The owl (“koukouvaya” in Greek) is a symbol of knowledge and wisdom, and perches firmly on the rooftop of 2A Chatzigianni Mexi Street – six storeys above ground. Cookoovaya greets you and offers you a chair. “Where should I rest my right hand?” you might wonder, but the answer comes easily from your personal experience: you will clink your glass loudly, you will eat, and you will have an impact on your dinner partner. Cookoovaya alights on your linen napkin, hovers above the room, tasting and yearning, pouring wine into glasses. It peeks at its guests from the open kitchen. Chefs Spyros and Vangelis Liakos, Pericles Koskinas, Nikos Karathanos and Manos Zournatzis – ten pairs of hands and eyes, all welcome you to Cookoovaya.
Cookoovaya is a celebration, it is a daily feast and as such, is boisterous: laughter and glasses and cutlery and plates compose a melody each day. It is hospitality through a good meal. The menu changes with the season, the kitchen is continually evolving. You will remember how you felt and not just what you ate. In the bright Cookoovaya dining room, which was designed by architect Stefanos Psyllakis, the food participates in the meal and complements the company. It is the feast of Saint Everyday.
Cookoovaya isn’t the result of a happy coincidence. It is the product of proper planning and excellent timing. It advocates a wise cuisine, in the sense that it respects the cooking process, ingredients, service and hospitality. After all, wise cuisine is indicative of food philosophy in Greece. Cookoovaya was founded on household economy, sagacity, knowledge, seasonality, and the imagination to poetically combine ingredients from our blessed country – simple and delicious. Try our Christmas pork, Easter lamb and the light spring lamb served in summer. Veal, venison, grouper, tuna, sea bream and more, each one served at exactly the right time, with creative contrasts. Everything is prepared on the premises: from the bread and the food to the ice cream and the pasta. Cookoovaya is about the food, the fare, the fodder, the seed that will become food, the quest of the cultivator – and the cultivator who becomes a friend.
Five chefs in one kitchen, in their palace, serving food as it should be served: delicious, honest, prepared with experience, thought, passion and the incredible joy every cook feels when entering the kitchen, the very moment the ingredients come into sight. The name was chosen based primarily on the identification of the owl with knowledge and wisdom, aiming to show the deep knowledge of its chefs and the everyday pursuit of gastronomic wisdom. The owl, whose vision is excellent both during the day and the night, refers to the fact that you can visit Cookoovaya at noon and in the evening. The symbol of the logo was inspired by the eyes of an owl, designed in a way that resembles to the cooking hotplates of a professional kitchen.
It is said that the owl of Minerva only flies at dusk. Cookoovaya of Athens, however, is open daily from 1.00 pm to 1.00 am. If you leave the restaurant late, you will hear the gurgle of Ilissos River as it flows underground. Knowledge is all around us.
The art of hospitality and catering are two of Kleomenis Zournatzis’ main focuses. He monitors global changes and trends in an attempt to comprehend and communicate the essence of food as he perceives it: the manner in which one appreciates the experience as a whole.
A third generation chef, Kleomenis confesses that he managed to outwit his parents, who wanted him to embark on a different course of study, by working in several restaurants in Greece, Berlin, the south of France, and on a Sheik’s yacht. Hence, he is forever pushing the boundaries of innovation, tradition and image to the limit. The speed with which he works, his hyperactivity, whips those around him into a frenzy that must be controlled, but that is the nature of creativity – it is full of emotion.
In his mind, it is the visitor that is the protagonist, and not the chef or the dish. The protagonist experiences an adventure in taste and hopes it will never end. Kleomenis firmly believes that food is both tangible and has a memory, inspiring powerful emotion. Moreover, the cuisine we truly savour is wise, as it pulses under the hand of those preparing it and responds to each bite taken, absorbing the atmosphere around us.
As an impish young boy, Nikos told his father he wanted to be a chef, in an attempt to brush away the question: “What do you want to do when you grow up?”
Although finishing school was a struggle, his life and character were soon to change forever. The world of the kitchen consumed him; the passion it inspired in him was boundless. After studying at the Le Monde Institute, he worked at many restaurants and experimented with how much he could achieve and how quickly he could do it – as if he were winning one bet after another without being fully cognizant of the rules of the game. He would dive in as deep as possible without taking time to breathe.
Jerome Serres, the great master chef from whom he absorbed knowledge like a sponge, and the Michelin star he received at the age of 27, the youngest Greek ever to be bestowed with the honour, as well as the many successes that followed are recorded in his bio, but neither lead him astray nor make him lightheaded. His untamed youthful vigour evolved into boldness as he grew older, not necessarily, however, transforming the child into an adult. It was a commitment to achieving goals and a great deal of hard work. It was perseverance and patience. It meant that fear was not a word in his vocabulary: he went to work in the best restaurant in Spain without speaking a word of English, yet he managed to coexist with the 65 other people in the kitchen and return with three notebooks full of recipes – written God only knows how.
Most of Nikos’ vacations are spent on training courses abroad and although he rarely smiles, he claims to be “happy” at Cookoovaya – but nonetheless, his mind is always on a dish, wandering somewhere in the world, where somewhere, somehow, he would do something wonderful.
When he was ten years old, Spyros and his brother blew up a pot of spaghetti and destroyed the kitchen ceiling. But despite his initial inability to even boil pasta, he discovered at the age of 17 that he was fascinated by the production process: cheese making, the preparation of cold sliced meats and bread baking.
The books written by legendary kitchen historian and renowned chef Evi Voutsina acted merely as the trigger. He wouldn’t reach his final destination until much later. First there were many years spent in Chalkida, at a 5,000-seat theatre, where Spyros was to discover his talent, between theatrical performances and concerts: the ability to organise a kitchen that is capable of preparing 5,000 high quality servings every day. He managed to pull it off for dishes that were previously thought to be impossible to produce in such quantities. The skills he uncovered and the pleasure he felt in offering the best possible hospitality, led to a new chapter in his life and he went on to open the Base Grill with his brother Vangelis.
It seemed he was destined to love his work. And he also successfully implemented his philosophy on catering in business: the food you prepare should be suitable for the many and not just the few.
He feels fortunate to have met people he never dreamed he could have met, people who respected or inspired him in one way or another. In his world, food is linked to both God and the Devil, and that is why he believes he has a tremendous responsibility to the confidence the person eating something he prepares shows in him, because “the food we consume must be digested, and we chefs have the exclusive, serious responsibility to make sure that is the case.”
That which has travelled and returned is delicious. Like a memory. Like wisdom.
Corfu, England, France, Scotland, Spain, Venezuela, and central Athens. Pericles Koskinas began travelling the kitchens of the world with a falsehood. For a great love. For this occupation to become the reason for thought, for fun, for travel. His journeys were not limited to Venezuela, Miami and the remote regions of Canada, but also to countertops, kitchens, orchards and fish markets. To dives in the deep blue sea, to myths and historic truths. To recollections and impulses of clear and latent memories, like that delectable madeleine in Marcel Proust’s “Search for Lost Time”. That first simple bite of shrimp experienced as a young child at Kardaki, the Corfu beach he spent his summers on. The stories of people making both small and big decisions while sitting around a table, sharing food that complements the company rather than overshadowing it. These are the sort of people he enjoys cooking for, who savour “without Puritanism, without gravity”, as he says. What does he mean by that? “The food we prepare is humble, not in the Christian sense, but in the spirit that it is free from moral standards.” You can see him in the open kitchen. And he can see you. As long as you are content, he is content.
Simple things and complicated ones too… like fish and greens.
“When you have a kilo of gold in your hands, you don’t toss it at a woman. You make it into a beautiful chain to adorn her neck.” This is similar to Vangelis’ philosophy on food: it is a wonderful raw material that can be moulded to please the person it is prepared for.
Since the beginning and during the many years he spent out of the kitchen working at the Athens Festival, he has always occupied himself with the transformation of raw materials. When handed a recipe requiring an ingredient that he can’t get his hands on, he simply doesn’t make it. His philosophy is based on the knowledge of the process and the self-confidence that allows him to believe that he can create anything – the cheese, the bread, the cold cuts.
According to Vangelis, depth and substance are derived from whatever may be happening while he is cooking, from his tender connection with the ingredients and a lively curiosity. A perpetual “why?” that consumes him, a “why?” that drives him to concentrate on a dish, never minimising its importance. And the arrogance of the chef? It is a personal affliction that must constantly be battled. After all, it is the immediacy experienced by a chef that leaves no room for error… or correction.
Vangelis maintains that taste is not objective: a dish either tasty or not for the person eating it depending on their mood, whereas he creates a potentially delicious dish from a need to offer rather than impress. Nonetheless, the kitchen continues to surprise him on a daily basis, and the feeling is just as powerful for a good surprise as a bad one. Because when you are in love, a misstep has the same strong flavour as success.