Asimakis Chaniotis' Greece

Raised in Athens, the Pied à Terre executive chef draws on his heritage of 'very tasty' flavours – especially of his mother's homeland, Kefalonia – and explains how contemporary Greek cooking has raised the stakes. Words by Ben McCormack

Asimakis Chaniotis' Greece Photo

Asimakis Chaniotis has found fame as the executive chef of one-Michelin-starred Pied à Terre on London’s Charlotte Street but food was a simpler affair when he was growing up in the suburbs of Athens in the Nineties. ‘My mum went out to work, but she would always make sure we had something different to eat every day,’ he says. ‘It might be lentil soup, or mini lamb sausages with rice, or briam, which is a bake of roasted vegetables and tomatoes. Her meals always followed a pyramid of nutrition. She would cook red meat once a week, fish twice and grains three times a week. The Greek diet is very balanced.’

Balanced it may be, but Asimakis says there is one thing all UK restaurants get wrong about Greek food. ‘Greek restaurant owners here try to adapt the food to the British palate, and some British people eat no salt at all. But in Greece we love very tasty food and a big part of that is down to the amount of salt we cook with. We add it a
lot earlier in the cooking process, so the flavour of the salt becomes diluted rather than being a barrier to how a dish tastes,’ he explains.

What sort of Greek restaurants, then, did the Chaniotis family eat in when he was growing up? ‘If you want to eat meat in Athens, there are two main areas. One is in the south of the city, called Vari. The other is Ano Liosia in the north of Athens, near where I grew up,’ says Asimakis. ‘There are about 100 tavernas in each place where they cook lamb on the grill. In Vari, I would recommend Tsolias and in Ano Liosia, Avramis. If you want fish,
Athens’ port, Piraeus, is the obvious place to go. There are tavernas selling fish from the
small boats that have gone out that morning. Try Dourambeis, which has been there for almost a century.’

Then there are places that combine meat and fish under one roof, he says. ‘Varvakios,
close to the Acropolis, used to be the old meat market, but now it’s split in two. On one side it still sells meat and there are little tavernas that make souvlaki. The other side is a fish market with sushi restaurants where you point at the fish you want and they cut it up for you as sashimi.’

The Greek capital has in recent years gained a reputation as one of the most cutting edge restaurant scenes around the Mediterranean. ‘Athens has a long tradition of tavernas serving very basic food,’ he says. ‘Moussaka is nice, but after the third time you eat it you want something more refined. It’s essential that Greek chefs create restaurants that will bring innovation to our country. Delta, which opened two years ago and has two
Michelin stars, is one of the best restaurants in the city. Then there’s CTC – Alexandros Tsiotinis, the chef and owner, is a good friend who fully deserves the Michelin star he won last year.’

The gastronomic scene isn’t all so star-spangled, though. ‘For something more casual and cheaper, I like Linou Soumpasis,’ he says. ‘They change the menus every day
and serve things like pastrami made out of dry-aged fish. And the hottest opening of the year is Pharaoh, which is owned by two friends of mine, the food and travel critic Fotis Vallatos and the wine merchant Perry Panagiotakopoulos. They cook over fire, pour natural wines and play music on vinyl.’

Asimakis is heading back to Athens to see his family at Christmas, but his heart
belongs to Kefalonia, the largest of the Ionian Islands in western Greece. His mum grew
up on Kefalonia and he has visited every year of his life. What keeps him going back?

‘Well, there is the food, of course,’ he says. ‘The most traditional thing you can eat is a Kefalonian meat pie. It should be made with a sheep that has been castrated, and seasoned with borage, both of which give the meat a unique flavour. Increasingly, though, lots of places leave out the borage and use pork or beef instead of lamb to appeal to tourists, which messes up how it should taste. There’s a restaurant called Ladokolla stin Plagia in Damoulianata that does it properly. It’s a classic taverna where the chef that day might be an old grandmother. That’s the nice thing about Greece – you find families who
opened a restaurant 50 years ago dressed as they would be at home and welcoming you
like a guest in their house.’

You will also find Kefalonian lamb pie at Asimakis’ first restaurant in Greece, Terre, which he opened in the island’s capital of Argostolion last year. ‘The point of Terre is to make traditional food that, were you to eat it with your eyes closed, you would taste your
grandmother’s cooking, but when you open them you see a much more contemporary
presentation,’ he says. ‘I want to make Kefalonian food as refined as possible.’

The restaurant will close at the end of this month before reopening in spring, but a
vineyard Asimakis planted next to his house two years ago keeps him going back to Kefalonia all year. What does he do on the island in winter?

‘I love hunting,’ he says. ‘The season in Greece starts at the end of August and ends in February. There are wild boar but it’s mostly hare and small birds. There is a bird called
, which doesn’t make sense in English, because it’s the word for chewing gum, but it’s a type of thrush and usually cooked in a stew. There’s lots of fishing in Kefalonia too.

'Having fun with your friends and family without worrying about spending a fortune on food is part of Greek mentality’

‘Another local speciality is cod skordalia, which is the Greek equivalent of fish and chips. The cod is fried and served with skordalia, a pungent purée made from potatoes blended with garlic ground down with olive oil and lemon.’

Think of Kefalonia, though, and sheer cliffs plunging into a crystal-clear sea are probably the first image that springs to mind rather than the food. Where does Asimakis like to go swimming? ‘We have some of the most beautiful beaches in the world on Kefalonia but the best ones can only be reached by boat. The most famous beach is called Fteri,
which has white sand and turquoise water. A water taxi from the harbour of Agia Kiriaki drops you at the beach and collects you a couple of hours later. And back in Agia
Kiriaki, there’s a famous waterside taverna called Kalyva tou Psara, which means ‘the
fisherman’s shack’. It only sells three things: French fries, Greek salad and the fish of your liking that the chefs caught that morning,’ he says.

With no plans to return to Greece full time, Asimakis has introduced Greek technique to Pied à Terre. ‘I usually have three or four dishes on the menu that are completely Greek. I do the cod skordalia, but instead of frying the fish, I prepare it as a ceviche. And there’s a dish of braised snails in red wine and tomato sauce that my mum used to make, which I
serve as ravioli,’ he says.

Apart from the food, there’s another thing Asimakis rates highly in Greece. ‘I really miss
the prices,’ he laughs. ‘You can go out and have a feast of Greek food and it only costs
20 quid. That’s what one takeaway costs me in London! I recently bought a 5kg box
of mixed fish for €10 down by the harbour in Argostolion. The fishermen know that restaurants will always buy the bigger fish so they sell the smaller ones to locals,’ he explains. ‘Having fun with your friends and family without worrying about spending a fortune on food is part of the mentality of Greek people.’

A S I M A K I S ’ H O T S P O T S

Thanos Feskos worked at Copenhagen’s Geranium, while George Papazacharias created the menu at Under in Norway. Here, they serve two-Michelin-starred food in an amazing top-floor space in the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Centre.

Two Athens bars – run by the same team – in The World’s 50 Best Bars list. The Clumsies serves creative cocktails and Line make their own ‘wines’ and beers from fermented
fruits. The Bank Job is another cool bar close by. The Bank Job, 00 30 694 063 4363

Alexandros Tsiotinis makes traditional Greek food with an extreme twist. The classic
flavours are all there, but the presentation is bang up-todate.

Skala is a popular village with most of the island’s hotels. Here, Mikelatos serve Kefalonian cuisine and Greek wines.

The owner makes his own cheese, grows his own veg and serves his own meat, which is
super tasty. 00 30 693 349 2571

A hillside restaurant with sea views serving pastas with seafood. Choose your own
fish to be cooked on the grill too and try the tasty crab croquettes. 00 30 2671 097493

Asimakis Chaniotis' Greece Photo

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