Gordon Ramsay is known to strike terror into the hearts of the young and hopeful chefs who come onto his show “Hell’s Kitchen,” and his abrasive style has reduced many a contestant to a quivering mass of tears. But chef Georgia Nicole Elizabeth Para Charalambous, a protégé of Ramsay’s who now helms the kitchen at mussels ‘N sausages on Ditmars Boulevard, said that the man — while not a loveable pussycat — is a gentleman, scholar and true craftsman of cooking.
“I learned not to be afraid, to go with the flow and not be shy,” she said during a recent interview at the charming Astoria bistro that has drawn rave reviews from critics. “He is nothing like the character you see on TV. He is a great craftsman. He is classically trained. You have to respect a person of his caliber. He didn’t just come out of the sky.” And she added: “He’s very sexy.”
Charalambous, who was born in Cyprus and grew up in Melbourne, Australia, spent three years under Ramsay’s tutelage after winning first prize in a reality TV show Ramsay was filming there called “Gordon Ramsay’s Personal Nightmare” about opening up a restaurant in a casino. She failed the first time she tried to get on the show.
“I think I spelled my name wrong because I was so nervous,” said Charalambous, now an Astoria resident and the executive chef at mussels ‘N sausages. “I think 300,000 people showed up the first time in this big auditorium. I went home and I was devastated.”
Eat this Plate
Ramsay didn’t find anyone on the first go round, so Charalambous tried again. And this time, not only did she spell her name right, she blew Ramsay away with her talent.
“It wasn’t scripted at all,” she said. “We were free to do anything. It was like four or five stages. I was always praying I wasn’t in the first group so I could go home and do my homework.”
She made it all the way to the finale and it was just her and four others — all men. The idea was to make food so good that he’d want to “eat the plate,” she said.
“He gave me a box of Hokken noodles, a piece of chicken, and salt and pepper and told me to come up with a spectacular dish,” she said. “I came up with a fried dish. When you fry the Hokken noodles, they turn into a nest. And my whole thing was that my food was so good, you can eat the plate. So I served him the plate” — by giving him an edible plate of fried noodles.
Ramsay told her that her palate was amazing. And she won the contest. The prize was to work at his restaurant for a year, but she ended up staying for three.
Falling in Love
She brings an old-world sensibility to her creations that she got from her mother and grandmother, but transmutes it into more modern cuisine.
“Growing up in a Cypriot family, my mother and my grandmother — they carried on their views. So even though they were in a foreign country, they thought they were still in Cyprus,” she recalled. “A traditional Cypriot woman needs to teach her daughter how to cook. So by the time I was 11, I knew how to cook — I just didn’t like it. I didn’t want to play the traditional female role: the housewife and all of that.”
But that all changed when she went traveling around the world, armed only with $900 and a pack on her back. She went to a great many places, including Southeast Asia and Europe. She especially loved Vietnam.
She traveled for about a year, working various jobs along the way.
“I needed to see the world,” she said. And something else momentous was happening. She was falling in love — with cooking and with what she could do with her imagination and her instincts.
“It wasn’t just the cooking,” Charalambous, now 34, recalled. “It was the creating using my palate. People used to say to me, ‘How do you eat this raw, and this cooked?’ I didn’t know what I was doing. It was instinct — a gut feeling.”
After her travels, she worked for a variety of eateries in Australia. But while she loved her life and career Down Under, New York beckoned.
“Everybody told me you have to come and work in New York at least once in your life,” Charalambous said.
She came to Astoria by way of Brooklyn.
“A Jamaican woman was opening up a great concept in Brooklyn, right on Malcolm X Boulevard,” she said. “It was supposed to be called The Khemistry Bar where people could meet and they create chemistry.”
But unfortunately it didn’t last long, and Charalambous wondered if it was time to go home. But she told herself, “I came here for a reason. New York is considered one of the food capitals of the world. I’m here anyways — let me do it for a year.”
She came across an ad for a job at mussels ‘N sausages, which is owned by Francis Staub, who also owns Le Coq Rico in Manhattan. It was for a role as a sous chef. But she walked out with an even better job: executive chef. And she has invented every dish on the menu.
Charalambous said she loves being part of the Astoria food scene: “It’s definitely growing,” she said. “I see all kinds of fusions and flavors happening. It’s not just traditional Greek food anymore.”
‘An Explosion of Beautifulness’
Charalambous is always trying to dream up new dishes at mussels ‘N sausages. The ingredients, she said, speak to her. Often she will come into the Astoria restaurant early, way before her shift begins.
“I don’t open up. I don’t cook anything,” she said. “I just look at them and think of the flavors that I like now. And then I go home and I do my thing. But it’s all cooking in the back of my mind. By the morning I wake up — and voila! I just wake up with the recipe and write it all down.”
Most recently, she invented a dish called Portugese Sausages.
What she really hopes is that when you walk out after eating her food and having had a completely unique experience.
“I want there to be an explosion of beautifulness in your mouth,” she said.