I had been trying for weeks to set up an appointment with Aris Tsanaklides, the chef of Kuzina, one of Athen’s top restaurants. It was February and I had it on my mind since October to interview him. But things just always came up. This time I wasn’t going to re-schedule, even in the midst of a snow storm. I was going no matter what.
When I got off the train it was snowing hard and an an icy wind was freezing my nose, something so rare for Athens. The clouds above my head were of a pinkish hue. Snow clouds my father used to call them. Andrianou street was empty save for a stray dog and a few tourists running around looking a bit shell shocked but with cameras in hand. What the heck can you photograph in this weather I thought to myself. And then, as I passed Saint Philip’s church on my right hand side and the Ancient Agora on my left I saw it. It was the sacred rock, the Parthenon’s silvery white marble columns, cloaked in big feathery flakes of glorious snow. I stood there like a pillar of salt thinking that I may never in my entire life see something like this again. It wasn’t until I started losing sensation in my fingers and toes that I started walking again. But my head couldn’t resist turning back every two or three steps.
When I walked in to Kuzina Ari was waiting for me sitting at the “staff” table, his spectacles resting on the roof of his nose checking his messages on his phone. “You’re late”, he gently reprimanded. Ari has a thing about punctuality. “I was looking at the Acropolis in the snow”, I said but it didn’t seem to get me off the hook.
“So where do you want to start?” I asked. “Let’s just talk like we always do and see what comes out”. And talk we did, as we always do. I have known Ari all of my life. He is my mothers baby brother making him only a few years older than me. We were roommates for a while in Los Angeles. He cooked. I cleaned. I definitely got the better end of that deal.
“Let’s talk about food”.
He smiled. That was so easy. Easy for both of us. We were both lucky to be raised in an environment surrounded by phenomenal cooks.
I let Ari begin, and he began, from the beginning – Thessaloniki. He was born and raised there, I just visited in the summers with my parents, but my memories remain vivid.
Ari brought the smells, colors and sounds of the Modiano food market back to life and how the shopkeepers feared my grandmother because she was a very shrewd and finicky customer.
“Do you remember Mrs. Mirka”, he asked. I remembered Mrs. Mirka, her flaming red hair, her deep laugh, her colourful plush carpets and how her apartment always smelled so good. She lived next door to my grandparents and was a close friend of my yiayia. She was from Belarus.
“She had a samovar and on cold nights she would invite us all to tea with delectable cold cuts and exotic cheese. Your Yiayia would bake some bread and butter cookies and we would have a feast. And the tea was always incredible. I have never had tea like that before” Ari said with a nostalgic gleam in his eye.
Kuzina was filling up. It was a cold Tuesday night and the snow was still swirling outside, but people kept coming in. Ari had one eye on the floor and the other in the kitchen. A waiter passed by with something that looked like an edible Gauguin painting. Ari took a look to make sure everything was presented properly.
Ari left Thessaloniki when he was 16 to join my mother in the States. He studied Political Science but soon his love of food trumped his love of history and diplomacy so he decided to continue his studies at the Culinary Institute of America. He never stayed in one place long, always having a desire to taste and try something different. This wanderlust lead him to cooperate with some of the most well know restaurants in Washington, New York, Los Angeles, the Virgin Islands, Mexico, Hong Kong and Japan.
When we shared a house in West Hollywood he was just getting into Pacific Rim cuisine and I was quite often the lucky guinea pig. When my friends got wind of it they eagerly signed up for humane lab testing. Ari has traveled and worked in some of the most exotic places in the world. He has the most well traveled palette of any one I know. But everywhere he went, and everywhere he cooked he kept the flavors of Greece with him. He told me of this horrendous steak house he worked at in Washington – one of his first jobs as a chef. He couldn’t believe how bad they cooked! “They used to make soup from a can”, he said utterly revolted. “One day I said enough of this crap and I made them a lamb fricassee with wild greens that I had found myself at some Greek grocers in D.C and showed them what real food tasted like”.
Knowing him as well as I do, and having lived through all his gastronomical “phases” I can say that he has long since come back to his roots. He has become one of the greatest champions of authentic Greek cuisine that I know. But it’s Greek Cuisine with Aris wanderlust mixed in. It’s as Aris says,” my many journeys of Greek cuisine”!
“My tastes have simplified considerably over the years. I try to bring out the unique natural flavors of every ingredient I work with. And I will never use unsustainable food products. All of my ingredients are seasonal, most are from local producers and small cottage farm industries. I no longer use swordfish or Blue Fin tuna, or undersized fish. I am an ardent adversary of foie gras. No GMO’s. EVER! This is my religion”.
“My menu may not represent traditional Greek cuisine in its purest sense, I play around a bit with the flavors. It is just who I am. But I will never sabotage the authenticity of a dish. And some things I will never change. It would be sacrilege”.
“Like?” I asked.
“I would never put feta cheese in a gigantes recipe. I would never change chicken avgolemono (egg custard and lemon) soup. Some recipes are absolute perfection”!
“Ari, knowing what you know, how would you tell a “xeno”, a traveler, a visitor to Greece, how to eat here”.
“Definitely steer clear of the tourist traps. The first place I would tell them to go is to the Food Market of Athens. That is where their initiation into Greek cuisine should begin. Then I would tell them to go for ouzo. The best ouzeri are in Thessaloniki, but if they can’t go there then Athens will have to do, Piraeus has some good ones.
The biggest advantage that Greek cuisine has over perhaps all others lies in the outstanding quality of its raw materials. Vegetables, fruits, Greek olive oil, livestock. You know it when you bite into a tomato in season. You know it when you eat a goat from the island of Naxos, feta cheese from Epirus, oregano and sage from the hills of Crete, peaches from Naousa, figs from Evia, fresh fish from the Aegean with no more than sea salt and olive oil and so much more. The waters, mountains, orchards and fields of Greece feed most of Northern Europe!
In five years Athens will be one of the ten top culinary destinations of the world, and in the next years, other Greek cities will follow suit”.
“What would you tell them to try from your Kuzina menu?”
“Well it depends when they come. I change the menu with the seasons. In the winter one will find more meat on the menu and no tomatoes, polenta, wild mushrooms, salmon and soup. In summer one will find lots of fish, tomatoes and fresh fruit. One thing though that has remained on the menu from the beginning and I couldn’t take it off even if I wanted to because they have become a kind of signature dish are the loukoumades (dumplings) with feta cheese mousse and pomegranate sauce”.
“Are you hungry”, he asked me.
“Even if I wasn’t do you think I would say no to you?” I answered.
Ari laughed with his characteristic laugh, a hearty, rumbling, chuckle that you feel all the way down to your bones.
Heaven was a fork full away. In no time at all I had a medley of brilliantly juicy and colorful plates in front of me that looked far too good to eat, but that didn’t stop me I assure you.
I started with fresh salmon cooked ever so lightly so that it was almost like sushi with a cauliflower tabbouleh and rocket wasabi. It tasted like what a meadow smells like after a spring rain – the epitome of fresh.
Then came the main course which was a literally melt in your mouth twelve hour oven roasted pork with lime basil cream, with a sprinkle of fresh chopped green apple, cucumber, turnip and fresh coriander. The sauce was almost sweet but the tart green apples gave the whole dish a zesty balance.
He does it to me every time – enslaves me to his table, but with Ari Tsanaklides in the kitchen – who would want to be free?