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Q&A With Molyvos’s Jim Botsacos

Fifteen years is a long time for a restaurant to survive in New York City.  And it’s even longer for a chef to stay in the same kitchen (nevermind boast a 17-year marriage!). But Jim Botsacos has managed to keep midtown Greek,  Molyvos, relevant for over a decade.  With a brand new makeover and a new menu, Molyvos is better than ever.  When asked if he ever worries about being down the block from Mylos, he explains, “No – sometimes, having two Greek restaurants in a close proximity can be a good thing.  It brings people to the area for Greek cuisine and it can work to our advantage.”

Besides, Botsacos has another restaurant of his own just down the block, except his second  eatery, Abbocato, is Italian.  If you’ve ever wondered whether where his heart truly lies, with Greek or Italian cooking, he’ll will judiciously tell you that’d he’d “be a fool to choose.”  Instead, Botsacos has one foot in each kitchen as the executive chef and partner at both Molyvos and Abbocato. With his Greek and Italian heritage, it’s a natural fit and no surprise that vibrant Mediterranean flavors dominate his menus.  On any given night you can find him slicing into his favorite dish on the menu at Molyvos – baby lamb chops – or experimenting with longtime favorites like grilled baby octopus, lamb stew, skordalia-crusted swordfish or traditional Greek spreads. And with Molyvos undergoing a revamp right before its 15th anniversary, along with a burgeoning food line, “New Greek Cuisine,” there’s plenty to celebrate these days.

Happily married 17 years to my beautiful wife, Maria.

What age did you start cooking?
I’ve been cooking for as long as I can remember.  When I was just three years old, I used to sit and fish under the Throgs Neck Bridge.  When I caught one the first one, my dad turned to me and asked, “Jimmy, what are you going to do with that fish?” and I said “Take it home, cook it, and eat it!”

What was your first food-related job?
I started my first job in food when I was 16 at a bar and restaurant called the Fennimore Cooper Inn on Boston Post Road in Mamaroneck. When I walked into the interview, the owner was cleaning string beans and had me help him while he asked questions. He pointed to a board with various dishes and asked me if I knew how to cook any of them and I said I could cook them all. He ended up hiring me for $25 per day.

What did you learn?
That $25 a day is not nearly enough money to be working in the kitchen.

What’s your biggest kitchen disaster?
In 1998, we were cooking a special Greek Easter meal called, “The Breaking of the Fast.” I had ordered 7 whole lambs and they came in frozen solid the day before the big dinner. I took a few frantic phone calls to find fresh lamb in time.

You’ve worked with everyone from Alain Sailhac, Michael Lomonaco, Geoffrey Zakarian, Anne Rosenweig, to Daniel Bruce. Who and which situation has had the biggest impact on your career?
All of these Chefs taught me a great deal, but Alain and Michael were the two biggest influences on my career. Alain gave me my “shot” by hiring me right out of school, and it was the way he taught me that left the biggest impression. He would test my skills by approaching me with a certain ingredient, and telling me cook it a certain way. For example, he would approach me with a slice of steak, say “medium rare” and walk away. I’d have to cook it to his specifications, and then I’d bring it to him and wait for him to try it for approval.

After working at the 21 Club for seven years, you moved on to become the Executive Chef role at Park Avalon at the age of 24. What was it like to take on such a role at Park Avalon at such a young age?
I was up for the challenge. At that age, you are young, hungry and full of energy. It was a great experience for a 24 year old – I did everything including the hiring and firing, ordering and most importantly, I ran the kitchen.

You’ve cooked all kinds of cuisines, so what drew you to focus you career on Mediterranean cooking?
For me, Mediterranean cuisine was the food I grew-up on, and when I wasn’t eating it at home, I experienced it by eating at Mediterranean restaurants – both in New York, and during my travels to Greece and Italy. Also, in the 1980’s Mediterranean was hot – more Mediterranean restaurants opened during that time than I can even remember.

If you weren’t cooking Mediterranean, what would you be cooking?
I’d be flipping pizzas – (wait, is that considered Mediterranean?)

As the chef and partner in both Molyvos and Abboccato, you’ve got your hand in both Greek and Italian cooking. Add to that your Greek and Italian background and we have to ask… Greek vs. Italian, who wins?
I would be a fool to choose.

What was the impetus behind the revamp of Molyvos right before its 15th anniversary? Tell us about the makeover.
After 15 years, the restaurant was due for a revamp. The inspiration came from the villages and islands in Greece, with shades of gray and beige highlighted by Aegean blue and white color throughout the space. For me, the new look is timeless and classic.

Did you also makeover the menu as well?
We did tweak the menu a bit to make it more approachable. We went from a 3-fold leather bound menu to a more practical oversized single-paged menu; with new sections including a Greek Classics section for dinner.

Do you ever worry about being so close in proximity to Mylos?
No – sometimes, having two Greek restaurants in a close proximity can be a good thing.  It brings people to the area for Greek cuisine and it can work to our advantage.

As someone born and raised in New York, how has the dining scene changed over the years? Where would you like to see it go in the next five years?
I think today people are more conscience of their spending and everyone is looking for a good value. Within the next five years, I believe there will be an influx of restaurants that will focus on small plates and wine by the glass. Everyone wants something approachable, affordable, and value-oriented, and we strive to make sure Molyvos and Abbocato fit into those categories.

Describe your ideal meal at Molyvos?
For me, a perfect meal at Molyvos is all about tradition. It starts with a glass of ouzo (I prefer to have it on the rocks with a splash of water.) Then, I like to have a family-style meze and the traditional spreads such as taramasalata, melitzanosalata and tzatziki, alongside some fresh pita. I always have the Grilled Octopus, a Greek Salad and then either the Lamb Chops or Grilled Whole Fish, depending on my mood.

What’s your favorite dish on the menu right now?
One of my guilty pleasures is the Baby Lamb Chops – I frequently finish off my evening with them.

What’s your least favorite dish on the menu (and yes, you must pick one)?
If I have to pick, I’d say the Grilled Chicken Paillard on a Greek Salad. It’s one of those dishes I’m tired of, but the customers love it.

You’ve said, “I make sure that we offer food, atmosphere, service, and attention as it exists in Greece and Italy.” What did you mean by that and how do you think New York dining differs?
There’s just something about dining in Europe that makes you feel completely immersed in the experience; its so relaxing. Obviously, in New York, things are much more fast-paced and many people have a hard time letting go of the day-to-day stresses when dining out. Our goal at Molyvos and Abboccato is to use our resources to help our guests shut off the outside world and immerse themselves in the delicious food and overall experience – we want them to feel like they’ve stepped off the busy streets of New York City into Greece or Italy.

You’ve said you can never use too much olive oil. In your opinion, what makes a great olive oil?
Olive oil is like wine, everyone has a flavor profile that they prefer. I’m particularly fond of the Greek Olive Oils from the Peloponnese (Lakonia) region, which is where my own personal brand of olive oil “New Greek Cuisine,” comes from. The oil has a low acidity, buttery, green and grassy overtones, and gives roundness on the palate with a slight finish of pepper in the background.

How do you find the balance between preserving classic dishes while experimenting with modern interpretations?  
I don’t think that I take a classic and turn it up on top of its head. I look to take the essence of the classic and elevate it to new heights.

Other than your own, what are two of your favorite Greek restaurants? 
Recently, I enjoyed a nice meal at Boukies, a new Greek restaurant in the East Village. I’m also a fan of Barbounia’s Mediterranean cuisine with Greek influences, and living on the Upper West Side, I frequent Kefi as well.

Ruth Reichl once raved that you reminded her “how truly wonderful Greek food can be.” What are some stereotypes or predispositions about Greek food that you’d like to debunk?
First, I want to say how much I love Ruth Reichl for saying that. I think the biggest stereotype about Greek food is that it’s all about Moussaka and Souvlaki. At Molyvos, we strive to be so much more than that. From our long-time favorites like Grilled Baby Octopus, Lamb Yuvetsi, and traditional Greek spreads such as feta saganaki, sesame seed crusted didoni feta with fennel and watercress salad, and Meyer lemon spoon sweets, I think what we’re doing is here is really something special.

You’re kids come to you one day and tell you they want to be chefs. Are you terrified or thrilled?
If my kids wanted to become chefs, I’d have mixed emotions because I know how difficult a job it is and how much time you sacrifice away from your family.

Where do you want to be in ten years?
In ten years, I want to be fishing off of a boat near the Greek Islands.

What’s next on the horizon for you?

I’m looking forward to writing another book and expanding my food line, “New Greek Cuisine.”

You’re on your deathbed, sex or dinner?
Nothing is sexier than breakfast or dinner in bed…I think that says it all.

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