Chef Pano Stathakis returns to his family’s home village, keeping the fare fresh in his mind
By Phil Randall
Photographs by Josh Norris
When chef Pano Stathakis returns to his family’s home village in Greece, not only does it keep him in touch with his roots but also with the flavors that inspire his cooking.
Stathakis recently spent six weeks in Karyae, about 35 miles from Sparta. “We are having a big family reunion there. We will have like 20-something people in two of my family’s homes in Greece,” he said during a cooking demonstration several days before his departure. Many of the Greek favorites he and Kiki Couchell prepared are available at Greek festivals across the nation — great opportunities to sample them, though the dishes may not taste exactly like they do in Karyae.
Staying attuned to the tastes
Stathakis said his trips to Greece keep him connected not only to family and cultural traditions but also to the original flavors that depend on the soil of Greece, the fish of the Mediterranean, and the Greeks’ commitment to fresh, unadulterated ingredients.
His parents emigrated to the United States from Greece in the 1950s in the wake of the Greek Civil War. Between then and now, “food has really changed a great deal,” Stathakis said. “When my parents came over here, truly, there wasn’t a lot of stuff being imported into the United States. So whatever they used in cooking was grown in the United States.”
However, through his trips to Greece, Stathakis has tasted how big a difference the source of ingredients can have on a dish. For example, “A lot depends on your terrain” when growing oregano or basil and the intensity of the flavor, he said.
Couchell agrees. Taught Greek cooking by her mother, today she grows her own herbs so she can have fresh ingredients available, and now she often finds the ingredients she truly wants at stores such as Whole Foods Market and Lidl.
Keeping in touch with traditions
Before he left for Greece, Stathakis gave a cooking demonstration along with Couchell, preparing several appetizers, entrees and desserts that will be offered at a Greek festival September 21-24, for which Stathakis is chair.
Such festivals are now popular from coast to coast and can become giant events in cities such as Boston and New York. However, at the smaller festival Stathakis oversees for St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in Spartanburg, South Carolina, visitors experience home cooking often handed down from parents to children who were coached in the kitchen. (By the time she was in the seventh grade, Couchell was helping her mother in the kitchen daily, and she also was responsible on Saturdays for desserts, such as diples — a favorite Greek pastry that is covered in a delicious honey syrup).
The festivals are an opportunity for young and old members of the Greek community to work together and reinforce cherished traditions, Stathakis said. “It is a great social event, and it’s good for the community,” he said. “It broadens horizons on what Greek culture is.”
And while he loves returning to his roots on occasion, reconnecting with relatives, and also experiencing their lifestyles and savoring their foods, he’s also a real live nephew of his Uncle Sam, as songwriter George Cohan put it in “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”
“We are excited about our culture, and we are happy that we are here in America too,” he said. “I am first generation here. I was born in the United States. My parents came over on a boat; my grandfather came and worked on the railroads, then he went back and got married in Greece. So we’re proud to be Americans. This is our country too.” E