From summers in the olive fields of Greece to making toast at his dad’s restaurant in Alexandria, George Pagonis was born into a life of food.
Even though his dad tried to talk him out of the family business—his uncle owns Nostos in Vienna, his great uncle started Amphora diners and bakeries and his dad owned Four Seasons—Pagonis knew he belonged in the kitchen.
After attending culinary school, working in New York and staring on this season’s “Top Chef,” the 31-year-old is back in Virginia and opening Kapnos Taverna tomorrow with “Top Chef” alum Mike Isabella. A spin-off of D.C.’s Kapnos, the Arlington menu will highlight Greek seafood. —Stefanie Gans
Summers in Skoura
There is a small, tiny village with my grandmother and my grandfather. There’s really not much to do around there. Me, my brother and my sister, we’d have to sit there for two months every single summer as kids. We had goats, we had chickens, my grandfather had a donkey and he’d take us on a tractor ride to olive fields and we’d pick olives. He took us to his orange orchards and we’d pick oranges.
When I was a kid I asked my grandfather for a glass of milk and he gives me a glass of goat’s milk and I spit it all out.
My mother cooked every day. She didn’t work. She stayed home and took care of us. My dad hated going out to eat so we always ate at home.
From Toast to Pot Roast
The weekends [at my father’s diner] would be so busy [and servers] want a white toast, a wheat toast, a rye toast for the omelet, so they’d ask me. I’d butter it, I’d cut it and I’d give it to them. At the end of the day they would tip me out. I’m earning $40-50 in second grade.
From there, it slowly evolved. At 15, 16, I started busing tables, washing dishes. I’d have to wait for my father to be done with his shift so then I’d hang out with the chefs and I started learning how to make pot roast and moussaka and all the standard New York-New Jersey diner stuff. I started working behind the line, being the short order cook and that’s how I got into cooking.
I got my business degree from the University of Mary Washington because my father tried to scare me out of restaurants altogether. [He’d say] ‘George, there’s so many other ways to make money, you don’t have to go into the restaurant business.’
After I got my degree and went on some job interviews, I’m like ‘Dad, there’s no way, I can sit in an office all day. That’s not for me.’
When my father opened the diner he kept telling me, ‘George, when we opened the diner, this is all we knew when we came here. We learned this from the other Greeks and they learned this from other Greeks. You were born in this country, you have an opportunity to do something better. So if you want to go into the restaurant business, you’re gonna go to culinary school.’
Easy as Smoke
Kapnos means smoke in Greek. Greek words are really hard to pronounce, so the idea of coming up with Kapnos was we wanted something more simple. We didn’t want it to have too many different syllables so people would butcher it.
And we have these two monster spit roasters that produce tons and tons of smoke.
You look at Italian cuisine, you look at Spanish cuisine and it’s glorified maybe just a little more than Greek cuisine. A lot of people stereotype Greek food. For example, you have chicken parm, pasta with tomato sauce but that’s not what Italian food is. That’s the thing with Greek food. Moussaka, that’s not it. That’s just an old classic that everybody talks about. Leg of lamb. That’s not it. It’s about going to the small, little villages and what people do and what people make. What I’m trying to do is kind of show everybody there’s more Greek food than that. It can be more fun and be better than everyone sees it. / Kapnos Taverna, 4000 Wilson Blvd., Arlington
This interview has been edited and condensed.