Laura Stanley / October 2009
Food Arts presents the October 2009 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Michael Psilakis, who has led modern Greek cooking to new heights, taking a breakthrough, new wave approach to a cuisine long regarded as rustic and deeply conservative. Older Greek-Americans, weaned on tradition, grumble—"until they start eating," says Psilakis. "Then they recognize the flavors"—pulled apart, distilled, and rearranged, but still unmistakably Greek.
For a chef with no formal training—he learned his craft in his mother's Long Island kitchen and in the backyard, where the men of the family spit-roasted whole animals—Psilakis is surprisingly cerebral in style, creating deconstructed versions of classic dishes that are meant to be as instructive as they are sensuous. Everything familiar has been manipulated: avgolémono soup appears as a foam; oregano is served crystallized; and watermelon, olives, and Haloumi cheese are passed through the dehydrator to help "capture new dimension." He's unabashed about his desire to "control the palate experience."
Raised eating "nothing but Greek food, every night," Psilakis surprised his kin by launching his career as a managing partner in an Italian restaurant on Long Island, where he found himself behind the stove one night when his chef didn't turn up. Today Psilakis and his business partner, Donatella Arpaia, run a small family of restaurants, including, most recently, the buzzy new Eos, which traffics globally infused Greek--softshells with pineapple, spicy sopressata and skordalia—on the 15th floor of the reopened Viceroy Miami, in South Beach. Two economy-minded Manhattan establishments—Kefi, a boisterous Greek taverna, and Gus and Gabriel, a homey American gastropub—fill out their card. But it's the Michelin-starred Anthos, their sleek Midtown flagship, that has garnered Psilakis so much acclaim. Last March he landed a two day assignment at the White House to cook for Greek Independence Day.
Deeply committed to his heritage, Psilakis regards promoting Greek food and wine as a personal responsibility. At Kefi, on Manhattan's Upper West Side, the menu lists dishes in English first, with an eye to making beloved Greek standards—baked pasta with rabbit ragoût, grilled octopus, lemon roasted potatoes—as familiar to Americans as pizza and sesame noodles. Kefi, and Anthos especially, are important platforms for Greek wine regions and varietals in the United States, where until recently most diners' awareness began and ended with retsina.
Psilakis' first cookbook, How to Roast a Lamb, to be published this month, describes both the simple cooking of his childhood and his more worldly accomplishments in the culinary stratosphere, thus summing up the man and his career. So far. That's because his next act, likely to debut next year, could be a restaurant in Greece itself.