Haute Cuisine in a Battered Country
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
There’s much more to Greek cuisine than souvlaki. Try a granita of Greek salad.
The sun has set in Athens and chef Georgianna Hiliadaki is sitting with me at the very sleek bar of her very sleek restaurant, one watchful eye on the black-clad team that’s hustling to prep dinner. She didn’t foresee it, she says, “all this recognition so quickly,” but there it came: the second Michelin star, four years after they opened. She was only 34, her partner in cooking, Nikos Roussos, a year older.
As surprising as the pair’s meteoric rise is the setting in which they’ve risen: Debt-ridden, outright broke Greece, where the weddings are no longer big nor fat, and the lines at soup kitchens snake around the block. Spartan times have taken a bite out of the country’s famed food culture, and for many Greeks, eating out is an unthinkable luxury. Euromonitor says full-service restaurant revenues declined 18 percent in 2013, and predicts a bleak five-year outlook.
… shimmering golden spheres on a bed of green leaves that, when sprinkled with liquid nitrogen, create a fragrant mist …
Not so with Hiliadaki and Roussos’ Funky Gourmet, which has weathered the crisis by acquiring an international reputation — those Michelin stars, but also accolades like being named one of the world’s top 20 restaurants by TripAdvisor. Times weren’t especially good in 2010, when the pair chose to renovate a building in the rundown neighborhood of Keramikos, but their bet has paid off. Now, Funky Gourmet is a sparkling vision among the dilapidated facades of downtown Athens, a bubble of fine dining whose aroma can be smelled from a block away and whose reputation has traveled across land and sea.
Hiliadaki is small, with wild corkscrew curls that seem to defy gravity. A native Athenian, she studied European relations at the University of Reading, in the U.K., but her passion was cooking — and her parents were happy to indulge it. She met Roussos at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York, where they were two of the only Greek students. Though he hailed from Athens, too, his background was much different: Roussos comes from a family of blacksmiths and expected to stay in the smithing business. “I got into cooking by intuition and followed what soon proved to be my passion,” he tells me. At 23, and without having ever cooked more than an omelet, he had the wild idea of moving to New York and getting trained as a chef, and even wilder, he did it.
Their menu riffs on Greek classics. The Greek salad, one of their hallmark items, involves the usual — cucumbers, tomatoes, feta, capers — but here, they’re whizzed together in a blender, strained, frozen and presented as a kind of granita; it looks like snow and melts on your tongue in a similar manner. (The blended veggies are tossed.) The Greek cheese makes another appearance in something called “The Feta Cheese That Wished to Be a Beetroot,” which is really a puree of feta in a molded, beet jelly. Some items are casual — a miniburger with tartar appears inside a small takeout container — and others are outright majestic. “Orange Explosion” consists of two shimmering golden spheres on a bed of green leaves that, when sprinkled with liquid nitrogen, create a fragrant mist that envelopes the diner, who invariably stares on in childlike wonder.
Some of this “molecular gastronomy” is no doubt influenced by Ferran Adrià’s El Bulli (Hiliadaki interned there after the ICE), but the pair aims at something more accessible. After Hiliadaki’s internships, she returned to Athens and reunited with Roussos to start a private chef business. That formed the foundation of Funky Gourmet, which they opened in 2010. And after more than a decade knowing each other, they do work seamlessly together, finishing each other’s sentences as if they could read each other’s minds. Working as a duo of chefs is quite rare in the industry, but they insist it’s a crucial ingredient to their success in times of trouble, as has been the help of Hiliadaki’s sister, who also co-owns and runs the business.
Is a gastronomical splurge — a parade of fancy little dishes for $100 — sustainable in an economy that’s still in intensive care? Or even tasteful, even if it’s tasty? “When the middle class lines up for bread and olives and soup kitchens have exploded, the elitist prices leave a bitter after taste,” says Diane Kochilas, who is collaborating chef at Molyvos Restaurant, in New York, and owner of the Glorious Greek Kitchen cooking school. But Hiliadaki insists Funky Gourmet excludes no one. “If you can eat bad food outside for a few days then you can also save the money and come have a great meal here,” she says. And there is no disputing that, in an economy leaning ever more on international tourism, Funky Gourmet’s Michelin stars and clever, tasty dishes are, in a way, helping Greece get back on track.
“I’m sure we can survive anything, because we are children of the crisis, so we’ve only known this. And we love Athens,” says Hiliadaki. To which Roussos promptly adds: “But it’s a very exciting time to be a chef, anywhere in the world.”