At Yefsi, Christos Christou Creates Dishes Fit for a President
Christos Christou is, at last, a free man. For years, he labored at respected Greek restaurants in the city, putting out dishes that won praise. And yet, his creativity was severely restrained. He had recipes and ideas that never saw the light of day.
This all changed with Yefsi, the restaurant he opened a year and a half ago in Yorkville, where he is the principal owner. All his best recipes from 25 years of cooking and his best ideas have gone into Yefsi.
“As a chef, you have to have the freedom to create things and let your horizons expand,” he said, but his past business partners didn’t understand his vision.
“They didn’t want to experiment. They would come in the kitchen and tell me what to do. They would bring their mother in or their wife to tell me how to cook,” he said.
At Yefsi, the freedom he’s been afforded shows. Christou channels his creative energy into potential new dishes and tests them out on diners by presenting them as complimentary dishes to gauge response. The menu includes 30 small plates (mezezes), in addition to entrees, including four to five specials every day.
Even doomsayers who predicted Yefsi would not fare well, given the fate of the previous Greek restaurant that was in the current location, were proven wrong—from day one.
“People, they’re loving it,” Christou said.
The Yorkville restaurant is packed every night, and it’s hard to get a table without a reservation. Reviews have been glowing, and Zagat recently awarded Yefsi a 25 rating for food.
What Christou has given the neighborhood is not just Greek food that they swoon over, but a social hub, where people can come in, and meet friends and make friends. It’s not unusual for people to leave their table sfor a little while to visit with friends at a different table to catch up on the latest gossip.
Christou exudes good humor and bonhomie, a certain kind of magnetism that draws people to him and to the space that he’s created.
When he’s out of his chef whites—clad in a dark T-shirt, jeans, and boots—the tall, pony-tailed Christou suggests a tough exterior and calm confidence (he does hold a black belt in tae kwon do and started out in the police force in his native Cyprus).
“It’s been a great ride,” he said.
Growing Up in Cyprus
A Greek Cypriot, Christou grew up in Nicosia, Cyprus, on a farm, surrounded by peppers, eggplants, figs, apricots, plums, and pears—a kaleidoscope of fresh flavors, and sheep and goats for milk and cheese.
When he was about 14, his mother and grandmother started cooking at the family taverna, and they also put him to work, peeling potatoes, washing carrots, and picking up cuts of meat from the butcher that they had ordered. It wasn’t long till he started cooking himself, making dishes like pasticcio, a kind of Greek pasta baked with bechamel, or stuffed grape leaves, filled with rice, pork, chopped onions, and a bit of cinnamon and parsley.
“I was constantly around food and watching those two ladies cook. I picked up the flavors from a young age, “ he said. “When your mother cooks, when your grandmother cooks, it’s the best flavors you can eat. Even now at the restaurant, when people come in and say, ‘This reminds me of my mother’s cooking or my grandmother’s cooking, the way you put things on the plate, it brings pleasure to me.’ It tells me, at the end of the day, I’m doing the right thing.”
Stars and Stripes
After compulsory military service he found himself in the police force but yearning for more excitement. He packed up his bags and moved to the United States, where his older brother had arrived six months earlier.
He had no plans at the time. Little did he know, that some time in his future, he would be cooking for the president of the United States.
He took some English language classes and started doing some delivery work, dishwashing, and some work in the kitchen at an Italian restaurant run by Greeks. It was there that the 80-year-old Greek “grandmother” discovered his cooking talent and encouraged him to pursue culinary school.
He graduated at the top of this class at the French Culinary Institute, under the tutelage of Jacques Pépin, Alain Sailhac, and André Soltner, and worked in Marseille, France, for two years.
In New York City, he worked at Molyvos, as sous-chef under Jim Botsacos. The restaurant received three stars from New York Times restaurant critic Ruth Reichl. Not long after, he was executive chef at Milos.
When he would phone home, his family was in disbelief about his success in the states. And again, his family had the same reaction this past spring when they learned he was going to be cooking for President Obama for Greek Independence Day.
“Are you serious? You’re going to cook for the president?” his mother asked.
“I’m not joking,” Christou told her.
Christou was tapped to cook dinner for the president. “After I sent [my family] pictures, I said ‘Are you going to believe me now?’ They were like, OK.’”
His White House endeavor consisted of three days spent preparing nine dishes for 400 people. He was putting final touches on the food, when the White House chef pulled him aside. Christos recalled, “He said, ‘This is your time now. Leave the food to us. We’re just going to put it on the table. Just go in and enjoy yourself.’”
What makes the honor all the more poignant for him is that he was the first Cypriot Greek to cook for the president, he said.
Greek cuisine may be popular, but if Christou’s experience is any indication, it’s also still misunderstood. A lot of diners ask for butter, he said, which is probably one surefire way to drive a Greek nuts.
“I don’t serve butter. I refuse to serve butter,” he said, extolling instead the virtues of his extra virgin olive oil. Or, people will ask if he’ll make, say, Shrimp Fra Diavolo. “Guys, please. Yes, I can do it. But I won’t do it. It’s a Greek restaurant.”
If these experiences grate on Christou, it’s because he’s taken pains to stay 100 percent true to the Greek flavors of his childhood.
He knew how to cook long before his culinary studies, but it was under the influence of the luminaries at the French Culinary Institute that his eyes were open to new techniques, but also beautiful presentation, which he has brought to his work.
The mezezes, or small plates, just shine. The Greeks are legendary for their hospitality, so these small plates, meant for sharing a taste of this and a taste of that (“Yefsi” means taste, by the way) are reflective of that very aspect of Greek culture.
The Octapodi ($15), or grilled octopus, ranks among the best in the city. Perfectly tender and grilled so as to impart wonderful charred edges, and served with delicate slivers of red onion and capers, it’s absolutely not to be missed.
The Garides me Fasolia ($13) is a perfect study in textures and flavors. Christou served this at the White House dinner: sautéed shrimp and tender gigandes beans served in a tomato sauce and topped with feta.
A word about the feta cheese. I am normally not a fan. I find it too salty, too crumbly. But here Christou has sourced a feta cheese that is creamy, not overly salty, a version closer to a creamy goat cheese.
He also uses it to top the Horiatiki ($14), the shepherd’s salad with tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, onions, and olives. It stands out for the freshness of each individual ingredient. Christou knows his customers are very discerning and he looks for the best ingredients he can find.
The entrées are equally interesting and delicious, including a seemingly simple Greek orzo served with shrimp, mussels, scallops, in a tomato sauce, and topped with feta cheese (Thalasino Youvetsi, $27). Each and every piece of seafood is delectable, the mussels tender, the scallops silky smooth, and the shrimp, with the perfect amount of bite to it.
Occasionally he will run Cypriot specials. When his mother and aunt were visiting last summer, this time he had them in the kitchen cooking (happily, he said), making Cypriot dishes that customers loved.
Cyprus is located in the eastern Mediterranean, and so Middle Eastern influences are felt in the use of spices like cumin, cinnamon, and cloves
Christou is looking to open another location, and is hard at work on a cookbook. “I said to myself, after 25 years of cooking, it’s time.” It’s a project he’s doing for the fun of it, helped by his 15-year-old daughter, who helps by typing up the recipes.
At the same time, he’s not planning too far in the future. He lives much in the present, enjoying life day to day, cooking and spending time with his family. “I wake up in the morning. I say, ‘Thank you God that I’m alive,’ and I’m just doing my thing. I don’t have too many plans ahead of me because you don’t know what’s going to happen to you.”
“It’s a beautiful country but you get up in the morning, put on the TV, and you hear a killing here, a killing there, hurricanes, tornados, all these things.”
In the middle of the world’s uncertainty, the kitchen is where he’ll happily lose himself, day after day, 10 hours at a time.
“I love it. I don’t see myself doing anything else. This is my love, my passion.”
A Charming Setting
Besides great food and a great vibe, Yefsi occupies a beautiful, airy setting. You’re transported right into Greece, with white walls and wooden floors and beams. The lighting is warm and flattering, and the little decorative touches pull it all together. The bar area is rarely empty—it’s the place to be, unless you’re able to score a seat in the charming back garden, which is enclosed and open year-round. The restaurant fits about 110 people, including the garden space.
It also makes for a beautiful spot for private functions and events in the afternoon. Not being open for lunch, Yefsi can accommodate private events of 20 or more during the day, including on weekends.
1481 York Ave.
Monday–Sunday, 5 p.m.–11 p.m.
Saturday & Sunday: 12 p.m.–2 p.m.