"Family dynamics change, but no one can take food away from you."
Chef / partner Jim Botsacos got three stars from the New York Times for his Greek restaurant Molyvos before he hit 30. He's been on television, penned a cookbook, opened the equally loved Italian Abboccato, has his own brand of buttery, peppery Greek olive oil, and has been featured in a slew of stories in print.
But unless you'd done some Googling, you wouldn't have a clue about all that from a chat with him. Botsacos talks about food. What he's loved about it since childhood, and what his kids love about it now. How travels to Italy and Greece made it clear to him why he craves the ingredients he does. And how cooking has taught him to relax and not take everything so seriously, because all you need to really do is "find the beauty and the simplicity in food."
I find it very interesting that you've been with this restaurant since it opened in 1997... So do I.
Why? I'm kidding but, well, it's a long time in the chef world.
Exactly. So how has it worked for you for so long? I have a love for the cuisine and the location's always been great. In simple terms, things are going well.
You're Greek, Italian and American. How strong were those influences growing up? I grew up with a mixture of Italian and Greek foods, where "every meal was a feast, every sit-down was a banquet." I'm third-generation American—my great-great-grandparents came here. But even at that time food was their living; they sold hot dogs, they did pasta up in the area that is now Washington Heights, so it was always about food. Over the course of time you lose the language and the people change, but you still have a close connection with the food.
Before Molyvos you were cooking primarily French and American classic cuisine. Was Greek/Italian always on the brain? Always. There were always two worlds for me: professional cooking and home cooking. I remember this one year my father wanted a game dinner for his birthday; I did pan-roasted quail, antelope, venison, foie gras, squab—all geared around game in the vein of French and American classics. But then when I went home I cooked Greek and Italian food.
So out of all the tricks up your sleeve, how did you focus your original menu? The concept was to do a 3-star, well-rounded Greek restaurant, not what everyone else was doing. Because 15 years ago that was a big deal: to be known for more than moussaka, souvlaki and baklava.
What did your travels to Greece do to help you get the restaurant going? I always go to where the origin of the cuisine is. When you have a type of heritage and you go to that country of origin, it clicks for you: "wow, that's why I love this so much."
What was that moment in Greece for you? Shit, it was everything. Mostly lamb youvetsi: braised lamb shanks over orzo baked in the oven with shaved cheese, tomato, red wine, onions, a little cinnamon. The moment I ate it there, everything made sense. Instinctively I gravitated towards the food of my culture. It's embedded in me. Family dynamics change, but no one can take food away from you.
Is there something on your menu now that's particularly personal to you? A very personal section for me is "From the Garden." We used to have a small garden growing up and my dad would put his electric fryer in the back. He'd throw a ripped paper bag on the table, pull the vegetables out of the back, and just sit there and peel, slice, add a little flour, fry them up, toss on a little garlic, parsley, vinegar, layer them up—boom. Whatever just came out of the garden. Simple. Just now we a big wooden board of grilled vegetables on the menu, with a spicy oil, rosemary, oregano, a quenelle of sheep's milk ricotta cheese laden with roasted garlic purée and pita—how could you not like that?
Are you now the head honcho chef in your family? Well, the funniest thing was when my grandmother started asking me how I did things. I'd be like, "Nan, you taught me how to do this!"
Do you remember when that shift happened? It was when she was in her eighties that she would start to tip the hat a bit. Nana young and spunky would never give me that. But now I have my wife, Maria, my son Dimitri is seven, my daughter Sofia is eleven, and they're all steeped in food.
Who cooks breakfast in your house? Me. I'm up at seven with them.
What do you cook for them for breakfast? If it's not something simple like feta, sliced tomatoes and olives—
They eat that for breakfast? They sometimes eat that for breakfast, yeah.
I guess they're not picky eaters then. No. Sardines, octopus, sushi—you name it, they eat it. They even tried anchovies. At seven years old, Dimitri said, "Dad, I'm not really a big fan. Tried it, don't think I like it".
Do they realize how unique it is to be in a particularly food-centered family? I think so. Yeah. Especially Sofia. When she was one or just a little bit past, she could hold an egg. We'd count to three and she'd crack it, and put the shell down. Dimitri would break it and stick his hands in it. He wanted to eat everything. That's the way he is. But now Sofia will sit down and say, "I like the sauce, dad, but I think you went too heavy on the basil." Or "back off a little bit on the sugar." They're definitely into it.
Italians are notoriously territorial with who makes the "best" this or that. Is there one dish that later in life your kids are gonna be like, "nah, there's no way that could ever top my dad's, that's my dad's dish"? You're gonna make me cry. I get very emotional with my kids. I'm gonna lean towards the Italian on this: a dish of pasta, man. My Sunday sauce. So much has happened in our lives, but if anything went wrong, dad's making a pot of sauce.
Don't get me wrong, my kids will eat the hell outta a lamb chop. But the other day Dimitri came into the kitchen and said, "Dad, what are ya cookin?" I said, "Smell that?" "Yeah." "You're gonna remember that for the rest of your life. I'm making meatballs." Because when you cook that—especially in a small New York apartment—the whole house smells like sauce. Amazing.
About the author: Jacqueline Raposo is a writer and frantic private cook who now has Chef Jim's trick for really fluffy meatballs in her arsenal. Email her if you want it. She's alternatively baking at www.thedustybaker.com and tweeting away at @dustybakergal.