I’m a sucker for exciting Greek restaurants in NYC that take their Greek cuisine game very seriously. New York City’s Nerai is one great example in this category of restaurants. It’s practically new (almost 3 years old) and modern without missing the comfort of Greek cuisine.
After making his way at fine-dining heavyweights like Gordon Ramsay’s The London, chef Chris Christou is returning back to his Greek roots at Nerai. Sophisticated French techniques beautifully blend with iconic Greek dishes.
South Africa, London, New York. You’ve had quite a journey among three continents.
I was born in Vereeniging, South Africa and raised in the small mining town of Witbank. By the time I was 10, I worked the cash register on weekends and after school for our family diner. When I turned 14, every day after school, I had to roll out the dough and make pizzas with a red-wine bottle because we had no money for a rolling pin.
After high school, I studied engineering at Pretoria Tech. My first job was the manager at Lollipop Road House in Pretoria. At 22, my father and I opened a fish-and-chip shop – Greek Fishermen’s Grill. I had no idea how to set up, run or control a kitchen but, once we opened, I was fully into it. Eight months went by and a lecturer from Prue Leith College came for fish and chips. She said our food was great. After some conversation, I learned about the cooking school. I had no idea it could be a career!
After culinary school, I was hired at Cape to Cuba in Kalk Bay. Four weeks later, I became Executive Chef. Life was too easy and I was determined to go to London. I arrived with no plan whatsoever and began knocking on restaurant doors looking for a job. I walked past the Savoy Hotel and, in awe, had to walk in. The desk clerk suggested I call the hotel restaurant – the Savoy Grill, Gordon Ramsay and Marcus Wareing’s restaurant. At that time, I had no idea what a Michelin star was. I didn’t even know who Gordon Ramsay was. “Who the f***? Call back at 3 pm, after lunch.” I knew, if I left that spot, I would never find it again. I sat outside and waited. At 3:05 pm, I called again. My interview was with the chef de cuisine. He simply asked in a New Zealand accent, “Mate, you seen Big Ben yet?” I told him I hadn’t since I was there to work. He said, “Get to know your surroundings – you start Monday 7 am!” Three years later, I opened Gordon Ramsay’s The London in New York as his sous chef.
Why do Greek food now?
At home, we would only cook and eat Greek cuisine cooked by my mother. I once mentioned changing up a classic recipe. The response was always the same: “That’s not how these dishes are made.”
After culinary school, I aimed to work at the best restaurants I could possibly get into. These were all prestigious, mainly classical or modern French. 15 years in kitchens, I never once thought to professionally cook actually do Greek cuisine as my profession. I’ve always reserved Greek as had my home cuisine at home, and not what I do as my career. That all changed when I was approached by the owners of Nerai.
Fine-dining and Greek food has not been a very popular combination until recently.
People do associate Greek dishes as comfort and diner food. For the longest time, people have known that they could get a gyro on any corner in Astoria for $5. It all depends on the chefs and establishments on what Americans think of Greek food. Here at Nerai we are elevating that perception of Greek cuisine. A lot of Greek restaurants here in NYC do great food, don’t get me wrong. But it’s very closed minded and by the book. There is no imagination, creativity or technique involved. I am not saying I reinvented the wheel. We use classical cooking techniques, whether its confit or torchon, but incorporate it in the Greek cuisine. We focus on flavor and presentation throughout the menu. We’re also in NYC midtown, among 24.000 other restaurants. To keep clientele happy and returning to our restaurant, you have to offer that bite of excellence.
How do you balance refined technique with Greek comfort food?
I would have to say the Bakaliaro Skordalia me Patzaria and the Duck Moussaka are good examples. I believe these are well received and appreciated by our guests because they capture flavors that people associate with Greek cuisine. With the Bakaliaro, we try to execute a more refined approach on that classic dish. As for the Moussaka, we twist it by adding duck, a flavor that it’s not particularly associated it with Greek cuisine, however, it is a chef’s beloved product.
So, you believe that Greek food could be the next big thing?
Absolutely yes. I think Nerai is slowly proving that every day. We’re working hard every day to keep on the edge of changing trends and techniques.
As you said, the first Greeks in the U.S. food business mostly operated diners. How are today’s Greek restauranteurs different than their forerunners?
Diners had a few Greek dishes on the menu but the majority of the menu is American dishes. The younger generation now has focused on just Greek cuisine, Greek restaurants with a whole different approach to dinning as what we know of in a diner. Service, quality, knowledge, and style have separated the two business completely apart.
How does the future look for Greek cuisine and you as a chef?
In my view, Greek cuisine has a bright future. There’s a myriad different version of traditional dishes, depending on where you are in Greece, as well as many high-quality products such as olive oil, cheeses, and produce. There’s also a number of chef’s that have studied abroad and been taught French cooking techniques that allow creating dishes with a more modern and international approach. As far as I am concerned, there are a few things in the works. Nothing concrete yet but growth is imminent.