Restaurateur Tim Vasilakis is the founder and CEO of three London branches of The Athenian, where their speciality is the chicken gyros.
For those who don’t live in the Big Smoke but want to experience his food in their own home, he’s also just released a new book, The Athenian: Eat Like a Greek.
“I’m super excited. It's the first time I’ve done something like this,” Vasilakis says. “I actually got contacted by the publishers, who asked if I wanted to do it. They were big fans of The Athenian and our social media. And I said, Yeah, why not? Let's give it a try”.
The resulting hardback features over 60 recipes, including variations on the restaurant’s best-selling gyros and souvlaki, prawn saganaki, dolmades, oregano halloumi fries, Greek frittata, meze, and traditional recipes like spinach and feta pie. It’s been designed with the colourful branding that’s become synonymous with the restaurant.
Although this author is now based in London, where he started out with a street food stall in Haringey Market back in 2014, he spent some of his most formative years in Edinburgh.
“I went there when I was 18 and fresh out of school. Obviously I'd never lived abroad in my life and had never spoken English on a daily basis,” says Vasilakis, who was born and brought up in Athens. “My first year at The University of Edinburgh as a student was one of the best years of my life. I look back at it super fondly and quite emotionally. I had so much fun and met so many people from other countries. In Scotland, the educational system was really good and it was a really open and welcoming society. I only have good things to say”.
However, it wasn’t us who inspired him to get into the food business. Back in 2002, Greek restaurants were thin on the ground in the Capital and he couldn’t eat out much on a student budget.He was here to study music, and, after completing his course, he left for London, where he worked as a sound engineer for a few years after university.
“You really see a stark difference between London and Edinburgh. It felt another quite big culture shock”, says Vasilakis.
Then along came the street food trend in the early 2010s, and he noticed the lack of options from his home country.
“Greece was always in the news with the crisis and that fired me up to go into something really positive and present the country differently,” he says.
The Athenian was born when he set out a popular stall in Haringey Market in 2014.
Although Greek food is an increasingly popular takeaway choice these days and Edinburgh now has plenty of options, like Spitaki, Ola Kala and Don’t Tell Mama, these venues are still in the minority. That’s not down to a lack of interest.
“I think it really comes down to country sizes. Greece is a much smaller country with a much smaller footprint in the world. If you look at the most popular cuisines, they also tend to be really big countries like Japan, Mexico and Italy,” says Vasilakis. “Also there hasn't really been a big wave of immigration to the UK or particularly into Scotland, except after the Greek financial crisis, which is very recent. So that's probably also why you see so many Greek places popping up now”.
With the exception of best-sellers like the recent Taverna by Georgina Hayden, the cookbook market still isn’t flooded with Greek cookbooks either. The Athenian is an excellent reference as it features the most familiar dishes, like calamari, stifado and meatballs, but also twists on classics, like a pizza or burger, and - a prerequisite these days - plenty of vegan options, including the vegan moussaka and seitan gyros.
“It’s very now,” says Vasilakis. “It's from my generation, so no outdated stereotypes”.
However, there is a whole chapter named Mum’s Home Recipes, which includes chicken with orzo and Greek baked fish. Are these really his mum’s?
“They are the recipes that I have learned to make at home,” says the author. “My mum actually doesn't think she's a particularly good cook, but I think she's amazing. Every time I go back, she’s in the kitchen for like three hours at a time. And for her, that’s not anything special. I've got a cousin who’s lived in New York for 20 years. She came back this summer and spent some time with us at home and said the food in New York is very good but it’s never going to be as good as the way your mum makes it. That was really touching”.
Vasilakis is allowed to put in requests whenever he goes home, and he always asks for his mum’s ‘gemista’. These are baked and stuffed vegetables, with the healthy vibe that the author is keen to highlight. He also wants readers to understand how quick and easy the cuisine can be.
“It’s very simple. I never spend more than 10 minutes cooking for myself, because I don't have time and also because I'm very impatient. So that's kind of the story of Greek food,” he says. “There are some dishes that take a long time, like moussaka. That’s a once-a-year type of thing, but everything else in the book is quite quick to prepare”.
The Athenian: Eat Like a Greek by Tim Vasilakis is out now (23 March), £14.99 Penguin Random House