Pierre Lustrat: “When people first came here, they ordered escargot always the same way — with garlic and butter. Well, I thought up four or five ways to serve them...."
My grandmother’s restaurant, Manya’s, failed in New York during the Depression. She had to contend not only with the economic disaster that beset most diners, but with the rise of cafeterias where those with money could dine quickly and efficiently on food that would cause my grandmother to blanch. At the height of her business, she would rise at dawn and, in European fashion, she shopped daily for all of her products, lugging home fresh fruit and vegetables in huge cloth bags. She cooked every item fresh each day, and if we had leftovers, she distributed them to a long line of impoverished people, including many black youngsters from the South who had come to try their luck in New York.
Dionysis and Georgia Stathoulis: "I met Georgia in a Greek coffee shop. I drank so much coffee every day, coffee, coffee, coffee, that she took pity and married me.”
During that long, bitter period, when fewer and fewer arrived at our doors, she arose early as always, and began preparing her soups and stews. In the late afternoon we baked — I say we, because I always helped. Every now and then my grandmother would glance out the window at the new cafeteria across the street and wince, but she went right on cooking, and giving the food away when there were no more customers to pay for it. After a while, when our finances became perilous, she had to quit.
Art Bolic: "We’d put apples, celery, and carrots into a sand floor and then the vegetables would be covered with sod."
To ease my grandmother’s pain, my mother, her daughter-in-law, often bought her a present consisting of ten pounds of flour and an equal amount of sugar. This always brightened my grandmother, and she would begin immediately, never measuring an ingredient, but producing yeast coffee cake and other European goodies of wondrous flavor and odor. Cooking was not merely her living; it was her craft. She had begun at age twelve as a kitchen assistant to an aristocratic family in Odessa, and when she was widowed at age twenty-two in New York, she became an under-cook.
Pierre Lustrat: "For lunch, sometimes I buy a pastrami sandwich from a delicatessen."
She was as obsessed with cooking as any artist is with his work, and she never tired of it. It was not an occupation that engaged her eight or ten hours a day, but constantly, and sometimes as late as midnight I could hear her pounding nuts with the mortar and pestle that she had brought with her from Russia.
Recently I interviewed some chefs in the San Diego area — a husband and wife team who do Greek cookery, a free-lance American chef, and a purveyor of French haute cuisine who is the product of years of formal training. Their stories are simultaneously different and similar, and the focal point of their lives exactly the same as my grandmother’s — the food’s the thing by which they’ll capture the love of kings!
Dionysis Stathoulis began his career as an actor in Athens, Greece. He played in comedies and served as master of ceremonies in revues, but he ended up in San Diego, along with his wife, as the owner-chef of a small Greek restaurant called Georgia’s. As in hundreds of such restaurants in his native land, the recipes are based on familial knowledge, and the restaurant's basic concept is that of a family venture. The restaurant is named for his wife, but they both do the cooking and they each work sixteen hours a day. six days a week. Even on their alleged day off, Monday, when they should be spending most of their time with their small baby, they do the bookkeeping, order the food, and think and talk about their restaurant.
Which is not to say that Dionysis and Georgia (ages thirty-seven and twenty-four) are a somber couple. To the contrary, they both exude enormous warmth, intense optimism, and a sense of caring — food, after all. is a form of offering love, and in this capacity, Dionysis and Georgia are tireless.
Of the two, Dionysis, who calls himself Dennis “because Americans have a hard time with this name.” is the more voluble. Speaking of his early career on the stage, he explains, “Once you have stepped out on the stage, you can never take it out of your heart.” Yet there is nothing about his appearance that would fit the American stereotype of an actor. Of middle-range height, he emanates well-being rather than a sense of presence, and while his face and eyes are animated, he has a well-earned paunch and a soft, understated manner. But he can scarcely mask his delight with his present circumstances. “Cooking is like acting. You have to have a feeling for it. And when you have this feeling, you never get tired of it.”
Even while Dionysis was acting, he simultaneously ran a law office, springing between the two jobs as if it were an enormous lark. In like manner, when his sister (now a part of the restaurant) married and moved to Johannesburg, South Africa, nothing would do but to visit her. The immigration officer in Athens thought differently and told Dionysis he would have to wait months for a visa. Undaunted, he flew to Rome where he applied to the Greek consulate there. When his exit papers to South Africa were in order, he sent a post card to the Athens immigration office saying, “See, I told you I’d get a visa.”
His arrival to the United States came about in the same spirit of enterprise and daring. W’hile performing Greek plays in Johannesburg, he met a Greek chef who was anxious to visit a relative in Oklahoma City. Oklahoma City? He could hardly pronounce the name, but why not? It sounded interesting.
He knew nothing about cooking in 1971, but his friend did. When they investigated Oklahoma City and realized that it had never been exposed to Greek food, they decided to send for a cook from New York and on the proverbial shoestring began a tiny operation, Zorba’s, in downtown Oklahoma City. The cooking was done right in the window, and Dionysis acted as helper and manager. Watching the other two, he soon learned to cook.
“For lunch we could seat maybe thirty-five. The lines went to the corner and then to the traffic light. They loved the shisb kebab. They loved everything. I started to cook then, and I loved it.”
Encouraged by his success, he moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma, and now entirely on his own began a more lavish operation — a nightclub complete with belly dancers — for which he did the cooking. After a brief time he lost his lease and moved on to visit his friend from Johannesburg who had settled in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
“There I met Georgia in a Greek coffee shop. I drank so much coffee every day, coffee, coffee, coffee, that she took pity and married me.”
Dionysis was then doing the cooking at the Acropolis Room at the Desert Inn, but as part of their honeymoon trip he and Georgia came to San Diego in 1974.
“We loved San Diego,” Georgia recalls. “New Mexico was so hot, so hot,” Georgia offers. “But here, the water, the sky, it was just like Greece.”
As with all of his previous relocations, the one to San Diego was done with great enthusiasm and without much of a backward glance. But they almost foundered when they opened their restaurant, Zorba’s, in Oceanside in 1975. “The town was too small, the people did not know Greek food, the Navy people didn't like it.”
Now they are doing a fine business in modest quarters in an offbeat location at 3641 Madison Avenue, in North Park. Dionysis usually begins his day at six in the morning, when he starts to cook at the restaurant. He uses no short cuts, no canned or frozen food, and except when tomatoes are astronomically high, he even makes his tomato sauce from fresh, ripe tomatoes. Because Americans generally do not like lamb in their moussaka (which consists of layers of ground meat, eggplant, and a custard of bechamel sauce), he bakes his ground beef in the oven so that he can skim off the fat. He prepares the mix for the stuffed grape leaves, but Georgia, who comes in “late” at about eight in the morning, rolls the grape leaves. They both work on the pastries and the bread, all of which is baked on the premises.
In addition to the cooking that he does for his restaurant, Dennis bakes Greek pastries for wholesale distribution (one of his outlets is Fed Mart). He runs a catering service, so he must prepare the food for that as well.
Three days a week, Georgia cooks for Sky Chefs, a division of American Airlines. She gets paid four dollars an hour and works from seven in the morning to three in the afternoon. Her mother-in-law, who lives with her, takes care of the baby. They would like her to work full time at Sky Chefs, but there she does production cookery, an almost assembly-line handling of food. In their own restaurant, they cook “from the heart.” That they both work constantly, far from tiring them, renews their spirits.
Last year, when the Greek Orthodox Archbishop of North and South America visited San Diego, the church called and gave Dionysis and Georgia one hour’s notice to prepare a Greek dinner for fifty people. Such frantic stuffing of dolmades, such baking of moussaka, such cooking of lamb and baklava and galaktobuourico, a dessert rich with egg custard, they had rarely experienced. But when the dinner was over and the couple received compliments for their work, they stood there radiating pleasure. For Dionysis, it was every bit as heart-warming as appearing on the stage.
Arthur Bolic should know about cooking; he began to help with food preparation when he was virtually a toddler. He was born in Salt Lake City, and his Swedish grandparents on his mother’s side did little else but raise and prepare food; his grandparents on his father’s side ran a boarding house in a mining camp outside Salt Lake City.
‘‘I can still smell the stock pot working, maybe sixty quarts of it. During the early Thirties, we had no refrigerator. Now that was exciting. We preserved food with salt and curing, and in the mine on one side of the mountain we kept things cold. Walking into that mine was like walking into a delicatessen. There were homemade sausages, smoked hams, fresh sauerkraut. Nothing went to waste. The intestines of slaughtered pigs went for casings for sausages, the scraps went for the stock pot. At the boarding house we had huge meals of homemade bread, lamb, pork, sometimes even kid goat, and lots of vegetables and potatoes. We even made our own red wine.
“I always helped in the root cellar. We’d put apples, celery, and carrots into a sand floor and then the vegetables would be covered with sod. When I went to fetch the celery, it would smell so good that I would eat it, dirt and all.”
When his parents were divorced, his mother and stepfather opened a “beanery” that catered to daytime trade in downtown Salt Lake City. It was called Chuck’s Place and was known for its “homemade” food. Art worked there and at his grandparents’ boarding house. He began to cook professionally when he was fifteen and worked summers in Yellowstone Park at a cafeteria that still had wood-fed stoves.
“We had these open pits for broiling. In those days, we clarified soup stock by throwing in egg shells. That’s not allowed anymore. Anyway, I wanted to be helpful, so I began stirring this stock. All the fat that had been soaked up in the egg shells just sank right to the bottom of the soup. It was so greasy, it was awful. But of course anyone who is in cooking is bound to get his nose bloodied.”
Art Bolic, who has been helping in the kitchen since age five, is now forty-seven years old. He has six children and eleven grandchildren. His second wife is a year and a half older than his oldest daughter, who is twenty-six. The whole family meets regularly for mammoth Basque-style meals with six to eight courses. “Having the whole family, including my youngest baby son, and cooking for all of them, I just love to do it. You know with some families, they cook a turkey and have it six different ways on six different days. When I cook for my family — whoosh — turkeys, hams, lambs, you name it, it just goes.”
He is dressed in a blue blazer, a red tie, gray flannel pants, and he carries an attache case. He has just come from a La Jolla bank where he has made arrangements to cater a large dinner party. The irony is that Art is not listed in the phone book as a caterer. All of his customers come to him by word of mouth.
When Art arrived in San Diego in 1964, he was selling insurance to restaurant people. He seemed to know so much about the business that he was hired by Love’s in 1968 to manage their Mission Valley operation.
“Essentially it’s a fast-food operation. The basting and barbecue sauces, even the slaw dressing, all come out of Los Angeles. The kitchen is too small for their operation, so they have to do the chicken and then refrigerate it. I did a lot of managing, but I decided to go to sea on a tuna boat. I cooked on a big black diesel stove. The first cake I baked on that diesel stove was a disaster. It went up and down, like hills, and it tasted the way it looked. But when I got the hang of the vents and the oil, and I began to make good meals, that was exciting.”
In San Diego Art is perhaps best known for the innovative menu he devised that is still in use at the Halcyon restaurant in Point Loma. For a short while, he had run his own restaurant. The Seafood Import Co., but a serious automobile accident put him out of commission, and without his immediate presence, the restaurant folded.
What Art wanted to create at the Halcyon was the Basque-style meal, based not on European notions of “peasant food” but on his own memory of the family-style meals at his grandparents' boarding house. He cooked soups in huge vats, made his own baked beans, served blue cheese and pickled herring for snacks, and used from five to seventeen vegetables in the salad and with the entree. Only one entree was served per night. When Art started at the Halcyon, the restaurant was serving sixty dinners a week; when he left some months later, the same restaurant had a business of almost 600 dinners a week.
Though his formula proved highly successful, a dispute arose over his own catering service, which the restaurant owners would not permit him to run from the kitchen at the Halcyon, as he had hoped to do. Using the same concept of family-style meals. Art Bolic managed the Villa Basque in La Mesa until August, 1977. But the absentee owner wanted food that was prepared more quickly, and the barrels of shiny apples that stood at the doorway as reminders of Art’s youth did not appeal to the owner, who wanted to add entertainment and garner higher profits.
Is Art Bolic unhappy about these past two aborted efforts? To the contrary, Art loves his free-lance catering business. In December, 1977, Art had thirty-three catering jobs, from a sit-down dinner for two people to vast parties. Needless to say, some months are lean, and since he does not advertise, he has to wait for people to come to him. But he enjoys the variety of jobs. Sometimes he cooks steaks for all-male parties; on other occasions he serves cocktail tortillas stuffed with fourteen different fresh vegetables, shredded sirloin, and cheese. And of course he does Basque-style dinners.
When asked what he prefers to cook most of all, he replies, “I love to serve food in the manner I like to eat it. I refuse to serve Swedish meatballs and cocktail weenies. Ordinary things are unexciting, and that's terrible. I dislike dead cow and salad bars. It hurts me to see some kid broiling dead cow and shoveling out those prepackaged salads. But when you ask me what I like to cook, I would say it's like being in a penny candy store and having to choose from dozens of wonderful things. Now that's exciting!”
From the time he was fifteen, when he began his formal and rigorous on-the-job training, until the present, as the chef and owner of La Jolla's L’Escargot, Pierre Lustrat has done little but work on haute cuisine, or gourmet French cooking. Born in Alsace forty-one years ago, he was raised in an environment of excellent food and drink. His father sold wine, and at home his mother prepared superb meals. Her repertoire included her own pate; at least half a dozen salads; choucroute, the local sauerkraut and fowl dish; and a variety of soups and desserts.
When Pierre began his apprenticeship, he knew that he would have to spend years perfecting his craft. The steps of achievement in cuisine are as rigid as military discipline, beginning with the scrubbing of vegetables and proceeding to increasingly sophisticated stages in the preparation of food. It is not uncommon to spend two years just learning sauces before one can become, say, a broiler man. Cooking is compartmentalized in France, and it would be unthinkable to allow a man who does cold dishes to substitute for a chef who broils and roasts. (Despite the fame of Julia Child, the art of the French chef, in France as well as in America, remains a man’s profession.)
Therefore, from 1953 until 1961, when he was drafted for military service, Pierre devoted himself to his craft: apprentice, commis de cuisine, and then chef de parti, or the man in charge of a station. A station refers to one type of preparation: cold salads, sauces, broiling, roasting, stewing, and so on. After going through these rigors step by step, one may become a chef de cuisine, or top chef. Pierre never achieved this in France, but his parents always wanted him to have his own restaurant. When they came to visit him in Paris, they would tell him, “We've saved you glasses for your own restaurant.’’ And because he worked at Le Doyen and other kitchens of fine cuisine, they never doubted that their hopes would be realized.
During the twenty-eight months that Pierre was in the French air force, he spent most of his hours cooking for his superior officers. And though he went back to Le Doyen after his service was completed, he often frequented St. Roch, the street in Paris where people in the restaurant business meet to exchange news about jobs in Paris and in every other part of the.civilized world. On one such occasion Pierre met a friend who persuaded him to try a short stint as associate chef in Quebec. From there, he went on to Toronto and applied for immigration papers, landing eventually in New Haven, Connecticut, where he often assisted with meals for the Yale faculty.
But his goal was the West Coast, where warm weather and job opportunities beckoned. For a while he worked at the celebrity-infested Le Bistro in Los Angeles, and for five years he was the sous-chef (under-chef) at La Chaumiere, in Scottsdale, Arizona.
But the lure of Southern California soon brought him back to the Coast, and he worked at several prestigious restaurants in Orange County, including Chez Carry and St. Tropez. Actually, he wanted to open his own establishment near Laguna Beach, but when La Jolla's Chez Francoise needed a chef, he jumped at the chance, taking charge of the kitchen from 1972 until 1975. While he executed the menu to everyone’s satisfaction, he longed to buy the place and to prepare his own dishes, in his own way, with the skill and imagination that his years of training had brought him.
When he finally claimed the restaurant as his own, he renamed it L’Escargot (the snail), redecorated it, and — most important — revamped the menu.
“When people first came here, they ordered escargot always the same way — with garlic and butter. Well, I thought up four or five ways to serve them, including en croute (in pastry dough). The goose liver is imported and costs three dollars an ounce. I bake all the pastries every day. Maybe I forgot to tell you about my training in pastries. The house specialty is Tarte Tatin, but I can’t bake it in the summer because of the apples. I use golden delicious, and they aren't good in the summer.
“Now. I am specializing in fish and seafood, every day fresh. Of course, we have fowl, duck, and beef, and recently I added a fresh vegetable plate. I have an assistant, but I supervise everything he does. I do classic French dishes, and I myself prepare the main dishes, the sauces, the pastry. If I run out of something during the evening, I take the car and go myself to the store. It is faster that way.”
Although Pierre lives alone in a small apartment in Pacific Beach, he rarely relaxes. He rises early, works on his accounts, shops at some local markets for fruits or vegetables in season, checks out the stuff arriving from wholesalers in Los Angeles. If he is lucky, he has an hour for the swimming pool, the beach, or tennis, but his thoughts rarely stray from his work. By three o’clock he is in the kitchen, and he doesn't leave until L'Escargot closes at about eleven at night. Very infrequently he takes an evening off after he has prepared the food, but he grows restless and anxious, worrying that perhaps something will go wrong. He would like his dining room to be the best in all of San Diego, and he supervises the visual effect of every dish that goes out of the kitchen.
“Of course, my staff here is very professional, and that helps. Chris, who is Danish, worked as captain at Ernie's in San Francisco. One of my other men had training on the Queen Mary. If you are working with professionals, they know their jobs, and the customers are pleased.”
How does he manage to stay so slim? “I only taste; I don’t eat. Also, I work so hard, all the time working. I never get fat.” And does he ever eat out? Pierre’s eyes grow wistful, as if I were talking about a holiday in the remote past.
“Once in a while, I go to Belgian Lion for Alsacienne food. And I like Chinese. But for lunch, sometimes I buy a pastrami sandwich from a delicatessen or eat a bite of smoked salmon.”
It is past noon, and the day’s shopping for fresh ingredients has not been completed. Pierre leaves his very French restaurant, enters his very American Pontiac Firebird, and drives off.