OPIA, Egyptian Tastes & the Greek Army: Ramses Hilton’s Executive Chef Dimitrios Koutsonikolas
Cairo 360 knows firsthand that hidden in the hustle and bustle of Downtown Cairo, the Ramses Hilton Hotel houses some quite unique restaurant; Indian eatery, Maharaja, is a multi-time Cairo 360 Editors’ Choice Award winner; Citadel Grill offers one of the best ranges of Mediterranean dishes in the city; Sherlock Holmes Pub recreates a classic British pub more authentically than most; BREEZES Lounge & Grill quickly became a summer favourite – and, most recently, OPIA, has been shining bright from the 36th floor as one of the most well-received new openings of 2017.
It’s no coincidence that we can be sure of; but particularly when we found out that behind the glitz and glamour of it all, one man has been orchestrating the hotel’s culinary successes – Executive Chef Dimitrios Koutsonikolas, who we got the chance to sit down with.
So, how does a Greek chef find himself in Egypt of all places?
I’ve been living in Cairo for the past fifteen years actually – fifteen years as part of the Ramses Hilton. I’ve worked in Egypt before, in Sharm El Shiekh and at the Taba Hilton as well.
Egypt is very close to me, especially the culture; we’re both Mediterranean countries and we have similar cultures. But since I drank from the Nile, I can’t stay away! I came for a short period of time at first for one or two years, then I stayed because I found a lot of work to do here.
I liked it, the people, tool; they treated me very well all these years over here. Even during the revolution, I was one of the few expats that stayed – so I’ve been here all the way.
OPIA is the latest project you’ve worked on – how was it different to others?
Well, OPIA is very special because this kind of venue can be tricky. We initially wanted to start it as a straight-out restaurant, but felt that Downtown Cairo was missing this kind of bar and lounge – one with great food – so we moved into that direction and I’m glad we did.
To me, this is the best view in town; you can see Tahrir, you can see the Nile, it’s beautiful and on a clear day you can even see the pyramids from here – it’s a really beautiful place to be. There used to be a bar here called Club 36 and we wanted to have a similar vibe, but with the twist of having really great food.
How much freedom do you have when creating the menu? Are there any factors that dictate the dishes?
Yes, there are certain elements that we used in order to cater to the Egyptian palate; for example, Egyptians are big meat-eaters and tend to like beef dishes – more than fish, chicken or anything else.
But at the same time, we have managed to create a menu that caters to all kinds of tastes – and this, in my view, is the real success.
All tastes? Even Greek?
I’m from Agrinio, Greece and I’ve lived in Athens, too – so I have introduced some Greek items and touches to the menu which have been very well-received.
Speaking of Greece, we here you were once a cook in the Greek army – has this in anyway shaped your career as a chef?
Yes! I was in the house of the top generals in Greece, I can’t say that it shaped how I cook, but the army mentality certainly helped. I have a brigade of 120 chefs here at the Hilton and the discipline and mentality to succeed no matter what is something I learned and have been able to pass onto the chefs – it can be difficult to manage large amounts of people from different regions and cultures.
Let’s wrap up with a couple of easy questions – what’s your favorite dish to prepare?
Fish! I love to cook fish, because it doesn’t take too much time and you can do so much with it in terms of flavour.
And what’s your favorite dish to eat?
Actually I eat simple things; I don’t go for complicated things, because here in hotels we always try to satisfy the customer with complicated items, so I try to as simple as I can.