Greek Australian Kathy Tsaples, owner of the Sweet Greek shop in Melbourne and author of two popular cookbooks has an inspirational story behind her success. It is one of a brave, courageous woman, who beat the odds and came out the other end shining brighter and living her dream.
A wife, mother and cancer survivor; Kathy has a lot to be thankful for and doesn’t take anything for granted, especially life.
Melbourne born and raised by her Greek immigrant parents, she grew up learning the fundamentals of life from her mother. Teaching her about cooking and Greek traditions, this helped mold Kathy into the woman she is today. A special close mother-daughter relationship gave her the tools and skillsets that would help her continue to carry on throughout her life. And Kathy has held on to these priceless memories, long after her mother’s passing.
The Sweet Greek founder started out as an Economics major, while cooking was something she always enjoyed and was passionate about, she never thought that someday her dream would turn into a career. Kathy’s life came to a staggering halt when she discovered that what she thought was “just a cyst”, was in fact stage 3 aggressive breast cancer. Her world would no longer be as she once knew it and she was thrown into a complete tailspin. The two and half years of battle against the disease involved numerous surgeries and endless treatments that would have the majority of Kathy’s time spent at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, otherwise known as Peter Mac. It was during the fight of her life that things began to change.
Kathy’s darkest, depressive and depleting moments throughout her cancer journey occurred whilst undergoing odious chemotherapy treatments. She tells GCT, “While going through my treatment I starting thinking about if something does happen like I had a sense of fear, what was I leaving behind for my boys? Worried how on earth are they going to cook? How will they know how to cook fasolakia or other Greek traditional dishes?” Truly a beautiful selfless thought-provoking moment of a mother’s love for her children and the concern of leaving a legacy behind for them, she realised she needed to start documenting her recipes.
That is what she started doing in the chemotherapy chair during her treatments, where she would take her notepad and start writing things down. Starting off with her life story, her journey, how she was raised, things her mother taught. “I remember the occasions where we would cook certain dishes and also the food that we prepared on certain occasions.” Knowing that she needed a purpose to focus on (outside of her family) she put pen to paper, which resulted in her first cookbook.
Throughout her chemotherapy, she would meet with her friend at Peter Mac Hostpital, who would challenge her with questions about what she was going to do with her life moving forward? Still riddled with pain and agony not feeling very optimistic or positive she would angrily reply, “Nothing, there’s nothing after this.” She was in the mindset that if she could survive another year or two and leave something behind for her boys, that was it. Kathy like most cancer patients believed that she would die and not survive the unwelcome fate that had invaded her body. However, her friend was not accepting that and told her that she was continuously going to be on her case whether she liked it or not. They had met at 17 years of age and continued a friendship ever since and she was not about to give up on her best friend at a time when she knew she needed her most. This friend became her strength and driving force with what was to come.
After all the chemotherapy finished and feeling utterly exhausted from all her surgeries and treatments she knew she now had to learn to care for herself and find ways to nourish and heal her body. Kathy knew she had to be okay and put on a brave face for her family, her boys and her mother who was frail at the time. Sadly her beloved father had passed away in the midst of her cancer journey but Kathy had never forgotten his words of wisdom and encouragement about holding on and persevering. She gave her father her promise of doing so before he died and recalls, “Ultimately there was another layer of anger and sadness that came over me and that I had to deal with.” Not long after her father’s death, she was then faced with another death. Her aunty, (her mother’s sister who had no children of her own) treated Kathy like a daughter and it was soon after she had to put her deteriorating aunty into a nursing home that dementia took her aunt’s life. Grief-stricken Kathy once again was confronted with another loss and more sadness, all whilst still dealing with her own health battle, so it wasn’t surprising that it all became too much for her. She took the next 6-8 months processing and dealing with all that had deeply affected her and in time push herself out of that dark place.
From all the unfortunate happenings Kathy realised she had to pull it all together and come through a new version of herself; like a rebirth. She was going to reinvent herself and her life, “This time around I was going to come through as a new Kathy, on my level, my standards on what I wanted in life.” Ironically around that time her dear friend (previously mentioned), found a spot at the market that she thought would be great for Kathy, and thought this would be an ideal space for her to start her food business. Coincidentally a mutual friend of theirs who was already established and successful in the food industry happened to be there that day and after discussing Kathy’s idea with him, he gave her a helping hand in the opening and setting up Sweet Greek in the Prahran Market. In exchange, he asked that she assist him with training his chefs to cook authentic Greek dishes, create a new Greek concept menu and run the entire production. That experience motivated and taught her what she needed to in order to run a successful business of her own.
It wasn’t until a year later he asked Kathy if she was now ready to take over Sweet Greek. She bit the bullet and hit the ground running. By that stage, she had regained her strength, was motivated, had a vision, a plan, and a dream and the notes that she had written in her chemotherapy chair, were pulled out and put into practice.
Her Sweet Greek shop quickly became a favourite in the Prahran Market and customers not only loved her food but loved the lady behind the store. It was by chance one day whilst chatting to one of her customers she asked him what he does for a living and he informed her that he was a publisher, to which Kathy jokingly said: “Well you should really publish my cookbook.” Interested to hear more about her idea and vision he continued the conversation and went on to ask Kathy if she could put something together for him. She did just that but never thought she would ever hear back from him. So inspired by Kathy’s story, her incredible passion, desire, and determination, he decided to publish her book and in 2014 Kathy’s first Greek recipe cookbook went to print.
After the launch of the book and the success that followed, Kathy hit a wall. Amongst all that was happening Kathy’s shop didn’t have a kitchen at that time, it was an old rundown shop. She would get home from work late, cook for her family, then prepare meals for the shop and transport them first thing in the morning. Kathy’s husband and children insisted she slow down and take care of herself not wanting anything to happen to her and the solution was to have a kitchen in her store and restructure it into a modern shop complete with a kitchen.
The financially difficult decision was made with the support and encouragement of her family and it paid off. The newly renovated shop was a huge success, then her second cookbook followed and now directly above her shop she is building a large commercial size kitchen due to the increase in the volume of cakes and demand in food. Kathy will hold her future cooking classes in this space and also where the family meals for customers (where a week's worth of delicious and nutritious Greek meals are delivered twice a week) will be prepared. That catering service in itself shows that all Kathy wanted to do was make sure people had access to beautiful Greek meals, “My mission was to make people embrace and enjoy the food as much as they do in Greece.”