Dimitris Koutlis is the owner of my favorite taverna in Skala Potamia (on the Greek island of Thassos) – Krambousa. The name derives from a lovely small island which you can see from the restaurant patio.
One beautiful, sunny day, I had the great honor and pleasure of spending some time with this hardworking chef and asking him a little bit about his profession. What interested me the most was his way of thinking about food. Read on to see how this conversation turned out.
Jednopalnikowa: There’s a saying that the three main secrets of French cuisine are: butter, butter, and… butter. If you had to describe the entire Greek cuisine in only a few words, which would you choose? Feel free – it could be ingredients, main dishes, tastes or even colors.
Dimitris Koutlis: Olive oil, fresh herbs from the mountains and from the fields, fresh fish, and very good quality of meat. And everything from small farms.
J.: A really nice picture… My next question concerns vegetables. I have this impression after eating in many Greek tavernas that Greeks serve raw vegetables in salads, of course, but if they cook these vegetables, they’re almost always overcooked. Unlike other cuisines from around the world, it’s really difficult to find al dente vegetables in Greek restaurants. Do you have some strong beliefs or convictions about the duration of cooking vegetables? Or don’t you eat al dente vegetables at all?
D.K.: Of course we eat them but I agree with you. I think that most restaurants and tavernas in Greece overcook vegetables. We try to have them al dente but it’s not always possible because we’re not very used to it. But yes, you’re right – we overcook vegetables.
J.: But is there a particular reason?
D.K.: No. Greeks are not used to al dente. Even when it comes to spaghetti. Only for the last 10-15 years, we have been eating spaghetti the right way. For example, I remember that when my grandmother or my mother used to prepare spaghetti, it was always overcooked.
J.: Mαλακά, νaí; [Soft, right?]*
D.K.: Yes, exactly.
J.: Have you ever eaten Greek food prepared in other countries?
D.K.: Yes, of course.
J.: Do you agree with me that it’s a completely different taste?
D.K.: Yes. I lived in different countries, European countries and I traveled a lot across Europe, and I also worked in some Greek restaurants in Germany and the Netherlands. I have a very bad impression. It is not really Greek food. Most of them are not really Greek restaurants – they are grill houses. And also, maybe it’s normal but… for example, if you eat in a Greek restaurant in the Netherlands, the taste is like Dutch people want it. When you go to Germany, you get what Germans think about Greek food. Of course, there are some great Greek restaurants in Europe but most of the others are not really Greek restaurants. There is none of this old, traditional food. They have a lot of different dishes with different names but 99% are simply grilled meat. In different combinations. [laugh]
J.: So I think you’ve already answered my next question: “how do you feel about it”?
D.M.: They are very, very commercial. And they do not represent the real taste of Greece.
J.: But do you think it’s possible to achieve this so far away from Greece?
D.K.: Yes, of course! It is possible and I think that there are some restaurants around Europe that understood this and do great business, and they are also the ambassadors of Greek food in those countries.
J.: When I tried χοριατική (Greek salad) for the first time in my life in Greece – in your taverna Krambousa, actually – I was shocked because it was completely different from what is served in Poland under the name “Greek salad”. Your salad didn’t need any salt or extra seasoning – it already tasted great. Unfortunately, our tomatoes don’t have this amazing, special taste like yours have. It’s like the Greek salad in Greece and in Poland are two totally different dishes!
D.K.: This is why I told you earlier, at the beginning of our conversation, that a good quality of ingredients can make the difference. You don’t have to use a lot of sauces or butter, or whatever. Simple, quality ingredients and that’s all.
J.: Do you have a favorite cuisine, apart from the Greek, of course?
D.K.: Yes, I do have. I love pasta so I love Italian food. Also Spanish and most Mediterranean. We also have some dishes in other, northern countries with delicious meat. But if you ask me about my favorite cuisine, of course, first of all is the Greek one, and then I will go with Italian.
J.: So what is your favorite Greek dish if you would have to choose only one?
D.K.: It’s very difficult for me to answer because I like a lot of things. It depends on my mood, it depends on the weather and everything…
J.: OK, three…?
D.K.: Fish, fish, and… fish. [laugh] I love any kind of fish. I particularly like dishes that are from the oven, prepared using traditional recipes.
J.: Are there any “deadly sins” committed by chefs which you never forgive when you visit other restaurants as a guest (being a chef yourself)? What I mean is: is there anything in chefs’ behavior or actions that makes you want to leave and never go back to their restaurant as a guest?
D.K.: Yes, of course. First of all, when they lie to you – you can see lies on the plate. You can see it when they give you food that is not fresh or when they don’t care about how they put food on the plate. I strongly believe that, of course, we eat with our mouth and it goes to our stomach, but what also matters is the first impression: eyes and smell. The smell is very important. If you smell something which is not right, then you don’t have to eat it.
J.: Do you have a favorite Greek dish in terms of preparing it?
D.K. What do I like to prepare? This is a very good question. Almost everything! [laugh]
J.: Lucky us!
D.K.: I very much like to prepare, for example, fresh salads. I like to do it.
J.: Do you like cutting things?
D.K.: Yes, cutting things, not only vegetables; but especially with vegetables, when you cut them, you must treat them as a woman – smoothly, with love. Because when you scratch vegetables, you destroy the taste, the juices are coming out.
J.: Hmm… Is there a Greek dish which you hate preparing? Something that you like to eat but is really horrible to make?
D.K.: Yes. I don’t like to prepare gyros. This is why I don’t sell gyros in this restaurant. I believe that gyros is street food. But going back to the question that you asked me before, Greek restaurants around Europe have changed the meaning of gyros. They have gyros everywhere in every restaurant but in Greece, if you walk around the city or whatever, you will see that there are special snack bars with gyros. In the restaurant, you don’t eat gyros. You eat something else. Although I love gyros very much, I don’t prepare it here. Almost never. Something else I really love to eat but hate preparing is one of the most famous traditional Greek dishes – moussaka. I love moussaka but I cannot prepare it. I do it but it’s not my favorite. [laugh]
J.: May I ask you why, or is it a secret?
D.K.: Oh, I don’t know. It’s a feeling. I don’t know why.
J.: Is there anything characteristic about the Greek way of thinking about cooking? Something that differentiates Greek chefs from other nations?
D.K.: I’m talking as a Greek so I will tell you my point of view. Again, we have this unbelievable, great thing – olive oil. It is gentle, it is healthy and it adds a lot of taste. This is a characteristic thing in our cuisine and our thinking about cooking. The other one I’ve learned from my grandmother: you have to take time to cook. You need to handle it nicely, handle it slowly. You cannot cook something nice if you are in a hurry. You have to take your time. This is characteristic but I think it has to be everywhere, no matter where you come from.
J.: But isn’t it a little bit difficult in such a great and famous restaurant as yours, where there are a lot of guests and you have this big rush in the kitchen, I believe?
D.K.: Yes, it is, but you must be ready, you must have a good organization, you must have a good team. That’s very important because in the kitchen, especially in a restaurant kitchen, what is very important are the people that work there. And how good they can work together as a team because it’s teamwork.
J.: Chemistry between people in the kitchen?
J.: Last question. What gives you the greatest pleasure and satisfaction in this job, when you prepare food for your guests?
D.K.: It’s when I see the smile on people’s faces. When I feel that I helped them enjoy the time spent at my restaurant. When they are happy about this. It’s very important to me to make people feel happy. And that has to do with food as well as the service. I mean if you have a very good team in the kitchen that cooks great but the service is horrible, it’s not the same. If the service is great and the food is not good, it’s also wrong. So it’s a full package: good food and good service, taking care of your guests. That’s the point.
J.: Thank you very much! Ευχαριστώ πάρα πολύ!
D.K.: Thank you very, very much.
After the interview, Dimitris promised me to “show me Krambousa’s garden”. I was convinced that we were going behind the restaurant, so when a few minutes later we were driving towards the mountains, I started to suspect that soon I’m going to see something really beautiful and amazing. And I was right! The “garden” turned out to be the most beautiful field in the world, full of the happiest vegetables, fruits, and herbs on the planet, cultivated specifically for this taverna! I saw many happy eggplants, zucchinis, and olive trees. I was given (I wouldn’t dare to take anything myself) some fresh garlic, extremely aromatic leaves of fennel (not without some communication problems, so it’s worth mentioning that fennel in Greek is μάραθο), and fresh mint leaves.
After returning to Krambousa, there was another surprise waiting for me – lunch with the owner. I have never felt so honored and stressed at the same time. And later… so full 😉
This day made me realize that the success of my favorite Thassian taverna is, first and foremost, the result of enormous passion, commitment, great wisdom, and a big heart for cooking as well as feeding. All of this was just a confirmation of the impression I had from my first meal at Krambousa 🙂
*One of my first discoveries on Greek pasta packs: μαλακά means “soft” and disturbingly resembles the word μαλάκα, which is offensive.