Friday, December 21, 2007

A thinking man’s chef

December 21

Sometimes when I interview a chef, I diligently write down everything he (or she, but usually he) says, and then look at my notes and throw them away because everything he said was a load of gibbering nonsense. Those chefs wax philosophical about their food or life or some pseudo-intellectual topic, get lost in their own train of thought and never come back to Earth.
It happens more often than you might think.
Others just aren’t very articulate. They know how to cook, but are neither capable nor interested in describing what they do. That's great for their guests, but bad for food writers. I remember interviewing a really talented chef in Texas who made a delicious galangal panna cotta. I tried to get him to wax philosophical about galangal, which is a rhizome related to ginger but with a distinct taste that’s spicier and I think a bit less aromatic, used in various Southeast Asian cuisines.
All he could say was that it was like ginger, but a little different. That’s true, but it makes for really dull copy.
Then there’s Michael Psilakis, who thinks a lot about his food, reflects on it, can talk your head off about it, but at the end of the day it makes sense.
Michael got started in the restaurant business as a manager of TGI Friday’s on Long Island, but he made a splash on the New York City food scene a few years back with Onera, a Greek-inspired restaurant on the Upper West Side. Then he opened the more Mediterranean-inspired Dona in Midtown East to wild acclaim, only to close it because of construction on and around the restaurant property. But soon after that he opened Anthos, in Central Midtown, which was Greek-inspired but fancier than Onera. To further distinguish Onera from Anthos, he rechristened the Upper West Side place as Kefi and made it traditional Greek food.
Now, as Grub Street reported, Michael is going to open a new version of Dona, with a slightly different name, a more casual environment, and, he told me, a menu that’s more distinctly Italian-influenced, rather than Italian-Greek, Mediterranean or whatever. He says it’s on track to open sometime in the second half of January.
There will be some Greek and Spanish stuff in there, but he wants the new restaurant to be more approachable than the old Dona. That’s very much in line with current food trends. So is a fine-dining chef opening a more casual restaurant, but Michael has already done that with Kefi, anyway.
His reasoning behind the Italian orientation of Dona, however, is that New Yorkers are well acquainted with Italian food, which means if he does a riff on a tried-and-true Italian dish, his guests will get the joke. Something Greek or Spanish might go over their heads.
So although some of the new Dona’s food will not be traditional Italian dishes — he might bring influences from different Italian regions into a single dish, for example — he expects that his guests will have the eating background “to understand what the food is on a cerebral level.”
Michael talks that way, but it makes sense.
He also likes to talk like this: “I’m hoping it’s just a fun place that you can come and eat.”

This picture of Michael, provided by his publicists, was taken by Battman.

1 comment:

DonO said...

I'm anxious to try this root vegetable, any other suggested recipes or usage?