Despite the fact that all the tables were occupied, silence prevailed. Next to us, a well-dressed gentleman who looked to be in his 80s was enjoying dinner alone – the entire ritual: first course, second course, not too much dessert, just a couple of bites, then a little cheese and a final sip of red wine, Greek wine. When done, he had finished off the best part of the whole bottle. “He always comes alone – once a week, rarely twice – and enjoys my food,” Constantin Erinkoglou informed me as he pulled up a chair “for a quick chat.”
Erinkoglou is the proprietor of Notos in Brussels and was recently named Best Ambassador of Greek Cuisine in Belgium. He has also been awarded a Bib Gourmands, a distinction whose recipients are the Michelin Guide’s inspectors’ favorite affordable eateries. Notos’s regular customers include well-known actors, politicians and entrepreneurs, but once inside, famous or not, everyone is a special guest, in the fullest sense of the word.
Erinkoglou’s impressive rise started from humble origins several decades ago. The son of a refugee family, he was raised in the village of Moustheni at the foot of Mount Paggaio in the Kavala region of northern Greece. At the age of 18, he left home to study sociology in Strasbourg and seek a better life. From the French city, the bright and adventurous young man moved to Belgium, to take a course in European Studies at the College de l’Europe in Bruges on a scholarship.
As a natural extension to his studies, Erinkoglou started working at a European Commission department in Brussels, which he described as a “brilliant career.” At the time, Erinkoglou liked to treat his colleagues to food he would prepare at home, based on his mother’s recipes. He longed to find a Greek restaurant in Brussels that served dishes he regarded as genuinely Greek. “I tried to find a place that served elegantly presented dishes that were tasty, simple and fresh.” The hunt proved fruitless. Souvlaki and moussaka were the closest things he could find to Greek food in the Capital of Europe.
Eight years later, Erinkoglou resigned, driven by a desire to pursue a path that would bring him happiness. “I went to Lyon to become a farmer. I don’t know why. It just happened. I began learning how to cultivate and found good producers, and ended up cooking,” he recalled. “Then, in 1996, I launched Notos and everything started happening really fast. The restaurant had gained a reputation within a month,” he added. The recipe for ensuring quality and customer satisfaction is at once simple and sophisticated, Erinkoglou believes. “A good dish is made with simple and good ingredients – good-quality, locally sourced vegetables, fish and meat. Every dish must offer joy, make the heart happy,” he noted. Notos has now clocked up 20 years since its doors first opened. In recognition of his achievements, Erinkoglou has been made a Knight of the Order of Leopold II for his contribution to gastronomy in Brussels.
It has been about a year since Erinkoglou last visited Greece. He’s kept his distance, fearing a trip here would worsen the concern he feels for the recession-struck country. “Here in Brussels, the people think that Greece is on the right track. Much less troubling news is going around,” Erinkoglou lamented. “But, you know, things have changed here too. My customers are ordering with some restraint. Lots of small restaurants have opened up in Brussels where you can have a meal for 10 euros.”