George Pagonis has always known Thanksgiving as a day of hard work. Growing up the son of Greek immigrants, he helped out in the kitchen alongside his parents and siblings at the family diner for most of the holiday. Only after the last customer was served would the family and a throng of visiting relatives sit down to eat. The table was loaded down with a mix of must-have, pilgrim-approved classics – roast turkey, mashed potatoes, and stuffing – and dishes favored in his parents’ homeland – dolmades (stuffed grape leaves), moussaka (a rich eggplant casserole), and roast lamb.
The Top Chef star and executive chef of the modern-minded Greek restaurant Kapnos still celebrates Thanksgiving with his family, who live in nearby Virginia. His mother, Mary, and his father, Tony, are first generation Greek immigrants. Both are from the small village of Skoura, just outside Sparta in the country’s southern reaches. “If you’ve seen movies set in Greece where the village has nothing but sheep, goats, chickens, and old ladies wearing black as church bells go off in the background, that’s what it is,” says Pagonis.
However, Pagonis’ parents didn’t meet and get married until after they separately moved to New York City. Diners were a common business for Greek immigrants, so Tony got a job in one as a short order cook. When his brother opened a diner in Vienna, Virginia, Tony moved down to help him run it. He later opened his own in nearby Alexandria. The Four Seasons was a classic Greek diner. “The menu was an encyclopedia,” says Pagonis. “You could have a lobster tail, scrambled eggs, moussaka, baklava, and stuffed grape leaves.”
Starting around the time he was in middle school, Pagonis and his brother, Nicholas, worked as toast boys on the weekend breakfast shift. This was no small duty. The restaurant sat 300 people and there was a line out the door from 9AM until 2PM. Every egg dish came with toast, so the boys were putting out thousands of slices. Waiters would shout out orders, the boys would toss bread in the toaster, butter it up, cut it, and get the toasted triangles on the plates.
At the end of the shift, each server would tip them a few bucks. It added up. Pagonis would routinely take home $60, a small fortune for a sixth grader. “My parents took me to the mall and I bought whatever I wanted: video games, Starter jackets, Jordans,” he says. “Everyone else had to wait for their birthday to get that stuff, but I was like, ‘Eff it, I’ll buy it tomorrow.’”
Interested in learning more about cooking, he began standing on a milk crate by the chef, peeling carrots, chopping potatoes, whatever. “Anytime he needed anything, I did it,” says Pagonis. “I never said no.”
Over the years, he learned how to make rice pudding, soups, and gravies, so, at age 14, he began working the line. When it came time to go to college, though, he left the diner behind, determined to pursue a career beyond the family business. He enrolled at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia, where he earned a degree in business finance. Upon graduating, he applied for positions as a credit analyst. However, as he nervously sat outside one office waiting for an interview, supremely uncomfortable in his suit, he questioned his nascent career path. “I felt like an idiot,” he admits. “I thought, ‘This isn’t me.’”
Returning home, he confessed to his father that he wanted to go into the restaurant business. The elder Pagonis took it in stride. “All right,” he responded, “but you’re going to culinary school.”
Pagonis attended the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park and then moved down to New York City to take a line cook position at Le Cirque. Unfortunately, the stock market crashed in 2008 and work dried up, so he moved back to D.C. for a job at José Andrés’s white-hot Greek restaurant, Zaytinya, whose kitchen was headed up by rising star chef Mike Isabella. It was a fortuitous intersection for both of them.
After a couple of years at Zaytinya and a short stint at Michel Richard’s brassy brasserie Central in D.C., Pagonis headed north for another two-year jag up in New York, this time as a sous chef at Charlie Palmer’s Aureole. “It was my childhood dream to work at a Michelin-starred restaurant, so I had to take it,” he says.
During that time, Isabella had gone from well-loved local chef to a nationally recognizable figure after appearing on Top Chef and Top Chef All-Stars, where he had been the runner-up. Now independent and even more ascendant, he had opened up the wildly successful Italian-inflected Graffiato, where Pagonis’s brother, Nicholas, was working as a manager. Isabella wasn’t done yet, though. Next up on his to-do list? A Greek restaurant.
The brothers ended up partnering with Isabella on the project. Their father had sold the family diner, so he gave them the investment money. George would handle the cooking and Nicholas would be the general manager. The Pagonis brothers and Isabella had a clear vision of what they didn’t want. “Nine out of ten Greek restaurants are the same,” says Pagonis. “Everyone has the same menu, a Parthenon in the background, and Greek music playing.”
The traditional blue and white aesthetic was traded for earth tones – there’s nary a Parthenon in sight – and the soundtrack is powered by alt rock. The name Kapnos means smoke, a nod to the twin hickory-fired grills in the center of the open kitchen which add a hazy hit to many of the restaurant’s signature dishes, such as spiced baby goat, smoked eggplant powered melitzanosalata spread, and spit-roasted chicken.
Though you will find some longtime Greek favorites on the menu – spanakopita (spinach pie), saganaki (fried cheese), and taramosalata (carp roe spread) – they feature twists on the classic preparations Pagonis grew up eating. At first, these forward thinking reinterpretations didn’t sit well with Pagonis’s father. “He started freaking out because he thought I was going to screw it all up,” says the chef.
However, when the restaurant opened, the new takes on old classics earned a glowing review from Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema. That and a cascade of other positive press helped pack the restaurant with excited diners, including Michelle Obama. After the First Lady visited, the elder Pagonis didn’t grumble again.
Though Pagonis was forging a strong reputation in D.C., many diners first virtually met him for the first time when he appeared on Boston-based season 12 of Bravo’s Top Chef. Expectations were higher than most for the talented up ‘n’ comer. After all, his boss and business partner, Mike Isabella, had become a star through his appearances. So it came as a shock to everyone when Pagonis was eliminated in the very first episode. “It was the worst experience of my entire life,” he says. “For weeks, I would wake up from nightmares.”
Luckily for him, producers threw a twist in that no one saw coming. Close to the end of the competition, all the eliminated chefs were allowed to vote to give one of them the chance to cook their way back onto the show. The contestants almost unanimously chose Pagonis. “That made me feel that everyone knew it was a fluke I went home first and that I deserved a second chance,” he says.
He was determined not to blow the opportunity and his confidence soared when Colicchio revealed what Pagonis and his competitor would be cooking: rabbit. “I thought, ‘I’m Greek and I worked at a French restaurant. Lights out. I’m taking this guy out,’” he says.
Not only did Pagonis win that challenge, he made it into the final four before being sent home. It was a bittersweet comeback. “I redeemed myself a little bit,” he says. “I wish I was there for the whole thing, but I’m grateful I had a second chance.”
Now that he’s off camera and on the ground in D.C., he can focus on his ever-expanding Kapnos empire. There are now outposts of Kapnos Taverna – which focuses more on Greece’s coastal cuisine – across the Potomac River in Arlington, Virginia and at Reagan International Airport. A more traditional Greek restaurant with large format dishes, Kapnos Kouzina, opens in Bethesda, Maryland, early next year followed by another location of the concept in Merrifield, Virginia, in the summer. The following year will see the debut of another Kapnos Taverna in College Park, Maryland.
In the meantime, Pagonis is simply looking forward to making it through the Thanksgiving rush. Following dinner at his parents’ house, he always hits their couch to watch some football and relax. After all he’s done, he’s more than earned it.
Make a reservation to dine at Kapnos to sample the forward-thinking Greek cuisine that Pagonis and his team are serving.
Nevin Martell is a Washington, D.C.-based food and travel writer and the author of several books, including Freak Show Without A Tent: Swimming with Piranhas, Getting Stoned in Fiji and Other Family Vacations. Find him on Twitter @nevinmartell.