Born in Virginia, United States, Yiannis Lucacos grew up in Athens before returning to America to continue his studies. Brilliant student in mechanical engineering, it’s especially his side jobs in different restaurants that reveal him. He enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America, worked at the Waldorf Astoria hotel and the Park Avenue Café in Manhattan… Back to the country, Yiannis Lucacos is inexhaustible, he works at Boschetto, collaborates with the culinary school Le Monde, joines the Yes Hotels & Restaurants group, receives the Eleftherotypia Gourmet prize. He opens “Psomi & Alati”, publishes two cooking books, participates as a judge on the TV program MasterChef. He creates few years after the website yiannislucacos.gr, and returns to television as “Dr Cook”. After many other collaborations, it is as the chef of the restaurant Comal that we meet him.
– Tell us about your childhood in Athens, what are your main memories, what feelings do you keep from these 15 years spent in the country ?
I was born in the U.S. from Greek parents who, at the time, lived and worked there. I first came to Greece at the age of 2 and stayed until I decided to go back to the States for my studies. I remember the stories I heard as a child from my father. He used to tell a whole lot of stories about how he managed to turn from an immigrant into a restaurant owner. It was magical for me to hear about those restaurants in faraway places, like Baltimore and Washington DC, the famous politician guests, the sophisticated meals, the million-dollar business deals booked in my father’s upscale restaurants. Those stories filled me with curiosity and admiration about the restaurant world which became for me one of the attractions for this business. The main attraction however, was cooking itself. This love was just born without knowing where it came from. Since I was a child, I remember myself going into the kitchen when my mother was cooking and getting in her way, eager to help out and even more eager, of course, to try all the goodies ! I had dozens of questions to which I was getting no answers and that made me angry and disappointed ! I wanted to know what sparked the wonderful smells, why we first do one thing and then the other, a bunch of things. Of course, I was a good eater, I loved to taste and I did not miss a single chance to enjoy new combinations which were a source of happiness for me.
My mother, however, who I troubled with all the above, was not all that happy having me around her feet and giving her a hard time. So we made a deal ! She would show me a recipe and I would cook it on my own at a time she was not at home. The very first thing I made from scratch was American style apple pie. I had tough time making it and at the same time came to the realization that watching another person make something has nothing to do with making it yourself ! Nonetheless, my trial was successful and the pie greatly enjoyed, a fact that filled me with great pleasure. Of course, the endeavor did come with some cost. To this day my mom loves to describe how weeks after she would discover little pieces of dough in the most funny places in the kitchen !
– So,at the very beginning, cooking was just a hobby, what gave you the strength to redirect your career plan ?
I grew up in Greece with the promise and hope that one day I would be able to return to my country of birth (USA) to go to college. This lifelong dream was realized as soon as I finished High school and at the age of 17, I found myself in Minersville, PA, living with my uncle and aunt while starting my degree in Mechanical engineering. I had contemplated to pursue a culinary career but at the time college seemed like a safer professional option. However, my first job, even before I started classes, was at a Greek diner as part dish washer, part prep cook. That was the first job I held in my life. I can’t say I liked it because the owners were terrible ! What I did like though was being held responsible to deliver tasks, that excited me. It didn’t last long however because I was fired within a week. That was the first and only job I was fired from in my life ! I went on and got a job at a hot dog and burger fast food place, called “The Coney Island”. That lasted for my first 2 years of college. Then, as classes got harder, I figured I had to focus on my classes and didn’t work until my graduation. Nonetheless, I continued to enjoy cooking and thus became the designated cook for my friends ! The summer after my graduation, I applied for a master’s degree and decided to stay in State College and work instead of returning home to Greece in order to save some money. I started at a State College staple, “The Waffle Shop”. There, I cooked pancakes and eggs and prepped like hell ! There wasn’t much “real” cooking going on, but I liked it. The cooking fever went up as the newly born Food Network had kicked off with “Emeril” and all the other shows of the time. I found myself wanting more so I got yet another cooking job at the “Victorian Manor”, a French restaurant. I thought that I would be doing some real cooking there. I started as a prep cook but very fast I took over the garde manger station. I can’t say I learned a great deal about cooking but I surely learned a lot about the process and what it means to be a cook in a professional kitchen.
Those experiences sealed my will to follow that direction in my life and turned it from an idea into a certainty. In that way, they were defining for me. My love, however, for cooking and the restaurant world stems from my childhood. The degree in Mechanical Engineering that I was preparing for at the time did not really suit me professionally. So, as soon as I completed my studies, I took a risk and embarked on a journey into the world of cooking, which had always been my love and desire.
– You decide to come back to Greece after your New York experiences, what kind of chef are you at that time ?
Having completed my studies in culinary arts at the CIA, I worked at the “Waldorf Astoria Hotel” and at the “Park Avenue Café” in Manhattan, New York while I had the chance to stage at number of important restaurants. All these experiences proved defining for my subsequent journey in the field.
After 9 years away from home and while experiencing the rough environment in New York City I had started feeling lonely and home sick. These feelings proved quite strong and thus made the decision to return to Greece. At the time, I was very eager to continue to learn and explore the world of restaurant cooking. I started working at one of Athens’ top restaurants, Boschetto, where I was quickly promotes to sous chef. I was collecting knowledge and improving on my skills trying to fulfill my dream of one day being in charge of a restaurant kitchen as a chef. That included among other things long hours of work, learning all stations of the kitchen, managing the kitchen when the chef was absent, costing out the menu on my own using custom made spread sheets and inputting invoices in my spare time. In other words, I was preparing myself to be a solid chef and then a restaurant owner !
Psomi & Alati – Chalandri
– You open your first restaurant, “Psomi & Alati”, how would you describe your cuisine ?
“Psomi & Alati” (which means Bread and Salt in Greek) is my first restaurant, operating since April 2009. The restaurant has evolved greatly over these 14 years. At the time, the menu was quite simple and was inspired by Greek traditional cuisine which was presented in a more contemporary way while holding on to the robust flavors that define this cuisine. I guess we could in today’s terms call it a gastro-taverna.
Yiannis Lucacos’ YouTube channel
– In 2010, you were selected among many Greek chefs to participate as a judge on the TV show MasterChef then Junior MasterChef and MasterChef 2, tell us about these experiences ?
The show aired for the first time in Greece and became an instant success. Literally overnight me and the other two chef – judges became huge celebrities. My restaurant, Psomi & Alati had been open for a little over a year and had a steady progress but I never expected what was about to happen after the show aired ! Our phone lines were jammed for months and reservations had to be made 2 to 3 weeks in advance in order to secure a table at the restaurant which was always packed ! The show aired for 3 seasons and was abruptly ended due to the effect of the country’s financial crisis at that time. Naturally, everything in my professional life got a serious boost after MasterChef. I received great acceptance and love from the public and I will always be grateful for that.
Being a part of television productions was quite an interesting and valuable experience for me. My love for cooking opened the door to a whole different world for me that had a lot to offer. Putting that valuable experience enabled me to start producing my own cooking videos and subsequently start my own youtube channel (Yiannis Lucacos). Producing these videos and being able to offer valuable advice to the public as well as interacting with them on cooking matters is something I really enjoy.
–That same year, you published your first book, “Psomi & Alati – The Cookbook”, and won the distinction of best cookbook of the year at the Gourmet Awards… You have a lucky star Yiannis !
I am grateful for everything I have achieved in my professional life but without hard work and goals, it is highly unlikely that you will achieve great things. I was always goal oriented and had the discipline and determination to work hard to accomplish my goals and I believe that this is the defining factor.
– You are launching a new challenge with Comal, tell us about this cuisine ?
Comal opened its doors in July 2022. It is inspired by Mexican cuisine and seeks to take a different approach from the typical tex mex logic that prevails in most Mexican restaurants in Athens. As, unfortunately, me or my team members have not been to Mexico,we do not aspire to reproduce authentic Mexican recipes but rather to create an experience that is inspired by the food mentality and culture of Mexico transcended through our own cooking mentality. The food at Comal is characterized by quality raw ingredients, freshness, finesse and robust flavors, paired with interesting cocktails and fun atmosphere.
– You seem to be full of goals, ideas, what is the next step ?
My professional life has been very full for many years, and I must admit this at times has happened at the expense of my personal life. I feel like this is a time to reset my life’s goals in general and start a new chapter. So, while I reflect on this, professionally, I will be focusing on all project at hand, especially the newer ones making sure that everything runs properly.
Comal Restaurant, Eleftheroton Square, Chalandri (next to Psomi & Alati)