In 1982, Despina and Clem Tsakalides opened Clem’s Chicken Shop in Newtown.
Their single-mindedness and dedication was hard to ignore, recalls their son Spiro. “We say to ourselves if we worked – if my brother and I and my sister worked exactly the same way they did – we’d all be divorced,” he says with a laugh.
Spiro was 19 when his parents first started filling the rotisseries with spice-basted barbecue chicken – but he wasn’t exactly a slacker. Sometimes he’d end up crashing behind the shop – on two planks of wood in the garage – because it was so late and it was too tiring to travel back to their home in Punchbowl. Once, he woke up to a flood of water, pouring from the residence upstairs – the occupants had forgotten to turn off their bathroom taps.
His brother Peter was only eight years old when the store opened, so his duties were minimal. But his sister, Barbara, aged 12, would arrive from school – and start serving customers straight away, even if she was too short to address them. “I’d stand on a milk crate and say, ‘who’s next, please?’”
Newtown was “a no-go zone” at the time, Barbara says. “I remember Peter once walking to school and he got rolled for his shoes.”
Of course, a lot has changed in the area over 35 years – but memories of their many customers still endure. There was Mustafa, known locally as ‘the butcher’ because of his blood-stained white apron and wild stare, who’d aggressively stop buses in the middle of King Street and demand free travel, then strut back down to do the whole trip again, terrifying pedestrians in his way. But when he saw their mother working by herself – while minding the children at the back of the store – he’d enter and, unprompted, assist her by filling the fridge.
Aboriginal activist Mum Shirl would come in, says Spiro, “asking dad if he could help, because she was going to take some chickens to the brothers who were in the jails”. His father was only too willing. “Dad understood what it was like, to be on the wrong side of favour.” (Decades earlier, when Clem was severely sick in a hospital in Kavala, Greece, two strangers intervened to save his life: a doctor who prescribed medicine that wasn’t freely available and a merchant who helped pay for it.)
Barbara says, “Arthur, my husband, told me this story about the first time he met my father. Someone grabbed a drink out of the fridge and started running out. Arthur started to go after him – and my dad put his hand on his shoulder and said, ‘He needs it more than we do, don’t worry about it.’”
The chicken shop’s customers have ranged from performer Carlotta, one of the inspirations for Priscilla: Queen of the Desert, to Yanis Varoufakis, whose 14-year spell as a Sydney University economics lecturer was followed by a brief stint as Greece’s Minister of Finance in 2015 (he famously rode off on his motorbike after dramatically quitting the government post). Varoufakis was searching for pastitio, moussaka and other Greek food – but ended up having long philosophical conversations with Clem. “It didn’t matter how busy the shop was,” says Spiro. Clem always had a weakness for getting deep into politics or other serious issues, even if it meant ignoring the shop’s growing queue.
Peter Jensen, the Anglican Archbishop of Sydney from 2001 to 2013, was another regular visitor. Saturday night was “Clem’s night” for the Archbishop’s family. “And when dad was dying, Dr Jensen came to the hospital to read him his last rites,” says Spiro.
If you walk into Clem’s today, you might see Spiro or his brother Peter serving customers. The counter still features dishes (coleslaw, Greek salad, potato salad) made to their mother Despina’s original recipes. But nowadays, no one has to sleep on wood planks in the garage to keep Clem’s running.
Clem’s Chicken, 210 King Street, Newtown. Hours 9am-10pm, 7 days a week. Phone: (02) 9519 6000. Full menu and catering details here: www.clemschickenshop.com.au