Chatting With... Michael Psilakis of Anthos, Kefi & Gus and Gabriel About Greek Food, Pub Food and His Coming-Soon Street Food
In a city enamored with Italian -- from upscale enotecas to the ubiquitous slice -- Michael Psilakis has been accredited with introducing New Yorkers to haute Greek cuisine. Anthos was the first Greek restaurant outside of Greece to be awarded a Michelin star. Not bad for a guy who started out as a waiter at T.G.I. Friday's. Now, Psilakis is coming full circle as he returns to his casual dining roots with his latest venture, Gus and Gabriel, an all-American gastropub inspired by his late father (Gus) and his young son (Gabriel).
The new Upper West Side spot isn't the only downscale grub Psilakis is experimenting with. Keep an eye out for his Greek street food cart, expected to hit the pavement by year end.
Gus and Gabriel is quite a departure from your previous restaurants. How did you come up with the concept?
This is a major deviation for me. The idea came about when I was cooking with my two-year-old son, Gabriel (who is now three). It was a way to bring him into my world. The idea to develop a restaurant founded on feeding a child felt like returning to a simpler time.
How does your new restaurant fit into your evolution as a chef?
I've always been interested in challenging myself and my chefs. Especially with this genre, it wasn't a genre of food I was familiar with. I sort of grew up in a vacuum of Greek culture. My family rarely went to restaurants, let alone American pubs. My mother was a housewife. She made dinner for us every night. So, the idea was for Gus and Gabriel was to bring people together, like a place to supplement the family dinner table. It's a lot of fun working with this food. We were working for about five months on recipe testing.
Which recipes took the longest to develop?
We worked hard on all the hamburgers and hot dogs, deciding what kind of meat we would be grinding, what kind of cheese we would use, what type of fresh mushrooms.
From my perspective, it's interesting because I'm known for evolving food. Here, I'm not evolving anything. It's the first time I cook for people who already have a huge platform of knowledge about the food. I mean, you guys all know what a hot dog is. So, it's more about what your thoughts are on this type of food. People in New York are more willing to give their thoughts. If food is a gift, which I think it is, then the comments I get -- be it from critics, bloggers, or guests at the restaurant -- are an important part of my growth.
You've done a lot to further Greek food in New York. Why do you think the cuisine never took off the way Italian did?
Kefi has brought Greek food to the mainstream. One of the biggest hurdles with ethnic cuisine is the ingredients. But that's not the case with Greek food. You can find the ingredients at the supermarket. It's more an issue of the language and alphabet, which is why at Kefi we did the menu using phonetics and we translated everything verbatim. You might not know what keftedes are, but if you see that it's meatballs, then you'll be more comfortable ordering it.
Greek food is very similar to Italian. People are becoming more aware of what it is, how it's prepared, and the health benefits involved. Italian food is now pretty much American. It's something that can, will, and is already happening with Greek food. Of course, it's more in the metropolises. I hope that I can help to further that.
Is that where your idea for the street cart came: bringing Greek food to the masses? When can we expect to see it?
I like the idea of a Greek street food cart. I'm hoping to have it ready by year end. A lot of Greek street food is perfect for grabbing on the go. I would do recognizable things you can hold and eat while walking around -- like souvlaki is perfect for that. My biggest goal with Greek food in New York is to show that it can stand up to French, Spanish, and Italian. I want to make it an American staple. A street cart will be great for bringing Greek food to the mainstream.