Authentic Greek cuisine means taking no shortcuts in the recipe-building process, and fresh spices and herbs grown in the side lawn at Mayfaire’s Symposium Restaurant and Bar. “If you are going to do something, you must do it right because the opportunity may not pass by again,” owner and chef George Papanikolaou says. His daughter, Nina Papanikolaou, translates Greek to English during my visit last week. However, it is only one obstacle he has had to overcome since he arrived in America in 1997.
Papanikolaou’s dream to become a chef wasn’t easy to attain in his homeland of Malesina, Greece. As a society, they still look down upon men in the kitchen, referring to it as a feminine job or not a “real man’s work.” After graduating from culinary school in Greece, he held jobs on cruise ships and in smaller restaurants. In 2011 when he chose to move his family—wife and children included—to Raleigh, NC, he opened a series of hotdog stands. It was the first cooking opportunity available.
“I called the carts ‘George the Greek Grill,’” Papanikolaou tells, “and I made sure to be different from other hot dog stands. Instead of boiling the meat, I actually had a grill on my cart. I served more than one meat, like kielbasa, and offered freshly squeezed lemonade.”
After visiting Wilmington, the family decided to move permanently because of close proximity to the water, which reminded them of Greece. They opened The Greeks restaurant in 2013—their first major culinary venture. The small, authentic gyro shop was inspired by the ones they enjoyed eating in their home country. Unlike Greek-American gyros, which contain mostly seasoned lamb or beef, The Greeks uses a multitude of hand-cut meats—chicken, lamb, beef, pork—placed on a spit, to be carved and served (they serve a veggie option, too). They make all tzatziki, hummus and tahini fresh daily.
In February Papanikolaou expanded his culinary empire by opening Symposium—the name based on an ancient Greek term that means “to gather together” or “to drink together.” While Papanikolaou uses all locally sourced meats and products (aside from a spice or two), he still maintains the integrity of his family recipes. For example, some dishes require Kasseri cheese, a pale-yellow unpasteurized cheese made from sheep’s milk that has a tart, earthy flavor. Some chefs may use feta or Parmesan in its place, but such modifications are what Papanikolaou avoids.
Diners will find on the menu branzino—a whole baked fish, served with dandelion greens and sautéed vegetables—and kokkinisto, which is whole domestic lamb shank, slow-cooked in a tomato sauce with herbs, and served with pappardelle pasta and Parmesan cheese. Papanikolaou’s recipes are six generations old. “In Greece, some grandmothers and mothers tell little boys stories, but when I was a boy, mine told me recipes,” Papanikolaou tells. The same way a Greek chef could not fully master Chinese food, others cannot master Papanikolaou’s specific methods.
“There is a special something that cannot be mimicked in cooking, and I don’t know what that thing is beyond methods,” Papanikolaou divulges. “I will always build recipes with a certain technique, and someone else will have their own technique. No matter if the same ingredients are used, each chef’s dish will still taste a little different.”
Papanikolaou doesn’t skimp on quality. When ingredients can’t be sourced locally, such as true Greek oregano, he gets it shipped from Greece. Instead of the sharper taste from the more common oregano used in North Carolina, Greek oregano tends to be more savory and earthy. “I found regular oregano was making some foods turn purple or bitter,” Papanikolaou says, “but Greek oregano actually helps even out the flavor.”
Though Papanikolaou enjoys building each dish for its own uniqueness, he says he has a certain love for more challenging dishes, like the French standard coq au vin—or “kόkoras krasάtos,” as they call it in Greece. Otherwise, known as “drunken rooster,” Papanikolaous slow boils the poultry in red wine, with the entire preparation taking three days to complete. The chef often saves the dish as an occasional special only at Symposium.
To say Papanikolaou and his family are finding their footing on American soil is an understatement. Not only are they experiencing the rewards of hard work, they’re building relationships with hungry diners. And they’re grateful for the opportunity.
“In America, my customers will give me more than one chance to build their trust,” Papanikolaou says. “If I mess something up, they will come back at least once to give me another opportunity to impress them, but I only have so many chances. It’s important for me to give each guest a valuable experience and product so they know it was worth it to spend their money on my craft.”
To show appreciation to the community who supports his culinary art, Papanikolaou plans to put on several events this summer, such as cooking classes to show attendees how to make an authentic Greek dish. On the docket is galaktoboureko, a traditional Greek dessert made with layers of golden brown phyllo and filled with creamy custard. He plans to make them free to the public and people interested can call the restaurant directly for more information.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re an immigrant or not,” Papanikolaou says. “Everybody has a chance to become successful doing what they love. There is opportunity everywhere. You just have to watch for when it comes.”