Review: Vivien Horler
My Big Fat Greek Taverna – From diplomacy to ouzo, by Costa Ayiotis (Melinda Ferguson Books)
The customer is always right, right?
Except when they’re not. Costa Ayiotis – lawyer, diplomat, once Hout Bay taverna owner, and a man of strong opinions – really tried to believe in his customers, and mostly did, except when he didn’t.
Born in Egypt to a Greek father and a Dutch mother, he grew up in Johannesburg where he studied at Wits. In 1997, after returning from New York where he was a South African diplomat at the United Nations, he came to Hout Bay with his wife and two friends-cum-business-partners, and opened a Greek taverna.
It was the delicious, late-lamented Limonia, just a stone’s-throw from the beach. His father was a great cook and cooked what he says in this memoir were many memorable Greek meals for the family.
Costa loved the food so it was a no-brainer that if he was to open a restaurant in a fishing village, it would be a Greek one.
He points out that for most cooks the holy trinity of ingredients are salt, butter and sugar. For Greek cooks it’s olive oil, oregano and lemon juice. Greek cuisine would be unthinkable without lemons. Add some garlic.
One of the first patrons to provoke an outburst, after Costa had squeezed lemon juice over sizzling hot, charcoal-grilled lamb chops straight off the fire was Stelios, who announced: “I don’t like lemon juice on my chops! In fact I don’t like lemon on anything.” He paused. “And I also hate olives.”
Costa was initially unbelieving and then outraged. He explained in detail to the patron the importance of lemons to Greek cooking, which segued into a lesson on Ancient Greek history. Costa realised, on reflection, that his lecture, complete with waving hands and references to the patron’s mother’s genes, was unfitting for a former diplomat.
But on the other hand, it was something of a case of “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have an ungrateful child” – because Stelios is in fact Costa’s son.
Eventually peace was restored when Stelios announced he did love creamy feta and grilled halloumi.
The idea of a taverna had been brewing in Costa’s mind for years. Back in Joburg after the UN he consulted his friend Roddy, who had a couple of Greek restaurants in malls.
But Costas didn’t want a restaurant in a mall – it had to be in a place where there was salt in the air, the sound of seagulls and the feel of sand under the toes.
A Greek son, says Costas, is only successful if his mother says he is. At that point Costa’s mother was not impressed by her son’s serial careers to date. He realised it was time to head south.
And so he and his wife, and friends Almarie and Herman – “a man you could trust with your life, your wife and your money” – headed to Hout Bay where they acquired a moribund pub called Quantum. It was based in an old farm house just a breath from the beach.
It took a fair bit of work, but it was eventually transformed into a taverna, with lemon trees in tubs outside the front door and none of the kitschy blue-and-white colour scheme so beloved of Greek restaurants. Lemony yellow was preferred instead.
There was a fireplace, a huge oven to roast legs of lamb, a bar, a veranda and a shady courtyard. With a kitchen staff and wait staff hired, advice from Costas’s nonna as well as a veteran Greek restaurateur, and Costas at front of house, they were open for business.
He writes: “When you entered Lemonia at any time of the day or night, the aroma of roasted lamb, oregano, garlic, baked bread and freshly ground coffee welcomed you. These were the smells of a Greek home on a Sunday.”
They served supermodels, plumbers, priests, politicians and prostitutes, Joburg highrollers, fraudsters, conmen, musicians, Mafia dons and shady East European art dealers.
Costas discovered every patron was a food critic. And different nationalities behaved differently. One night a German visitor summoned Costa and complained about the generous portion he had been served.
Red-faced, the patron barked: “What do you think I am? You think I am a pig?” Costa figured it would be in vain to explain that in Greek culture generosity with food was a virtue and an expression of love.
When he suggested the patron could take what was left in a doggy bag, the patron shot back at him indignantly: “I am not a dog!”
An Afrikaans woman came to the restaurant wanting ciabatta bread, or failing that, focaccia. Costa said they served only pitta bread.
“But Luigi down the road serves it!” the woman responded
“Well yes, mevrou, that’s because Luigi’s is an Italian restaurant. We are a Greek restaurant.”
A British guest, outraged at the service, told Costa: “I’ll have you know that when I fly with British Airways and I ask for a second cup of tea before landing, the captain will circle the plane to ensure I get served my tea. That’s service for you!”
People demanded mint sauce with their garlicky lamb, hot English mustard and chutney and various other items like trout almondine not served in your average taverna.
Sometimes patrons’ demands would make Costa explode in fury in the kitchen. But he tried to remember a restaurateur was on dangerous ground when trying to educate people about food. “At best you can make suggestions… And when you’re really angry you can stride back into the kitchen and shove hot potato wedges into your mouth.”
One young man liked Greek food very much, slathering taramasalata over his bifteki in a bizarre surf-and-turf moment.
Trying not to roll his eyes, Costa comforted himself with the thought that at least the patron was combining two authentic Greek dishes.
Throughout the book there are references, as you would expect to delectable Greek food – you can almost smell the garlic coming off the pages.
This is a delightful read.