Making Spanakopita by Heart

Christos Floros is 89, has a vegetable garden, a foul mouth, and makes great Greek food. He’s a man after my own heart. He lives down the street from me in an old house with a gated front yard, where, for the past few years, I’ve seen him tend to his vegetables, grapevines, apple tree, and flowers. The other day I asked him if he liked to cook, and he said, “are you kidding, I’ve owned four restaurants.”

“Will you teach me to make something Greek?” I asked.

“Yes. What do you like?”

“Spanakopita,” I said, resolutely.

“Come in then.”

“Now?”

“Yes, now.” He then paused and added, “but there’s one rule. You cannot write anything down. You must just use your brain to remember.”

I was a little taken aback by this rule; it seemed so random. But as our conversation over the next couple of hours would reveal, learning by watching and trusting yourself to be capable of excelling at anything has been the secret to Christos’s success.

Christos arrived in the U.S. in the ’60s and worked at a garment factory in Rhode Island making a little over $1 an hour. He also washed dishes at a local diner, which was where – out of anger – the idea of opening a restaurant was born.

“One day I asked the cook to make me a couple of eggs. He said, ‘you have hands, make it yourself.’ I said, son of a bitch! One day I’ll have money to have my own restaurant.”

It wasn’t until a few months later, when Christos moved to Boston, that another situation would reinforce his desire to open his own restaurant.

He took a job washing dishes at South Boston’s Pier 4 restaurant. The fish chowder there was famous. But Christos noticed that guests put salt and pepper on it.

“The chef was this German guy always wearing white clothes and a chef’s hat. He was all cocky. One day we had a government delegation coming and the German called in sick. He spoke to the head cook, Maridis, a Greek fellow, and told him to make the soup. Maridis said no because he didn’t know how to make it. So I said, ‘give me a boy to help me, and I’ll make you the soup.’”

As you may imagine, the soup turned out great. The delegation was pleased, and they left a $500 check for the chef. Christos wanted the check, claiming that he’d made the soup. But Maridis kept the money. Christos said, “you son of a bitch” and quit.

“Three days later someone from the restaurant came to my house,” Christos said. “He had my last paycheck for $200 and the $500 from Maridis. He asked me to come back and work in the kitchen. You know what I said? I said fuck you, son of a bitch.”

Few things are funnier than hearing a 89-year-old man say that in a very thick Greek accent.

Anyway, Christos then took a job at a Boston factory that made kitchen mixers and other appliances. He rose through the ranks quickly. He saved a lot of money and, eventually, joined forces with a business partner and opened a restaurant in Waltham. Unfortunately, the partnership didn’t work out. Son of a bitch.

So he tried again, this time solo. He bought a restaurant at the intersection of Brighton and Harvard Avenues for $2,000. He named it VEK (after the initials of his three kids) and ran it with his wife for several years. It was there that he learned to make spanakopita. His wife had been pregnant and went on leave, so Christos found himself having to prepare the dish by himself. But because he had watched her make it before, he knew what to do.

“When I opened my first restaurant I went to get a license from the City. The guy asked me, ‘how did you learn to cook?’ I said from my mother, which is a lie because my mother died when I was five.”

“Why did you say that?” I asked.

“Listen, you have hands. You have eyes. And you have a brain. That’s all you need to cook. I don’t need nobody to give me a diploma. I can cook. I watched my wife make spanakopita. Then, I made it better than her. It sold out in a couple of hours. I said I’m stupid, I should make more, so I started making lots of it every day… That restaurant was good. I sold 350 cups of coffee every morning. It was also tiring. I worked from 5am to 11pm every day. No breaks. No holidays. Four years later I sold the restaurant.”

“For how much?”

“Twenty thousand.”

A pretty good deal.

At this point the spanakopita had come out of the oven and was resting on the stove. The conversation turned to other things, including his children, grandchildren, great grandchildren, the death of his wife, and life in Greece. Christos poured us some red wine, and we ate the warm spinach pie in some much-needed silence.

Spanakopita

Eventually, I learned about his third restaurant, called Christo’s Family, in Waltham. And, when I was about to ask about the fourth venture, I realized I’d lost track of time and needed to leave. So I made it a point to reconvene. Perhaps we could cook Greek lasagna, or octopus.

“Yes, anytime,” Christos said, as he packed a few servings of spanakopita for me to take home. “But remember, no pen or paper. Just your brain and your eyes.”

So here’s the recipe, not exact and done by heart. It’s easy. All you have to do anyway is use your hands, your eyes, and your brain.

Christos making spanakopita

CHRISTOS’S SPANAKOPITA

Ingredients

  • 3 (8 oz) bags spinach leaves
  • 3 bunches scallions
  • 1 bunch fresh dill
  • 1 cup olive oil
  • 1 lb feta cheese
  • 3 eggs
  • Fillo dough (store-bought, any number)
  • Black pepper

Directions

  1. Preheat the oven at 350F
  2. Warm up oil and add chopped dill and scallions. Season with black pepper. Cook for a few minutes and set aside.
  3. Wash spinach well and wilt in a pot without water. Set aside to cool off, drain well, and chop.
  4. In a large bowl, combine spinach, dill and scallion mixture, eggs, and feta cheese. Add more black pepper to taste.
  5. Brush some olive oil on the bottom of a casserole or deep oven dish and line with fillo dough so that is folds over the edges.
  6. Add spinach mixture to about two fingers high. Fold the dough over the filling and add another sheet on top. Brush over with olive oil, minding the edges and seams so that the dough doesn’t stick to the dish.
  7. Cover with aluminum foil and bake for 1hr and 10 minutes.
  8. Uncover and bake for another 10-15 minutes until golden brown.
  9. Serve at room temperature (or slightly warm) with some red wine.

Christos in the kitchen

5 thoughts on “Making Spanakopita by Heart

  1. Cristina says:

    I love how you find these characters, he seems to be a spunky old man! The spanakopita is delicious, maybe even better in winter when you want to use the oven.

    Like

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