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Canberra’s Pizza Pioneer

I spoke in parliament today about the passing of James Savoulidis, who emigrated to Australia from Greece in the 1930s.

James Savoulidis, 7 February 2013

I rise to pay tribute to James Savoulidis, known as ‘Gentleman Jim’, who passed away on 20 December last year at the age of 93. Gentleman Jim was Canberra’s pizza pioneer. He was born in Greece, grew up during the Great Depression and was sent to Australia in 1938 by parents who wanted a better life for him. In 1959 he settled here in Canberra and opened a number of businesses, including the Mondial Night Club in East Row. He helped many Greek families who migrated to Australia get established in Canberra. In 1971 he established the Plaka restaurant in Mawson, where Prime Minister Gough Whitlam was a regular patron. As I noted in my first speech to this place, it was James Savoulidis who taught Gough Whitlam to dance the Zorba.

He was painted by local artist Peter Engel—a painting which hung proudly in my local café in Hackett, Wilbur’s. Wilbur’s is one of the many fine dining establishments that have been set up by James Savoulidis’s sons who have followed him into the business. To bring pizza to Canberra in the 1960s was tougher than it is today. This was a more white-bread city, one which lacked the cultural diversity that we now appreciate. James Savoulidis was an innovator and a risk taker. He has a great entrepreneurial spirit and the wishes that his parents had for him when they sent him to Australia from Greece at the age of just 18 were, I think, greatly fulfilled.

His son, Steven Savoulidis, wrote to me and, after modestly telling me that I did not need to speak in parliament about his father at all, said:

‘… he had a long and great life, of which 3/4 of a century was here in OZ. He always told us the best thing his parents did for him was to send him to AUSTRALIA. He said “if you put in the effort, respect people, have respect for yourself, you will get everything you’ll ever need from Australia” he loved it here. We were lucky to have him and call him our father.’

With the passing of James Savoulidis, we lose the second of two great Canberra culinary pioneers, the other being Augustin ‘Gus’ Petersilka, who passed away in 1994. They were for a period both in Garema Arcade—Mr Savoulidis on the Garema Place side, Gus on Bunda Street.

While James Savoulidis fought for pizza and the Zorba, Gus was fighting for open-air dining. It was Gus who engaged in legendary battles with local Canberra bureaucrats over the right to put tables on the footpath. They thought footpaths were for walking; he felt that it added to the character of the place to have outdoor eating. History, I think, has proven Gus right. He petitioned the Queen and said he was willing to go to jail for his right to have tables on the footpaths. Eventually he was made Canberran of the Year in 1978. Many Canberrans know him through Gus’s Cafe in Garema Place. Gus himself said, in an interview in the Canberra Times, ‘I had a fair go’. In the same interview, he went on to say:

‘To the Viennese, homes are only to sleep; the coffee house is their home away from home.’

This is a recognition that so much of the social capital in Canberra, which is indeed the nation’s social capital, occurs in our cafes and restaurants. Our vibrant cafe and restaurant scene is not just a matter of increasing total GDP; it is about improving the social connectedness of Canberra. Having great restaurateurs and great local establishments has made Canberra a so much more exciting city in which to live.

We are greatly in the debt of Gus and greatly in the debt of the late James Savoulidis. My condolences go to Mr Savoulidis’s widow, Helen; his sons, Steven, Nasi and Andrew, and their partners, Vicky, Geraldine and Cherie; and his grandchildren, James, Eleni, Crystal, Dimitri, Kasia and Jasmine. Rest in peace, James Savoulidis.

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