Memories of Moussaka

When he has a free moment, and curiosity gets the better of him, executive chef Chris Kletsidis takes a stroll through the dining room at Kyma. For a chef it’s somewhat audacious. The less than inconspicuous whites let guests know who the chef is even if they don’t know the face. The praise of critics is a sign that dishes are well received. The messages of happy diners ferried to the kitchen by servers is another, but to see for himself if the classic Greek flavors he’s sending out are hitting the mark, Kletsidis takes the walk.

He returns pleased. And a little bewildered. “Sometimes I’m pulled over to a table and the people are in awe of what they just ate,” Kletsidis said. “They’re congratulating me and I’m, internally, wondering, ‘what just happened?’” Outside of neighborhoods like Astoria (known for its robust Greek immigrant community), the explosion of this cuisine is a relatively new concept in the world of fine dining. And Long Island has benefited more than most. But as Kletsidis sees it, we’re all just now discovering the simple yet powerful flavors of his childhood. “The components are top notch, but the ingredients and the seasoning are really basic and simple.”

Kletsidis has been eating Greek food and making it for as long as he can remember. For him, the deep flavors of nutmeg and clove; the bracing, clean acidity of vinegar and lemon juice; and the fruitiness of good olive oil; are routine. His earliest memories are of riding with his dad from their home in Astoria to the family’s Greek restaurant in New York City’s theater district. When you’re the son of a Greek who owns a restaurant with his father, you work there, too. And for Kletsidis, it wasn’t always in the kitchen. “I squeegeed windows, mopped floors, washed dishes and glasses,” Kletsidis said. “Basically, the grunt work.” In between there were opportunities to make dips, prep vegetables and become comfortable working with seafood.

Following the sale of the family restaurant came a 20-year hiatus from the business until Kletsidis joined the kitchen at Roslyn’s Limani as a sous chef. That’s where he was first exposed to the technical differences between preparing rustic dishes for family and friends and making them restaurant-caliber. At Kyma he starts with the flavors he remembered from childhood, tweaking them slightly. Fried zucchini at home starts with homey, chunky wedges, but at the restaurant they’re sliced paper thin and stacked into edible architecture. Time in the kitchen has also exposed him to gadgets neither his dad nor his grandfather would ever have used. His favorite: A timer.

“I need a timer because that is in control of everything in the kitchen,” Kletsidis said. “Everybody in the kitchen at Kyma knows they have to use that timer. If I don’t hear it… I have to know why the timer is not being used.” He’s a bit obsessive about control because at any given time there might be a lamb youvetsi baking in an oven next to another one with moussaka and lemon potatoes while octopus is on the stove top. He doesn’t cook from recipes, instead he constantly chases the memory of what a dish should taste like. “I don’t have recipes from my father. I have the flavors. It’s all about the flavors,” he said. “Recipes? I’m sure he hasn’t written down one accurate recipe in his life.”