Mention Greek cuisine and most New Yorkers immediately think Michael Psilakis. So does Obama. The President invited him to cook at the White House for Greek Independence Day dinner. He’s come a long way from serving ice cream at Carvel.
How did Psilakis brand himself in Greek cuisine? He introduced us to the simplicity, bold flavors and rich ingredients Greece has to offer. And at Anthos, he modernized it and developed his own style mingling Greek with modern cooking and other influences. Kefi, his casual Greek spot on the UWS, was so popular, that he and co-owner Donatella Arpaia relocated into a much larger space.
It all started while he was running a restaurant called Ecco. One night a chef pulled a no-show and that was the beginning of a career in the kitchen for Psilakis. It hasn’t been an easy road, but he managed to bounce back from two shuttered restaurants (Dona and Onera.) Now he has bragging rights over four restaurants of his own. He is the executive chef at Greek restaurant Eos in the Viceroy Miami hotel and is prepping for the opening a gastropub called Gus & Gabriel.
Married, for almost 11 years. But I’ve known my wife for about 18 years.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
I’m still trying to figure that one out. My ultimate goal was to provide for the family. I came from am old fashioned Greek house, men were providers, I was the first born and was therefore bred to be the one to take care of the family. This was and is still the most important thing to me.
What was your first job in food? What did you learn?
When I was 13, I got a job as an employee at Carvel. A year later when I was 14 I was promoted to manager. From a young age it taught me about responsibility, customer relations, and customer service. The development of relationships with patrons lays the foundation for successful business and it lays the foundation for what we do at the restaurants today, believe it or not.
We heard you cooked for the White House’s annual Greek Independence Day event. How did you get picked? You must be bouncing off the walls….
I received a phone call from Greek Orthodox Archdiocese. One of the priests there, Father Alex, who is the White House liaison, asked if I’d like to participate in Greek Independence Day by cooking the meal for the event. I obviously responded with a resounding “Yes!” It was a great offer, a once in a lifetime opportunity not only to be cooking at the White House but to be representing Greek food for Independence Day and to display Greek food to the larger national audience.
Tell us about your childhood in a Greek household. What dishes and flavors do you use in your restaurants?
Everything I cook is a reflection on the meals my mother made for the family. Her job was to be a housewife and mother, and part of the job description was to make dinner for her and her family. She took a tremendous amount of pride in cooking for herself and her family. Most of the flavors she used shapened my palate: the fact that she put a tremendous importance on the food itself. It was always a major part of everything we did: whether it was a happy celebration or a sad event, food was always something that was present. It was the one thing I felt brought some sort of consistency to our lives. We used it as a crutch. From a young age you realized it was a gift, and this foundation resonated in everything I do in the kitchen as a chef.
You began your back of the house career when your chef at Ecco didn’t show up. What was going on in your head?
It wasn’t a good day. It was a black day as far as I was concerned. Looking back now it was an unbelievable lucky thing that happened. But on that day it was not a good thing. I owned a restaurant and I relied on the chef, he did not come to work, and I had to take on his responsibility. I am glad it happened now because it put me where I am now, but it was a hard, long road as it was happening. It was a difficult situation, but what came out of it was me finding where I should be and what I should be doing. There are a few of us that are allowed to do the things we love and make money out of it; and for me that’s what cooking is.
Not too long ago you revamped Kefi. Why the change, and anything you wouldn’t do again?
I wouldn’t change a thing about the new Kefi. Kefi was designed to bring Greek food to the masses. Take the ethnicity out of Greek food and bring it to mainstream. I’ve always thought Greek food should be next to Italian food in the culinary world. Italian food was able to break through boundaries and become accepted as mainstream. I feel Kefi was able to do this with Greek food, and I hope people will look back and think “This is the start of Greek food.” We are a showcase to American people what Greek food is: simple, clean flavors with recognizable ingredients that taste very good.
If you could do it all over again, would you go to culinary school?
Yes. I think it is important. I think education is paramount to one’s understanding of anything. You can learn techniques. You can learn how to make a dish. You can learn how to take part in the business activity by not going to school, but you won’t be able to ask questions. School allows that. It allows the curiosity to be satisfied and fulfilled. It ultimately allows the growth and success of the individual.
You have a BBA in accounting and finance. How have you used that to your advantage during the recession? What steps have you taken to ensure your restaurants thrive?
We knew that an unfortunate economic situation was inevitable. We started about a year and a half ago getting ready, but no one could see the global effect that would occur, so that created more variables than we had originally anticipated. But what we did was try to diversify ourselves in the price points in what we were offering. Mia Dona was the first. We moved Kefi to a larger venue, and ultimately concluding in the opening of Gus and Gabriel in the next few weeks. I think the interesting thing about these decisions was not only that we were we looking at value (giving guests quality associated with what we do), but to give value in the price point, and to give value in the economic situation. We also moved from just Greek to Italian and then American. I felt the diversity in food choices would insolate us from the economic turmoil that was forecasted.
How do you believe Greek cuisine has changed and developed since you first opened Ecco?
I think the thing that’s the biggest about Greek food now is that people have started to become familiar with Greek cuisine. The most difficult, differentiating thing is the foreign alphabet. The fact that you’re not using a Latin alphabet creates difficulty. We made the decision to write the dishes in English at Kefi, and it’s made a huge difference. Instead of “tzoutzoukakia,” we wrote “meatballs” on the menu and that already made a difference in recognition and education. People are becoming more educated about Greek food and I hope we had a part in that. The more people become educated in Greek food, the more they reflect on it, and in turn, the more evolved it becomes. We were able to work on this and it paid off when ultimately awarded a Michelin Star at Anthos.
To which style of cooking do you have the deeper attachment: the simple, homestyle fare of Kefi or the more elegant dishes of Anthos? Why?…
I think there’s a place for both of them. I don’t have a preference; I enjoy both for different reasons. Simple peasant food has a more living appeal; it reminds me more of home, of family, of comfort. Whereas haute cuisine is more of a cerebral interaction: the chef takes emotional interactions to create or capture identity. He uses this interaction to capture the soul of the dish or country on a plate to allow the diner to take a journey. The dishes allow people to think. This thought process is an artistic representation. Peasant dishes are more artisan; haute cuisine is an artist at work.
In what ways does Mia Dona pay tribute to Dona?
The most obvious way is it’s Italian cuisine, which is her culture and background. What I tried to do there was create dishes I felt were going to create an identity. In order to do this, I tried to take something and reflect on it in a different way. I wanted to use her identity as an Italian American, as a young business woman, and look at her life and lifestyle and take the idea of being Italian in the vacuum of New York City, and see what would come out of that. It was labeled a first generation restaurant, and that’s so important to me because there’s such an intimate tie to the country your parents left, but now this country, it’s yours, so capturing both is an important duality.
What were the challenges of buying and opening your own restaurant, in the case of Ecco? Has it become any easier over the years?
The biggest challenge was that I was young and didn’t have the money, resources, or knowledge. All this has changed and this has allowed it to become easier. Opening is now difficult but it is also the most exciting part of the business; creating something new. I liken it to the birth of a child. You create an identity, you create goals, and an image of what you hope it will achieve. Then like a child it takes those lessons and goes where it wants to go, and you change along with it. You understand the maturing of a restaurant and the integrity of what the restaurant wants to become.
What culinary trends do you embrace?
I’m not really a culinary trend person. I kind of cook from the heart and where that takes us… I kind of just cook what I feel, and that’s it.
What culinary trends do you wish would just die already?
I think there’s a place for all trends, just like everything else sometimes a trend becomes boring because you see it too much. Like a song that gets played too much, there is food you just get tired of eating. Instead of being negative about it I try to see why the trend became popular. Food is a very personal thing; what I think is boring or old you may think is exciting or monumental, so I’m going to leave that one alone.
What is your favorite dish on the menu at all three of your restaurants?
Anything raw at Anthos is my favorite medium of food to work in at that type of restaurant because it allows me to control the palate experience from beginning to end.
Mia Dona- Spaghetti and meatballs. It’s so difficult to create a dish that people really enjoy unilaterally that reflects on something they have fun childhood memories of. It’s always hard to compete against mom- but this one did a good job.
Kefi- Tseftalia Cypriate sausage: made of lamb and pork served with pita and a classic tzatziki sauce.
Any least favorite dishes (and yes, you must pick one)?
That’s a silly question- honestly if I didn’t like a dish I wouldn’t put it on the menu. If I wasn’t proud of a dish I wouldn’t put it on the menu.
Do you ever get the hankering for some greasy diner-grade Greek food? A slice of spanakopita perhaps?
Yes, but instead of going to the diner, I go to my mothers and she cooks a really good version of it. Not to knock diners- I think there is a place and a time for everything and the Greek food that’s represented out there (Greek-American) is part of the evolution of Greek food and it has exposed a lot of Americans to it [Greek food] and this has allowed me to take it as a basis and move forward from it. So not only do I get a hankering for it, but I believe it is necessary and has allowed me to evolve from it.
Any prospective restaurants or projects on the horizon? Spill the beans….
I think that my goal (and I haven’t been quiet about letting people know that is something I want to do and need to do) is open a restaurant in Greece. It’s something I will do before I hang up the apron and move on with my life. This is something I’m hoping to accomplish in the next year.
Kefi Address: 505 Columbus Ave. (nr. 84th St.)
Phone: (212) 873-0200
Anthos Address: 36 W. 52nd St. (nr. 5th Ave.)
Phone: (212) 582-6900