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