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Thirty years ago, Costas Spiliadis did something that most restaurateurs would consider professional suicide: He took butter off the table. In its place, he served olive oil – Greek olive oil. So perturbed were the customers that many starting bribing waiters to get them butter. Some went so far as to bring their own in their purse or pocket. Spiliadis, though, was determined.

 

“Oil, at the time, had a negative connotation,” said the owner of Montreal’s famous Milos restaurant over lunch last week at Outremont’s Leméac. “It was something that made diners think of cars and engines, not food. So the initial reaction was disappointment, anger and frustration. But I stuck to my guns and banned all butter from the restaurant, because if I gave up, my whole effort would be down the drain. Then, a couple of years later, the same people who were protesting were the ones commenting on the different aromatics in the olive oil.”

 

Spiliadis, 63, obviously revels in his achievement saying, “As we get older in life, it’s important to count what we’ve achieved. How many people know that we were the first to start serving olive oil on the table in North America?” (Though it would be impossible to justify such a claim, I can vouch for the fact that Milos was indeed the first restaurant where I was offered only olive oil with my bread.)

 

More so than any Montreal restaurateur, Spiliadis can spend plenty of time counting his achievements, both past and present. His three restaurants in Montreal, New York and Athens continue to improve and garner critical acclaim. And hearing about his future plans, there’s plenty on the horizon, as well.

 

His next phase of expansion will put him in the big leagues alongside the world’s top restaurateurs. With a new Montreal restaurant opening Monday, May 10, just down the street from Milos; a glitzy 200-seat restaurant slated to open in Las Vegas in December; a Miami restaurant coming in 2011 and a Greek cooking school in the planning stages for 2012, Spiliadis will be jetting back and forth to five different restaurants over the next two years.

 

It all started at the end of 1979 with the opening of Milos, a one-room taverna that gradually evolved into one of the city’s most successful and influential power restaurants. Yet this isn’t simply a glitzy eatery for business people and socialites. By placing the emphasis on quality, hospitality and never straying from his roots, Spiliadis made Milos not only Montreal’s top Greek restaurant, but one of the top restaurants in any category.

 

Spiliadis has been a precursor of many of today’s food trends, moving toward pristine ingredients, healthy cooking, simple preparations and cultivating a laid-back atmosphere in an upmarket setting.

 

His focus on ingredients is legendary. Customers feast on the reddest tomatoes, the most unctuous

 

yogurt, the plumpest capers, and the sweetest honey from the island of Kythira. Most of the fish and seafood proudly displayed in his North American restaurants is trucked in from New York’s Fulton Fish Market or flown in from Greece.

 

You’ll also find plenty of local ingredients on the Milos table, yet considering that Spiliadis’s mission is to help Greek cuisine claim its place next to the other greats of the world, one would not expect him to follow the locavore food movement wholeheartedly.

 

“An important decision for me at Milos was to bypass middlemen in purchasing goods. I went straight to the source. It was expensive and difficult, but it was the only way for me to acquire first-class ingredients. And I had to do it because I was on a mission to preach a food culture based on the fact that the ingredients are so beautiful that any attempt to tamper with them is both philosophically, culinarily and pragmatically wrong.”

 

Though Greek cuisine is often dismissed as “simple,” Spiliadis prefers the word “pure.”

 

“If you look at food cultures in Greece, Japan or the Scandinavian countries that are very close to their food sources,” he says, “you’ll see that their recipes aren’t elaborate because the ingredients are so fresh. Today, chefs are talking about simplicity in their cuisine because availability is less of an issue. The pleasure of a product at its best cannot be bettered by any manipulation. It takes hubris for a chef to put himself above nature.”

 

Milos was also the first to risk offering customers a low-key dining experience at a high price. Says Spiliadis: “I consider Milos as an example of a fine-dining restaurant that touches on the border of being casual. When we started, restaurants were focused on plates, whereas we preferred sharing platters. And we were serving simply prepared foods like grilled mushrooms and peppers. I think people were dying for that taste of grilled vegetables.”

 

Spiliadis is also one of the few Canadian restaurateurs to successfully enlarge his empire, and the only one to do it internationally. In 1997 came Estiatorio Milos, the New York restaurant with a posh midtown location, a breezy decor and a celebrity-filled client list (Woody Allen, Rupert Murdoch and Alain Ducasse are regulars). Despite the glamour, Spiliadis says the Montreal customers have the bigger influence. “New Yorkers are more apt to judge silently,” he says. “In Montreal the customers fight for what they think is correct. I’ve had customers come right into the kitchen to show me how to grill lamb chops. Here we stand up for what we believe in, and that creates chefs and restaurateurs with character.”

 

In 2003, Spiliadis completed the circle by opening a Milos in Athens, which two years after opening was named best Greek restaurant in Greece by the country’s top gastronomy magazine, called Gourmet. Situated on the lower floor of a hotel, the Athens Milos is a sweeping, high-ceilinged space with tall banquettes, an oyster bar and a communal table. Although Spiliadis has been quoted as calling the Montreal Milos “my baby,” he now claims the Athens restaurant as his favourite. “It’s because the ingredients are so close,” he says of his beloved Greek foodstuffs that he has spent the past three decades bolstering abroad. “The fruit, the vegetables, the meat and the cheeses are just unbelievable. And because of their easy accessibility, we work more seasonally there. In the winter I would never serve a Greek salad but a salad made with local wild greens that's to die for!”

 

Despite his obvious obsession with ingredients, the subject he seems most passionate about is hospitality. “Traditionally the relationship between chefs and customers is one of boundaries and alienation,” he says. “I believe differently. I come from a tradition where hospitality is in our blood. And I don’t just mean in restaurants. There’s a Greek notion of ‘filoxenia,’ which means ‘friends to foreigners.’ My relationship with my customers is all about me living up to this tradition of hospitality.”

 

He said business at both the Montreal and New York restaurants was up in 2009, a year that claimed many restaurants due to the weak economy. No doubt, hospitality played a role in customer fidelity.

 

“I’m always talking to my customers,” Spiliadis says. “It’s important because being in someone’s restaurant is like being in their home. When a restaurant owner doesn’t come out to talk to me, I feel as if I’m visiting someone at a time they went out to a movie and left me with the maid. And that contact is important because the customer should share their gratitude or complaints with the person who can appreciate them.

 

“I have learned so much through my customers’ complaints. I’d rather have a customer who complains than says nothing and never comes back. It has been the motto of my success.”

 

---

 

A list of the world’s top restaurateurs would include luminaries like Wolfgang Puck, Nobu Matsuhisa, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Alain Ducasse, Daniel Boulud, Gordon Ramsay and Mario Batali.

 

It wouldn’t be a stretch to add the name Costas Spiliadis to that group. With restaurants going strong in Montreal, Manhattan and Athens, Spiliadis’s empire also includes New York’s Marketa, a gourmet shop. And it doesn’t stop there. Plans are under way to open a new Montreal restaurant, two new Milos restaurants in the U.S., and a cooking school on the island of Kythira in Greece.

 

The Montreal restaurant, Cava – located in the spot that held the now-defunct Le Petit Milos, at 5551 Park Ave. (near St. Viateur St.) – will open Monday (May 10). As for what to expect, Spiliadis says: “Milos is about the Greece of the islands: summer, sea, blue and white. But Greece has another important reality and that’s the inland, the mountains, where the cuisine is based more on meat, game and comfort foods cooked in a fireplace, similar to the food of Tuscany. That’s what we’ll be doing at the new restaurant. And Cava is also the name of our wine importation company run by my son George, so there will an emphasis on wine there as well. The restaurant will be small, cozy, with a lot of wood in the decor.”

 

Cozy would probably be the last word used to describe the two new outlets of Milos, one in the South Beach section of Miami, the other in Las Vegas.

 

“I was approached for many years about Las Vegas. But this offer came at a time when Vegas ceased to be just a place to gamble. There are now shows, art expositions, and great restaurants. Our project will be in the Cosmopolitan (part of the new CityCenter development), which is bringing new life to the city.”

 

Slated for a December opening, in a 12,000 square-foot restaurant with 200 seats and two private rooms, the Las Vegas outpost of Milos will be the most glamourous. Spiliadis says they are maintaining the classic Milos fish and seafood menu and open kitchen. The challenge, he says, with such a highly designed restaurant is to keep it warm.

 

The South Beach development, projected to open in October 2011, will include a restaurant and a market. “Miami is changing, too,” he says, “and it’s a great place to draw on our customers from both Montreal and New York.”

 

Yet the project that seems dearest to the restaurateur is his cooking school. “The island of Kythira has become a second home to me,” says Spiliadis. “I have bought several 16th century houses on a UNESCO-preserved site that are in ruins, that I’m restoring to their original state. In the summer I’ll rent them, but in the winter they will make up part of a culinary school.

 

“It will be a holistic approach to Greek culture, with food playing a central role. Rosemary Barron (cookbook author and teacher) will head the school and we’re collaborating with Oxford University to bring in students from all over the world. They will go fishing, cultivate the land, learn about honey making, harvest sea salt … I want young people to go back to where they came from and spread the word on Greek culture and Greek culinary culture.”

 

(Courtesy of The Montreal Gazette)

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Non mais sans niaiser, tu arrives ailleurs au canada et tu demandes: Une poutine au foie gras et on te regarde en débile. :rotfl: Au pied de cochon à Montréal ils comprennent ça.

 

Je suis un homme éduqué et fins connaisseurs, mais où est ma poutine. :D

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