced a massive turning point a few years back that led you on a completely different trajectory. Tell me about how that experience came to shape you and launch you into pursuing your lifelong passion for cooking
About 7 years ago I was diagnosed with a very aggressive cancer and things weren’t looking good. They didn’t know how long I had, what was going to happen or if I was going to survive. When you’re delivered that news: fear sets in and love sets in. I gave up my career in investment banking, I gave up everything. My passion had always been food. But it never seemed the right time, it was just a vision and a dream. Diagnoses of cancer comes along and I had a 2 year period of chemotherapy. What kept me going was making sure that my boys had something to fall back on. That was fundamental to my existence and my family. I remembered my life through food and I wanted to pass that down to the boys. I started documenting family recipes that were in my head and I’d consult with my mum about regional dishes etc. I also started documenting and framing all the family history, so I had a family wall in our lounge room so the boys would know where they come from and who their family is and that they would always have food to fall back on. That was the core purpose of recording these recipes. When you’re undergoing chemotherapy you have a lot of time to think, plan, dream and pray and it was during one of those moments that I said to myself: Kathy, you’re going to pull yourself out of this and when you do, what you’re going to do is open up a beautiful food stall and your dream of offering people the food you love will finally happen after all these years…That became determination. That became passion. That, together with my family was the light that kept me going every single day.
What do you think it is about food that is such an inherent part of our human connection?
Food expresses Love. Food is the next best way, other than a hug and a kiss that I can express my love for a person. It’s not just the end product, it’s the journey. The process from start to finish means sourcing ingredients, starting the process of cooking, presenting it beautifully on the table with nice plates, cutlery and serviettes. It’s that entire journey of starting something off and then serving it.
The notion of delivering love through food, is such an inherent part of your story. As a cookbook author, having published two books, I’m intrigued at your approach to story and how that transforms what we’re creating, and why the value of story is such an important feature of how we express ourselves, whether that might be a meal or the next idea for a creative project:
When I wrote the first book: Sweet Greek, Simple Food & Sumptuous Feast it was important for me to share the story and journey of the migrant who came here with a vision and a dream and acknowledging the sacrifices they made.
My mother migrated here at 19 without having known how to cook everything at that age. So the factories became the recipe exchange of regional dishes for migrants. I wanted to share this story through my first cookbook. Everything that we have and see around us today is because of their efforts. I felt I owed it to them to keep their legacy alive. The first cookbook was also about celebrating my awakening and pursuing my dream. Knowing at the age of 52 that it was now or never. I had nothing to lose. I’ve never been happier. I feel the cancer journey made me better at what I do. I don’t take anything for granted. I treasure every moment that I have.
Where does that determined mindset of yours come from, have you always been like that?
As a family we’ve faced a lot of adversity. But in life, we’re presented with challenges. Some are good, some are bad, some are ok. It’s a question of how you approach things – how you take these challenges, embrace them and deal with them and then how you move forward. If you take the poor me attitude, you’ll go nowhere and you’ll achieve nothing. You’ll shrivel up like a little prune in your four walls, sad, miserable and bitter. But if you embrace it and recognise that this is what you’ve been dealt with, then you find a way to move on from and do what you have to do. I’m never scared about the challenges I face now, especially when it comes to the business. The minute you become scared, you become defeated. If fear controls you, you become paralysed. It’s taken me many years to not feel scared and wisdom and age has helped. You need to develop strength, courage and belief in yourself, it happens bit-by-bit.
Who are your personal mentors and how have they come to influence what you want people to experience through the world of Sweet Greek:
Without a doubt, the primary mentor for me in my life was my mother. Through all her adversity, no matter what she was going through, her first objective would always be: What will I cook for my family today? It was making sure over and above anything else, that she had a meal ready for her family. Cooking for her family was her purpose, to nurture her family. I’ve never forgotten that. That’s how I was raised.
What’s been the most rewarding thing about following your passion?
Apart from the passion that I had of cooking traditional Greek cuisine and introducing it to people in a way that was homely and loving, the other thing has been expressing my love to all my customers. Most of my customers are non-Greek, but there’s a small percentage who are elderly and for one reason or another can’t cook or are completely on their own. I want to nurture them and allow them to be able to connect to the food that we all have thanks to them. My accountant used to say to me at the beginning of the business: Kathy I don’t know why you’re doing this, you’re not making any money. And I would say: I’m paying my bills and I’m paying my staff, that’s all that matters, leave the rest to me, I’ll figure it out. Not everything in life is about money. Giving back to my community, especially to the elderly who don’t have anyone in their life to support them, that’s the greatest reward for me. And being in service to my community, that’s the essence of Life.
Happy travels, Paula x
Get your home cooked Mediterranean hit and visit Kathy’s gorgeous shop in Melbourne HERE