Friday, January 11, 2013

Quality, hard work, and humility often go together...

'Notos' Chef and Owner, Constantin Erinkoglu
Constantin Erinkoglu is a remarkable individual. In February 2010 I wrote about him and his restaurant Notos in Brussels, after I saw him in an episode of a Flemish National TV programme about celebrity chefs and restaurants in Belgium, produced by Wim Opbrouck. I also posted excerpts of that episode on my Youtube channel, in which Constantin is shown to prepare two traditional Greek dishes and respond to Wim's questions. Watching that episode made me feel very proud of the man, Constantin, as I happen to be a native Greek myself and living in Belgium, just like him. He was born a few hundred kms from my own birthplace, I learned later. I also saw the remaining episodes of that TV series, and I can assure you that Constantin displayed something the remaining chefs in the series entirely lacked. He elevated the degree of intellect of the entire interview with Opbrouck to another dimension. In well chosen and simple terms he was able to explain his own philosophy and motivation for doing what he did. I felt quite moved. Wim's cameraman did an outstanding job too in capturing Constantin from the best possible angle and show us that very special sparkle in his eyes. It was the moment Constantin explained the role of food tastes and flavours not solely triggering our appetite but bringing us closer to our history, tradition and culture. I could tell then the man must have been a genuine outlier, somebody bound to be successful in anything he touched. I have seen this signal of talent in many occasions and in various roles and responsibilities during my long career that only a few outstanding individuals possess. You can tell quality when you see it, that's for sure! Constantin is such a person. With hard work, an eye for detail, creativity, and above all, humility he was able to shine. Eventually the local 'market' of Burgundian Belgians, traditionally passionate about quality food, 'discovered' Constantin and 'Notos', and he subsequently landed as primus inter pares in the world of quality chefs in this country. He's probably the best Chef of Greek cuisine outside of Greece, certainly in the European subcontinent. Somebody once called him the best ambassador for Greece in Central Europe, especially now that everybody thinks bitterly, to say the least, about the country of our forefathers, and makes those of us in the diaspora often feel sadness about the chaos Greek politicians and their tactics have led the country into.

Fleurs de Pontos - A traditional Notos dish
I never before felt so strongly about the concept of food preparation being linked to tradition and culture in the degree Constantin was able to explain. This was no regular Ramsey or Oliver stuff. That is sheer culinary poetry and art. Cross my heart, what came to my mind when I heard him explain his motivation for abandoning a safe and well paying job at the Commission, and start Notos as his only entrepreneurship were scenes from the movie Chocolat (2000), and an article I saw in April 2010 in the New Yorker magazine about the 'memory' of flavors and the cultural elements associated with traditional ethnic kitchen.

Since my 2010 blogpost I have dined at Notos twice. That second time was yesterday, when four of us came to the restaurant for dinner to celebrate the birthday of one of us. The previous time I didn't quite have the opportunity to talk to Constantin directly because he happened to be abroad for the day, but yesterday it was my lucky day. I spoke to our charming and utterly hospitable young lady waiter about my wish to meet him and soon later he came to our table. I was stunned by his openness, charm and hospitality. Not a single sign of success inspired arrogance whatsoever, but abundant humility and full of respect instead. But above all I was struck by the strength of his thought stream, his ideas and humble opinions concerning the current state of our country. His eyesight darkened when he referred to the state of our Greek economy and the fact that tradition risks to perish in the wake of current turbulences. He seemed to know Morocco quite well, and he admitted he enjoyed travelling to places like Marrakech occasionally, as well as to its neighbouring villages, where he could still experience the sights and sounds of the past but also the genuine hospitality of endogenous Morrocans, living in a discipline carved by a whole set of old virtues and past traditions, yet untouched by the perils of globalisation and the media. "We used to be like them before, in Greece", he said, but "we seem to be losing this gradually and for good".

He offered us a bottle of excellent Cabernet wine (2004) from the Peloponnese, and he chatted with us for a few more minutes enjoying a glass in our company. I asked him about the current course of his business (the restaurant of about 75 seats was packed at about 9pm) and whether it was still hard to assure a reservation and had to be proactive months in advance. "We used to be like that when we were located in a 25 seat space before", he said, "when people had just discovered us, and some attractive reports appeared in the press". After that we moved here and we don't seem to have a problem for years now. We seem to manage well, within reason of course. If you only called the day before or same day, well, then you naturally risk to face occasional unavailability, but under normal circumstances we can accomodate bookings rather well. Nobody should have to reserve a restaurant months in advance. What would be the point of such a thing?" he remarked. "No, we don't have a reservation problem", he said. "Spread the word".

As I was thinking about the title of this blogpost this morning, I replayed yesterday's scenes in my mind. And thinking about Constantin I concluded: Indeed, hard work and humility mostly go together with quality.

PS. I omitted to critic the quality of the dishes we had yesterday, as I would have to fall into a repetition of superlatives. If in doubt about my own opinion, as I might be considered biased being a 'DNA related' compatriot, ask Belgian ex-prime Minister and current MEP Guy Verhofstadt instead, a great fan of Constantin's, many other BVs (Bekende Vlamingen - Famous Flemish people), or the scores of past and current high ranked functionaries of the Commission. My choice of fleurs de Pontos were simply divine, and the main course of lamb with quince slices, what can I say, simply to lick your fingers, as we Greeks usually admit... Not to mention the pantespani as desert...(sigh)

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