It's All Greek to Me
The word "foreigner" doesn't exist in the Greek language. As a matter of fact, a new face at the dinner table has long been considered a welcome addition. Hospitality is something that's so heavily ingrained into the culture, it loosely translates into the phrase "lovers of strangers" when spoken.
This ideal is something Nisi Estiatorio executive chef and partner John Piliouras endeavors to bring to both the overall ambiance and menu of his restaurant. The high-end Greek fish house first hit the Englewood scene last year, and continues to garner rave reviews and repeat customers, thanks in part to Piliouras' own personal experiences growing up in a Greek household.
"Food and celebration were a nightly event in our house," he explains with a smile. "Everybody sat down together at the table. We'd talk about our day and use that time to recharge and reconnect. It was really our way of strengthening our bonds as a family."
A love of food is a driving force that runs deep through three generations of Piliouras men: His grandfather and father both owned and managed restaurants, while he and his three older brothers worked hard behind the scenes mopping floors and stocking the kitchen. "As a kid it felt like I missed out on a lot," he admits ruefully. "But in retrospect, it helped instill a strong sense of responsibility. I wasn't making any money, but I learned very early on where it came from and how hard you had to strive to make your dreams possible.
Being a chef was something Piliouras often dreamed about, but it didn't become a reality until his former role as a buyer for Pottery Barn was eliminated following the company's absorption by Williams- Sonoma. Rather than dwelling on what he had lost, this die-hard foodie decided it was time to go back to school and refocus his energies on the culinary arts. "It was sort of like serendipity," say Piliouras. "I was so used to all the heat and passion that goes into running a restaurant, it just seemed like a natural next step."
Fast forward 20 years through highly-lauded stints with restaurants like Bistro Maxime's, City Limits Diner, Café Meze, and Molyvos, and serendipity find its way back into his life again - this time in the form of Nisi Estiatorio. When Piliouras was offered the role of both partner AND executive chef, he jumped at the opportunity. "I wasn't actively searching for a new job, but it found me nonetheless," he notes with amazement. "How could I pass up the chance to share what I knew about the simplicity and beauty of fine Greek cuisine?"
While the hours are long, and the energy high, Piliouras and his partners continue to delight and amaze even the most discriminating palettes (The New York Times awarded the restaurant three stars last year). Whether you're there for the day's fresh catch (highlighted on a bed of ice in the center of the room), or to enjoy a cocktail and some Grecian-inspired snacks, this chef is deeply committed to recreating the same warmth and communal spirit he enjoyed at his own mother's table so many years ago.
"Eating at Nisi should be an uplifting experience," he insists. "As soon as you walk through the front door we want to make you feel appreciated and welcome. Kerasma -- that‘s the Greek word for ‘hospitality.' You won't find it on the menu, but it‘s something we serve with every meal."