Woe to the employee at any of Costas Spiliadis’ renowned restaurants who misses any slight detail designed to bring diners shelling out top dollar for sea food and an experience they’ll remember and want to repeat again and again because he sees everything.
It’s borne of his roots and family upbringing in the Peloponnese and Patras, Greece’s third-largest city and a western port, love for his heritage that’s so intense he can recite dozens of Greek poems from memory, and the obsessive attention to everything he touches. All that has made his restaurants – all called Milos – in Athens, Montreal, New York, Las Vegas, Miami and London, favorites of the well-to-do
They have also elevated Greek food from what celebrated Montreal restaurateur David McMillan once dismissed as people thinking it was a couple of guys in “paper hats standing in front of a shawarma machine,” making souvlaki, to an unrivaled experience centered on the Greek bounty of fish.
“Costas Spiliadis made Greek food a thing, the most hyper-copied restaurant of his ethnicity,” McMillan told The New York Times’ severe food critic Alan Richman in a feature on the unlikely journey of Spiliadis from arriving in the United States in 1966 with the proverbial two suitcases, taking part in anti-junta protests while a student, moving to Montreal to escape returning to Greece during the dictatorship and going from opening his first restaurant there in 1979 – with himself as the cook-owner and dishwasher – to a man identified with raising praise and attention for Greek food, albeit the kind most Greeks can’t afford.
Bring your wallet and credit cards along with your taste buds because at Estiatorio Milos in New York, prices start around $50, but it’s well worth it, said Richman, who wrote in rare kudos that, “The Milos kitchens do not dabble in haute cuisine. Their focus is meticulous cuisine. Milos is a triumph of the authentic over the artistic.” So get in line.
Nothing escapes him in his restaurants because he prowls them like a food critic waiting to pounce, watching workers, the kitchen, the preparation and the serving. The staff don’t know when he’ll show up to check on the freshness of the fish or whether tomatoes – he bars their refrigeration – are stacked in pyramids the way he likes them.
If something is amiss, the person responsible can gulp at his sight and expect an email later to send shivers and a reprimand, whether it’s because flowers on a desk weren’t fresh enough or the desk was unstaffed.
GET IT RIGHT
“I expect perfection because my culture expects perfection,” he said. “For what I charge them, people expect perfection. Otherwise I have nothing else going for me. I am not a star chef. People judge me on their experience.”
It was a long, long journey from Patras, which he left at 19, the son of a retired military judge, intending to study criminology at New York University only to be yet another migrant swallowed up by the big city, rooming in the YMCA, crying for Greece and family.
“I missed my home, and was overwhelmed by the city,” he said. He soon moved to a private home on 14th Street, taking a room so tiny he had to climb over the bed to get to the window and because he was on a student visa, he wasn’t allowed to work. And the money his parents were permitted to send him was severely limited by the Greek government.
He got the food touch from the need to survive, cooking chicken necks at 15 cents a pound in his room and supplementing them with being fed at a hot dog stand in Times Square where a fellow Greek would stuff two or three into a bun with extra sauerkraut to cover them.
“I was totally lost,” he said. But no more. He’s no longer as he was then, he said, describing his young self as “nervous, scared and totally intimidated.”
Another Milos will open next week in the new Hudson Yards development in New York, followed by others in Los Cabos, Mexico and in Dubai later this year, all called Milos and all famous for their unrivaled seafood displayed on ice, if you can afford it.
“But his obsession with perfection is wide-ranging and merciless, not limited to fish. It encompasses all that he sees, tastes or possesses,” wrote Richman.
With the rest of the culinary world going off on trends and bents like molecular gastronomy or making reservations months in advance to taste food turned into a gaseous cream, Spiliadis ignored it, confident in Greek food and his own methods.
He transformed “Greek dining in North America from rustic to classic, helping banish its widespread image as little more than flaming cheese and lemon-soaked lamb,” drawing raves and well-heeled crowds, said Richman.
THE BIG FISH
Where most Greeks who opened food establishments in the United States, or Canada went small with souvlaki shops or traditional family diners, the kind that offered good food at fair prices, Spiliadis went big and it paid off handsomely.
Spiliadis’ father came from Filia, a mountain village in the Peloponnese region of Greece. His mother was born and raised in Constantinople, her roots in the culture of Greek refugees forced to leave rural Turkey and resettle in the early 20th Century.
He grew up loving music. When he came to America, he carried with him the songs of the mountains and the refugees, traditional music that was undergoing a revival in Greece. “This music made me who I am,” he said. But did his drive for perfection. When his first restaurant opened in Montreal, Spiliadis would drive 750 miles round-trip to New York City’s Fulton Fish Market and pay cash for fish – not a box, but checking every fin.
David Samuels, an owner of the Blue Ribbon Fish Company there, said. “Costas wanted individual fish. Usually a buyer would look at a box of fish, we’d negotiate a price, and he’d say, ‘I’ll take it.’ Not Costas. Every fish had to be picked out.”
A year after Milos opened in Montreal, it was full every night. David Dangoor, one of the first original customers, told the Times that, “I had gone to the best restaurants in the world, and then I came to this hole-in-the-wall in Montreal – narrow entrance, ugly wood planks, looked like it had never been decorated – and had one of the best meals of my life.”
Spiliadis said, “I did it out of a need to prove that Greek cuisine and culture were not as bad as everyone thought.” The quest was fundamentally unsound: “I wasn’t able to cook at all. I would call my mother in Greece, ask her, ‘How do I do this dish?’”
Milos began with a small menu before he perfected his Milos Special, delicately fried eggplant and zucchini, when a Greek jeweler who came from Pyrgos in the Peloponnese poo-pooed the food. “You do not know how make fish,” the man told him, and then showed him.
It’s the attention to detail that’s made all the difference. His closest professional friend in Montreal, Lenny Lighter, the former owner of Moishe’s steakhouse, heard about Milos and went.
“From my table I could see into the kitchen,” Lighter said. “Costas was taking a sliver off each melon, taking a bite, and throwing it in the garbage. I realized he was checking every melon himself before serving it.”
That hasn’t changed. Spiliadis, at 72, remains as driven as ever.
Samuels said, “He’s gotten worse. It’s not arrogance. It’s the tremendous pressure he puts on himself. You see it in athletes. No matter how many victories they have, there’s a fear of failing.”
Spiliadis still lives in Montreal, with his wife Dina, but keeps an apartment in New York, close to Carnegie Hall.
He said he won’t change his ways although managing a small empire means it’s more difficult to check every aspect, although he opens every new restaurant himself and stays for months to make sure it’s just so.
“It is not rational to be obsessed, but it is a part of me. I am not always happy about it.” His customers are though.