Sotiris Kontizas took an interesting route to get to his current occupation. With a Greek father and Japanese mother, he studied economics, but ended up in the kitchen.
I met him in his new bastion, the recently opened Nolan, on Voulis Street off Syntagma Square in the center of Athens, where he creates Japanese, Vietnamese, Korean and Chinese dishes made with local, in-season ingredients. When I arrived, preparations for the next dinner rush were under way. His kitchen staff bombarded him with questions, but he remained an oasis of calm as he sat opposite me.
He was born and raised in Athens. His memories of childhood flavors are a mix of Greek and Japanese – from his grandmother’s dinner parties with kebabs, pies, lemon and tomato sauces and olive oil, to the delicate dishes from the Far East that his mother made: steamed rice and sushi, noodles, soups, tofu. He loved them equally and grew increasingly fascinated by cooking.
After finishing high school, he attended Panteion University’s Department of Economic and Regional Development.
“I got my degree, but working with food is what won me over. On the grounds that you only regret the things you don’t do, I decided to try my luck.”
“The three most famous restaurants in Athens back then [mid-2000s] were Varoulko run by Lefteris Lazarou, Spondi, with Arnaud Bignon in the kitchen, and 48 with Christoforos Peskias.”
He learned that Peskias, having studied business administration in Boston, had a background similar to his own. So he turned up at 48 and asked to work in the kitchen.
“Put me in the kitchen, chef. Try me,” he said. “I just want to learn. I’ll work without pay!”
“That last argument won, as it turned out, and I got in,” he says laughing. “From Christoforos I learned everything: how to stand in the kitchen, what things you need to be careful about.”
He reminisces fondly about the dishes from that time – the foie gras peinirli, souvlaki with tzatziki foam, meatballs with star anise and cinnamon, even the French fries. But he needed money.
“So I got a job in a bank, initially at the counter and then in customer services. Monday to Friday, morning hours, a different way of life.”
A few months later, the manager of the kitchen told Kontizas that he had been made a permanent employee.
The next day he left his job at the bank.