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Michael Psilakis

Greek Cuisine Revisited

by Francine Cohen

They say that you should beware of Greeks bearing gifts. But if Michael Psilakis’ theory is true - that all chefs are gift givers – then Christmas came early when Psilakis opened the doors to two new restaurants, Kefi and Anthos.

Opening one restaurant is a big challenge for any chef. And if opening one restaurant is a challenge then it would seem that closing two (Onera and Dona) and opening two (Kefi and Anthos) almost simultaneously would land most chefs in the loony bin. But not Psilakis, who saw this new pair of restaurants as two unique opportunities to showcase Greek cuisine and express everything he loved about the food he grew up cooking and enjoying with the large extended family he describes as straight out of “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.” Psilakis, 37, grew up in a tightly knit community of Greek aunts, uncles, cousins and friends who based their social lives around the church and activities like folk dancing. For proof, next time you’re at Kefi see if you can spot the picture of the chef in his younger days, clad in native costume and balanced atop a bottle. This Long Island native and first-generation American is just a few years into his cooking career, yet he has already garnered numerous accolades, with his dishes turning up on “best of” lists around town.

But award winning food aside, Psilakis opened Kefi and Anthos to share his love for the food he grew up eating and to encourage others to explore and appreciate the variety of regional dishes that come from his parent’s homeland. The food he’s sending out of his kitchen is the next generation of Greek cuisine, an adaptation of classic dishes handed down for centuries. Psilakis stands at the forefront of the Greek cuisine breakthrough, helping Greek food go beyond the diner standards and take its rightful place among the respected regional cuisines of other nations. “For me it is fun to see that transition, the basis that is rooted in peasant food,” he says. “My goal is to give it identity and give people a choice. Greek food is as regional as Italian. The islands were influenced by so many visitors. Kefi is what I am identifying as the Greek food of my youth. Anthos draws from inspirations I’ve had in my life as a young Greek American.”

Another inspiration for Psilakis’ efforts to enlighten diners about Greek cuisine has been the success of fellow chefs Mario Batali and Jean-Georges Vongerichten, food revolutionaries who opened minds to the vast appeal of their own cuisines. Psilakis sees the explosion of Italian restaurants that went beyond parmesan and carbonara once Babbo came on the scene, and notes the impact that Jean-Georges’ French-Asian fusion cooking has had on the industry. He hopes to make a similar mark. “At some point if I’m able to look back and say you were the guy who started the way Greek people look at Greek food, the guy that started that change, like it was Anthos or it was Onera that you can trace that back to, that would be good,” Psilakis says. “Kind of like Mario Batali and what he did to Italian food, and I don’t think there’s any cook in New York City that’s not doing something that Jean-Georges created. So if I can say that I’ve been able to accomplish the same thing with Greek food that these other guys have done with their genres of food, that’s an amazing thing.”

Anthos has been open for just a few weeks, Kefi for only a couple of months, and from both kitchens Psilakis is providing a showcase for what Greek food can be. He is cutting through the clutter of retsina, moussaka, and spanakopita that crowd other Greek restaurant menus by looking at food the same way his ancestral scholars like Socrates approached philosophical problems; investigating the elements of the dish before him and figuring out how he can deconstruct it, then recreate it in a whole different light and still be true to its meaning. Psilakis holds true to the flavors and ingredients of his native cooking but presents it in a way that can only be described as inspired. Some may wonder if it’s still Greek food if it doesn’t look like the familiar dish they’ve ordered at the corner diner all these years, but if it walks like a duck and talks like a duck then it must be a duck. When asked about whether or not his food can be recognized as Greek Psilakis calls upon what he calls the blindfold mom test – if he cooks something and could feed it to his mother and she would identify it as something she would cook, with the same flavor profiles, he’s succeeded. This approach allows him to provide an authentically rustic experience at cozy Kefi and an artfully authentic, yet elegant presentation at the sleek and refined Anthos.

Art is only as good as the interpretation of your guide and the menus at both restaurants were designed with their diners and staffs in mind. Without losing the identity of all that makes the food Greek, Psilakis set out to make the menu accessible to diners who were not 100% familiar with Greek cuisine and still illuminate what they could expect to be served. Menus are written with the ingredients front and center and the proper Greek name of the dish taking a back seat. The chef hopes that diners will be open to asking questions about the Greek food they may not be familiar with. And his staff is extremely well prepared to answer these questions, from as simple as how something is prepared to the geography and topography of the land where the grapes were grown for the Greek wines that fill the wine lists. This opportunity for dialogue means that someday avgolemeno might become as familiar a term as parmesan.

Psilakis’ interpretations create seemingly familiar and completely appealing dining experiences. At Anthos, classic dishes are updated for modern day palates and presentation. For instance, he’s transformed a classic baked dish into a raw appetizer. “I have a dish that served as raw shrimp with cheese and tomatoes,” he explains. “Now, this is a very traditional dish. It’s baked shrimp with tomatoes and feta cheese, and every Greek restaurant in New York City is serving this dish. It’s a very, very simple rustic dish. We’re serving it raw with tomatoes that have been dehydrated, feta cheese and a tomato consommé that’s been seasoned with tomato vinegar reduction. We’ve taken this little tiny simple rustic dish and we’ve refined it to become this. All of the plates have some sort of representation like that.”

Traditional Greek food isn’t the only thing in Psilakis’ restaurants that is being represented in a brand new way - wines are getting the same attention. At Kefi, the wine list is surprisingly all Greek, and at Anthos fine Greek wines are mixed in with vintages from around the world. Psilakis is proud to introduce his diners to hidden gems in the wine world and represent Greece’s new wine tradition carried on the shoulder of 2nd generation wine growers who are bottling varietals that are indigenous only to Greece. Wonderful wines that have not been bottled and marketed before and are, according to Psilakis, seriously world class and undervalued simply because of the lack of knowledge about them.

With Anthos and Kefi on the scene we’re all about to learn some delicious new lessons.

NYRI: Was food a big part of your life growing up on Long Island?

Michael Psilakis: I grew up on Long Island in a town called East Northport. We had a big backyard with a BBQ - a monument built in our backyard out of brick for roasting whole animals. “My big fat Greek wedding” was really my life. We would have at least 10 parties a year where there would be over 200 people at my house, and we would roast 5 or 6 lambs at a time. My dad went to a farm in New Jersey and he picked up a live goat and a live lamb, brought them back to our house, and they were running around the backyard. Every day I was coming home from school and we were chasing them and playing with them. And then Easter came and he said “ok, let’s catch one.” I remember it was very hard, and the goat was impossible, and so I finally jumped on the lamb. Next thing I know he cut its throat, and now the animal was just shaking and there was blood coming out. I was crying hysterically. My dad picks me up and puts me on his lap and he says, “Why are you crying?” I said, “Well, you just killed my friend!” And he said to me, “Every night when we sit down to eat, I want you to understand that something had to die just like this lamb had to die in order for that food to be there on the table every night, and you have to honor the death of this animal. I was 11 years old, but it made a lot of sense to me.

NYRI: you began your cooking career in a rather unusual way, because the restaurant you owned and ran the front of the house, Ecco in Long Island, had its chef call in sick, tell me about that experience?

Michael Psilakis: I remember that the day that chef didn’t show up for work was not a good day. But I remember being frustrated at myself because I felt that, here I am the owner of this restaurant, and I rely so much on this individual called chef that I’m really at their whim. And at that moment, I just decided that it won’t happen again. I never really thought that I was going to stay back there, I just thought that what I have to do is get to the point where no matter what, I can tell anybody “you can leave.”

NYRI: When was it that you began to realize that you felt more natural in the kitchen?

Michael Psilakis: I remember I was reading André Soltner’s cookbook, and there was one story in particular that just kind of struck home for me. He said that people often ask him about food and creating and seasoning and cooking and all these other things. And they ask “how do you know how to do all these things, how do you know?” And he answered “I just know.” For whatever reason, somebody put a piece of meat that I never saw in front of me and I just knew what I had to do with it. I don’t know why, it’s hard to explain. I remember there were times where we would be roasting meat on the bone and I would have 20 or 30 sirloins in the oven all with different temperatures, all working at the same time. And there’s really not that much time to sit down and prick something and feel something, so after a while, you just started to listen. And the pan would tell you. And young cooks would get really crazy like “what are you talking about.” I’d say, just listen to the pan, listen to the sizzle. Listen to what the pan is saying. It will tell you when it’s ready.”

NYRI: It’s obvious that your Greek upbringing was a very strong influence in your life, and has helped define who you are and what where you have taken you cuisine.

Michael Psilakis: I had a very difficult time growing up here in the United States in the vacuum of Greece that my parents wanted me to grow up in. I mean I really was not allowed to socialize with people that were not Greek. Church was a center of our universe, and the Greek community was everything. I danced in a Greek dance group for 15 years, with traditional costume. I have a picture of me at Kefi where I’m in this costume that’s 3 generations old. And it was given to me by my father through his father through his father, and that will go to my son. So it will be 5 generations of men from the Psilakis family of New York. Greeks are like Italians, we have so much pride in who we are. And we’re very close to one another. I have a Greek kid that’s working as a cook in my kitchen that I just have a natural affinity for. I mean I can’t help myself; it’s like an instant connection, because he knows the pain as well.

NYRI: How did begin planning the menu for Anthos?

Michael Psilakis: When I write menus, it’s funny how I do it, I try and envision different people that I know in my life that I’m friendly with, either friends or relatives. I pick them specifically for the genre of food that they enjoy eating. So I’ll write a menu and then I sit down and have these 10 people in my head. Different dynamics, totally different demographics, and you know what they enjoy eating and what they would like to see on the menu. The goal is to be able to open up that menu and have each one of those 10 people be able to find something that they would enjoy having. They’re real people. My wife would be one of them. My mother-in-law is one of them.

NYRI: Was the menu at Onera conceived the same way?

Michael Psilakis: When I thought about Onera, I said to myself that we’re going to separate food into 2 different categories. One was going to be something that was going to be revisited. And one was going to be something that was inspired. Revisited meant that I was taking a very traditional dish and revisiting it. So moussaka and changing it to become a representation of moussaka through my kind of experience and how I looked at it, how I could capture the essence of it and yet make it something that was going to be new.

NYRI: What are some of the things you like to achieve with your dishes?

Michael Psilakis: The thing that’s the most interesting to me is when you have the ability to control the entire evolution of that particular dish in the palate at one time. So if you can get somebody to eat one bite of something that’s composed, then what will happen is you start to eat it, and things happen and you start to taste everything. Then you continue to chew and then all of a sudden, it went from that, now to this. And then you continue and then it becomes something else. And that evolution, that flavor profile, is the rush for me.

NYRI: What characteristics do you look for when you hire cooks for your restaurants?

Michael Psilakis: There are some people that are working because they chose to cook. They come in everyday, they punch a clock, they leave. I don’t want that guy in my kitchen. I want someone who’s going to bleed for what they’re doing. I want someone who’s going to take everything that they do to heart and will care beyond what is normal for food. I don’t think that the average person looking from the outside really understands the love affair that a cook has with his food. It’s almost perverse in certain ways because it’s food in the end; it’s just a plate of food. But the lengths that we go to prepare it and the sacrifice that you make to be involved in what we’re doing is unbelievable.

NYRI: Did you work hard to make sure your cuisine is identifiable as “Greek?”

Michael Psilakis: One of the difficult things when you talk about Greek food is how do you capture the intellectual aspect of what you’re doing when the foundation of knowledge that’s critical to understand the evolution is not there. So there has to be an explanation from the base to get to the next level. With other genres of food, let’s say Italian for example, if you’re doing veal parmesan and you were reinterpreting that, people will know what veal parmesan is. So it’s a lot easier to understand or to see that change. It’s critical to have the ability to maintain the definition of being a Greek restaurant. I think that what that does is it forces you to work within the framework of an identity that will allow you to say that “this is still a Greek restaurant.” The difficulty is that if I was in Greece, the freedom that I would have to reinterpret or revisit Greek food is that they have the foundation that allows somebody to say “oh my God, I understand what this is. I really understand what this is. Yes, this is Greek food.”

NYRI: How much time do you spend looking for the right ingredients for your menus?

Michael Psilakis: I think right now that’s probably one of the most critical things that chefs do is sourcing. Sourcing takes a tremendous amount of time, and the development of relationships with these people is very, very important. What we do is we start a relationship with a farmer and then that farmer knows another farmer. And this guy specializes in this and this guy specializes in that and you say “I’m looking for a really great country smoked ham, super smoked, like smokehouse down-south smokey, smokey bacon.” And he says oh yeah, he’s down the road from me, I’ll give you his number. And then the next thing you know you’re talking to this guy, then two days later the magic of UPS delivers this smoked side of pork, and you can smell the smoke coming out of the box as the driver is bringing it into the restaurant.

NYRI: What advice do you think you have to give as a result of your experiences in this industry?

Michael Psilakis: I think if I could tell anybody anything that I’ve learned over my life is that when I was younger my dad said to me, “Pick one thing, whatever that thing is that you really love to do. Just pick one thing and do that and be great at that one thing. It doesn’t matter what it is. But pick that one thing. And you have an opportunity; you have a chance to be great”. I think to be great at something is not an easy thing to do especially in today’s world. And if you don’t have a serious passion for the choice that you made, you can’t compete with someone who’s doing something out of love and passion. No matter how smart you are, no matter how hard you work, that other person will die for what they’re doing.

 





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