Greek Chef Finds Meatballs Sad, Fields Job Requests: Interview
In the packed front room of the Evi Evane restaurant in Paris, a customer watches as economist Ntina Nikolaou walks out of the kitchen and sets before him a 13.50 euro ($17.80) platter of melancholy Greek meatballs.
“There’s much sadness in Greece,” laments Nikolaou, who in 1988 left her native country and the intricacies of debt-to- GDP recipes behind to construct the proper yogurt-to-olive-oil ratio required to ensure Evi Evane’s 17 euro fig-stuffed pork loin arrives moist out of the oven.
“When food fails to cheer up a Greek,” says the chef trained in the law of diminishing marginal utility at L’Institut Superieur Europeen de Gestion, “we have a serious equilibrium problem.”
Make no mistake. Nikolaou knows of what she speaks. Her family hails from a village overlooking Delphi, home of the Oracle and the secret formula for her ambrosia dessert: a 9 euro pistachio cream soup that demands a second portion.
From Paris to Athens, Nikolaou says that even a perfectly grilled kefta meatball nowadays looks cheerless, as good an indicator as any on what happens next in Greece’s $473 billion sovereign debt drama, which has spilled over into a euro region crisis. Evi Evane for years has been a habitual eatery and talk shop for Greek diplomats in Paris and members of the city’s Greek community.
She hears things.
“The mentality of the next generation of Greeks will not be good,” says Nikolaou, slicing up an inimitable baklava sweetened with cinnamon instead of honey. “What do they have to look forward to? Unemployment, closed businesses. This does not help the appetite.”
Standing behind the counter at the Greek delicatessen she also operates on the Left Bank, Nikolaou reckons her future as a Greek government economist -- as well as the business skills she honed to create a restaurant in the world’s gastronomic capital -- would have been stifled had she remained in Greece.
“I’d be in the same situation as everyone else,” she says. A phone call interrupts. The conversation is short and in Greek.
Nikolaou knits her brow. “I’ve had more than 40 calls from Greece over the past several months, all from people hoping that I can find them a job in Paris,” she says. “I’m now an employment agency.”
Again, the phone rings.
“I go back to Greece four times each year,” Nikolaou says. “What I’ve seen is life becoming more difficult, less agreeable, much more fear, risk and the unfolding of an economic paradox. Greeks are not lazy, but the governments that have run my country have never been able to create a fiscal discipline that could take advantage of our work ethic. That’s the precise cause of the Greek sovereign debt crisis.”
Nikolaou, who has two daughters and, with her husband, works 18-hour days, says Greece’s main political parties, Pasok and New Democracy, wasted five decades choreographing a “good dance” based on easy money. “Those with any business sense left the country,” she says. “Over the centuries, the economic results of the Greek diaspora have been positive for every country except Greece.”
Now, with the promised dawn of a new responsibility rising from Greece’s soured fiscal legacy, Nikolaou says the politicians would be wise to use their BlackBerrys to check in with her and other members of the Diaspora for guidance.
“If they asked, I would help,” Nikolaou says. “I’ve no doubt the others would too.”
It’s a long and eclectic list, which includes the likes of former Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Michael Dukakis, guitar pioneer Leo Fender, Research in Motion Inc. founder Mike Lazaridis and Baltimore Orioles pitcher Milt “Gimpy” Pappas, who gave up Roger Maris’s 59th home run in 1961.
But for Nikolaou, the most telling story of failure and success is that of her fellow economist Dimitri Papademetriou, the chairman and chief executive officer of JPMorgan Chase & Co., who is better known by his Anglicized name Jamie Dimon.
“Can you imagine what might have become of him had the Papademetriou family moved to Athens and not to America?” Nikolaou says of Dimon, whose Anatolian Greek grandfather became a New York stockbroker after fleeing Smyrna at the end of the Greco-Turkish War in 1922.
Back in the kitchen, over the fragrance of grilling gambas and hefty glasses filled from a velvety 39 euro bottle of 2008 Orgion red from the splendid vineyards of Domaine Sklavos on the island of Kefalonia, Nikolaou cuts into another baklava and, along with another plate of delicately baked halloumi cheese, offers up her Greek fiscal forecast.
“The next five years are going to be impossibly difficult,” the economist in exile says. “Now eat.”
Evi Evane Restaurant, 10 Rue Guisarde, 75006 Paris, tel. +33-1-4354-9786. Evi Evane Traiteur, 20 Rue Saint-Placide, 75006 Paris, tel. +33-1-7170-6059 or http://www.evievane.com.
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