In this time of crisis, the only growth industry in Greece seems to be food. New restaurants, cafés, upscale souvlaki joints, bakeries, shops specializing in traditional products, patisseries, tapas bars, artisanal pizzerias, frozen yogurt, hot dog and crepe stands open every day all over Athens. So it shouldn’t be news when yet another takeaway in the northern suburbs joins them.
But it’s not every day that a famous personality, one of Greece’s best-loved food experts, TV hosts and cookbook authors, decides to bury himself in a basement kitchen and whip up classic dishes to be consumed at home.
We’re used to seeing the puckish face of Elias Mamalakis on our TV screens as he takes us around the country or indeed the world interviewing local cooks and tasting their concoctions with unquenchable delight. We listen to his daily radio show on SKAI and drool over the Greek edition of Olive, the BBC’s monthly magazine he edits. Surely he must be close to retirement age, ready to rest on his laurels? Surely he could have found a less demanding way to crown his long career? And what about the competition? The location he’s chosen for his shop is opposite a major supermarket, two designer bakeries and a pastry boutique – all of which offer not only savory pies and sandwiches but also quite a range of cooked meals to go.
Inquiring minds want to know, so I arranged to meet Mamalakis. He was late for our appointment, which meant that I had plenty of time to inspect the tiny but welcoming shop, whose entrance and floors still boast beribboned pots of azaleas, cyclamen and gardenias leftover from the gala opening on December 23. Even though it was after 5 p.m., customers of all ages were trickling in to select their orders from a glassed counter with about a dozen offerings, including pastitsio and moussaka, stuffed zucchini, cabbage rolls, baked salmon, soutzoukakia (cumin-flavored meatballs in tomato sauce), a couple of chicken casseroles, pork shoulder with roast potatoes . . . plus side dishes of rice and mashed potatoes, salads, pies – well, you get the picture. Prices range from €5 for a portion of baked giant beans to €10 for the salmon. Many of the trays emptied while I was there, but the kitchen kept refilling them.
Mamalakis finally showed up, full of apologies. He’d got caught in traffic coming from the prison at Korydallos, where once a week he gives separate cooking classes to recovering addicts: 24 young men, 12 young women. Once a month he travels to Thiva to teach at the women’s prison there.
The shop has no space for a private conversation, so we squeezed ourselves onto two small, mainly decorative, red-velvet chairs near the open door and began to talk. Every few sentences we’d be interrupted by friends, acquaintances and customers thrilled to find the man himself on the premises. Mamalakis is one of those people you think you know even if you’ve never met him.
The “why” was the first question he answered. “I had to do something that would make us a living. There’s no money for decent TV series now; I can’t afford to retire, although I’m 64. My wife took retirement [from the National Bank of Greece] on December 31, and her kids were unemployed. So I thought of doing something in the field I know best, cooking good, classic Greek dishes from traditional recipes, the meals our mothers and grandmothers fed us – soothing comfort food.
“Not so long ago, in more prosperous days, Greeks had a mania for trendy foreign tastes, like sushi, but now the old favorites are back in demand.”
With people continuing to stream in, my next question feels superfluous. “Aren’t you worried about the competition in this food souk of a neighborhood?”
“No, we have much more variety in what we offer and Greek cooking is our specialty, not just one of the things we do here. And the fact that the same faces come here day after day means we must be doing something right. We see lots of older people who may live alone or young couples who both work. There’s no way they would attempt a pastitsio or a moussaka – all these dishes are time-consuming and impractical for a small household. Good food is the best advertisement.”
As we chat, Mamalakis introduces me to his stepson, tall, handsome Panagiotis behind the counter. His brother, Costas, works in the basement kitchen – which is twice the size – with two other employees. Mamalakis himself does the ordering, coordinating and supervising, while his wife, Dorita Petratza (they married in 2012), is often downstairs, too. She is the “queen of the dolmadakia” (cabbage rolls). Her daughter, Evgenia, who’s studying oenology, comes in to help on Sundays.
I also learn that when news got out that Mamalakis was going to open an eatery, all the culinary mafia offered their support – famous chefs like Varoulko’s Lefteris Lazarou and Dimitris Skarmoutsos, who has opened his own restaurant/food shop, Ergon, a couple of blocks away. “We in the food world, we’re like a big family, but I didn’t need their help. I’ve been cooking for years, ever since I made my first spaghetti and meat sauce as a kid. Besides, though I may put an extra pinch of cinnamon in the pastitsio, all our recipes are traditional. We have a standard base menu and several specials, different every day.”
All leftovers are given to the Kifisia municipality social services or to Father Nikolas of the Panagia Eleftherotria Church in Politeia.
And what does the name mean? It’s the same as the title of Mamalakis’s TV show, and it’s a colloquial expression he translates as “so delicious,” but when I ask my husband, he has a better version: “Every bite is bliss.”
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Published on February 25, 2014