is the laughter that I remember best about my time with
Haralambos (Babis) Kountoupis is a continental chef.
During the course of his career, he has cooked in first-class
hotels and restaurants all over Europe for just plain
folks and many dignitaries; taught fledgling Chefs,
and run many restaurants. His roots go deep in the tiny
island of Ikaria, Greece. There, in mythology, Icarus
flew too near the sun. He died after falling into the
ocean when the hot sun melted his wings of wax and feathers.
Like Icarus, Babis has flown too close to the sun: a
head injury forced him to retire to Ikaria to recuperate
for several years. For five years after that, he operated
a tiny restaurant on the pebbled beach at Agios Kirikos,
Ikaria, where I first met him the summer of 1995.
During the days and nights I spent eating at his restaurant,
I learned he makes his own wine and wine vinegar, cheese
from the milk of Mimi, his goat, spaghetti and other
pastas. He searches far and wide for the freshest and
tastiest ingredients. I have known him to travel on
the overnight ferry to Samos, sleeping both ways on
benches if there is room, to meet fishermen with their
catch in the early morning, then take the ferry back
in time to open his restaurant for the day.
Perhaps it was simply my love for his food that forged
the beginnings of our friendship; but Babis and I wrote
over the winter, me with visions of somehow bringing
him and Sophia to Seattle to open a restaurant with
me. A really Greek restaurant. Visions of what he would
do with the seafood available there, done in his style,
made my mouth water. Visions of how Seattleites would
accept him and his food made me smile in anticipation.
Chefs are lauded there. He would be accepted quickly,
and there would be another source of really great Greek
food in my own hometown, Seattle.
We wrote of the possibility of his uprooting, changing
his life, and he liked America, but throughout his letters
I understood his ties to the island where he was born;
his roots go deep into the earth and traditions there.
He had spent more than twenty years away from his home,
teaching Culinary Arts at the Kataegalleo School for
Tourism, working at Hilton hotels around Europe, owning
his own restaurants and Tavernas, and he had had enough.
All he really wanted to do was finish his home on his
island, relax and enjoy life. To open another restaurant
was not in his plans. "How many years do I have
left to look forward to? Twenty? Thirty? I want to spend
my days fishing, taking care of my bees and olive trees.
This is life."
And one day came another letter, inviting me to spend
the summer, where I would possibly understand something
of his love for his island. "My restaurant is closed;
I lost the lease and I'm not opening another this year.
This is my summer: I will finish my home and the apartments
for rent. After work we will fish and swim, and I will
cook for you. Just you tell me what you want to eat
The summer? In Greece? Too good to be true.
Alas, indeed it was. The invitation from Babis was still
there, but my life had changed, and my summer in Greece
turned into one month; my time with Babis one short
No matter. Bring your friends from Athens and come.
Nine and one half hours on a boat to travel to a quiet
island was not in my friends' plans; seeking the more
lively life, they remained in Athens.
Now, at 3:00 on a Monday morning in August, I am standing
on the top deck of the ferry Samaina, watching Ikaria,
a tiny speck on the dark sea, grow slowly larger in
front of me, curious to know what adventures lie ahead.
I had slept on the soft benches in the lounge for a
short time and was rested and refreshed. More than that,
I was excited to be seeing my friend Babis. As I watched
the sea, I remembered the previous summer and our first
It was Greece in September, the high season was over,
and the ferries weren't running there from here. Did
we want to go to Athens instead?
After the jangling boisterousness of the tourist clientele
of Pythagorion, Samos, my companion and I were looking
for a quiet, minimally tourist overrun island.
Ikaria, the sign said.
Ikaria? The place in mythology where the man had wings
made of wax? That sounded like fun. A small island?
No problem. We'd stay the night, sightsee, and take
a boat from there the next day.
We arrived at Agios Kirikos on Ikaria on Friday afternoon,
took one look, and decided to buy our ticket out immediately.
It was a tiny island; we figured we'd see it in a day,
then move on closer to our objective.
The first boat out was on Monday morning. Three nights
in this tiny place? We'd go nuts. Oh, well. We'd sun,
we'd tour, we'd relax.
Our first night's dinner was probably the worst meal
we'd had in Greece. We were looking for traditional
Greek food, and pizza was not it. This did not bode
well for our stay.
The next night we headed toward a small restaurant whose
sign pointed down toward the beach. It was the second
of the two restaurants recommended by the Hotel owner
where we stayed. The first was our previous night's
fiasco. Would this be any better or worse?
When the girl who rented us our car also suggested this
place, we figured we had a better chance for a decent
meal. She said the owner had worked as Chef in some
of the finest hotels in Europe. He had had a head injury
accident many years before, and had taken several years
to heal, then opened this tiny place up the beach about
five years before. If we liked fish, she said, that
was the place. Now here we were standing on the street
Ta Botsala. Ta Botsala? Its meaning was past my limited
Greek. Great looking menu, printed on a chalkboard.
Fresh tuna. Fresh everything… But what did Ta Botsala
We walked down whitewashed steps that opened onto a
small concrete dance floor; pebbles -Ta Botsala- covered
the surrounding ground where tables and chairs were
scattered: the chairs were of both the white plastic
and orange tubular vinyl-strung varieties.
The kitchen area was enclosed in wire-mesh that was
padlocked when the restaurant was closed. I could not
see that lasting long back home.
We chose an empty table across the dirt road next to
the water. It was fun to be served with the waves lapping
on one side, sitting in semidarkness, the brightly-lit
restaurant across the way.
The waitress, Sophia, served us Retsina from the barrel,
the first I'd tried in years. What a difference from
the bottled variety: light and fresh on the tongue;
the resin a whisper, not a hammer; and best of all,
no headaches from added sulfites. There are none.
And then the food started.
Chewy bread with a crust that could form only in a wood
A perfect Greek salad. Tomatoes solid red throughout,
meaty and juicy; crisp cucumber slices that somehow
released bursts of several flavors all at once; sliced
onions so sweet they could stand alone.
Tuna, its juices flowing liberally, melting on the tongue.
And, of course the Greek staple, potatoes cooked lightly
in a quality olive oil.
Greek cooking was nothing new for me; I had eaten "Greek"
food all my life; my grandparents were born in Greece,
my childhood a meld of old country traditions and the
new world of America. My mother cooked traditional Greek
food often. The "American" food she prepared
was liberally sprinkled with Greek olive oil and herbs.
This was a cut above, Greek food with a finish. In its
simplicity, the richness of flavors from foods so close
to the mineral-rich earth, utterly Greek, utterly incredible.
On the open area of the restaurant, people had begun
to dance Greek folk dances, mostly Zeibekiko, a dance
done by a single dancer, the movements improvised to
9/8 rhythms: slow, syncopated, and showy.
And Chiftetelle, a lovely, sinuous, sensuous belly dance
performed alone or with a partner.
I love to dance to Greek folk music. It is my childhood.
The Chiftetelle was my downfall. Everyone in the main
restaurant area was dancing or watching the dancers,
and I wanted to dance so badly I itched, feeling the
music deep within. But my partner did not dance and
I did not have the chutzpa to walk to the dance floor
alone and dance Chiftetelle -alone- in front of all
the patrons. Other nights, maybe, when we sat closer
to the dance floor, but not tonight.
It was dark at our table across the road, the music
was beckoning, and I could no longer resist dancing,
so I stood at our table and began to finally let Greece
seep into my body. The "Greece" of my youth
as a second generation Greek-American returned through
the music, the food, the smells, the sounds of the people,
the talk, the quick, explosive sounds of anger followed
by even quicker laughter. In the dark I felt loose and
free, and slowly danced the belly dance. When the dance
was over, we headed toward the main area, my companion
to pay the bill, me to the restrooms.
On my return, he was sitting at a small table near the
exit, two glasses of wine and two baklava glistening
with honey on the table before him, a wide grin on his
The entire restaurant had their eyes focused directly
on me. This was typical restaurant behavior in Greece,
but normally it happened when entering a restaurant
for the first time, not returning from the john.
"Enjoy," he said. "It's in your honor."
"When I paid the bill, the owner sat me here and
said we couldn't leave until he thanked the wonderful
dancer. He says he made the wine himself."
I lifted the wineglass in the direction of the owner,
a rather wild-haired, gentle-seeming man, and smiled
a thank you. I was pleased but also somewhat embarrassed.
What had happened to the anonymity of the dark?
The wine was sweet, nectar. The baklava crisp, chewy
I was in Greece as an adult, my mouth was lost in remembered
childhood tastes and pleasures: the sweet wine my grandfather
made, the baklava I helped my grandmother and mother
build in layers of whisper-thin phyllo dough.
When the music changed, a line dance formed and people
beckoned me to join them. That was the last time I lacked
for dancing partners on Ikaria. Or for things to do.
We were invited to a local church Glendi, an outdoor
dance and all-out-food fest with local wines and delicacies.
We were told how to find the secret staircase to a natural
hot springs only locals knew, where hot mineral waters
flow into a pool formed by large boulders at the edge
of the sea.
And we stayed on for three extra days just to eat Babis'
food and visit with him and Sophia.