It’s Thursday night, 6:30. The first runner wants spanakopita, the second needs moussaka. “Pastitsio!” says the third. Out of the convection oven flies a tray of spanakopita, the moussaka is not quite ready. A bowl of stuffed grape leaves heads out the door, while someone is beating the hell into a batch of avgolemono sauce for the dolmades.
This is not your corner Greek diner. The kitchen staff is volunteer, and some have been on the job almost daily for a month, preparing enough food for a week’s worth of hungry eaters in Brooklyn Heights. Brooklyn Heights? Oh, didn’t you know that Brooklyn had a large Greek population in the late 1940s and 1950s and that Sts. Constantine & Helen Greek Orthodox Cathedral of Brooklyn, established in 1913, was the first Greek Orthodox church on Long Island? That after passing through Ellis Island, Greek immigrants came straight to the Heights? Take that, Astoria!
For 32 years, the first week of June has seen a Greek festival at St. Connie’s transform the block into a weeklong outdoor taverna. Tables take over the street, kiddie rides move in at one end, the school’s Greek teacher becomes a kids’ face painter, and a grill station runs the length of the church facade.
Being an outdoor affair, the festival’s biggest worry is rain. Downpours spur a stampede into the church’s basement and the tent-covered courtyard where the hot food and beverages are sold. (It appears that the saints don’t have the pull they used to.) Yet rain or no rain, who would think of leaving while there’s still food, wine and music to enjoy?
The weekend taverna with its spit-roasted lamb is the climax of the festival. Friday and Saturday evenings begin with Greek dancing (the middle school on Friday, the primary school on Saturday). A DJ keeps a steady stream of bouzouki and Greek pop going all night, because after the kids have changed back into their running shoes and T-shirts, the adults dance whenever the spirit moves them. (This helps burn off your first dinner so you can eat more lamb later.)
Running the festival kitchen presents challenges that are different from running a restaurant kitchen. Enter Michelle Tampakis, the festival’s chairman. Michelle is a chef instructor at the Institute of Culinary Education in Manhattan, as well as the director of its Center for Advanced Pastry Studies. At ICE, her specialty is chocolate, an ingredient that’s not much in evidence here among the dessert trays of baklava, galatoboureko (custard-filled filo squares), kourambiedes (Greek wedding cookies) and loukoumades (Greek zeppole). But no one seems to mind. She’s been at the helm of the festival’s food for four years, and a member of the congregation for 26.
“The festival is a huge enterprise and we start food prep a month in advance,” Michelle says. Most of the menu’s non-meat ingredients (vegetables, dairy, wine) are donations from area Greek restaurants. Her team of 15 assemble spanakopita, moussaka, tiropites (cheese triangles) and pastitsio (pasta casserole), which are baked and stored in the church’s commercial-size freezers until the festival’s Monday opening, when they start moving into the refrigerators.
“I wear many hats,” Michelle says, wiping drips off the nozzle of the plastic squirt bottles of tzatziki sauce that a runner whisks to the grill. Each day from 7:30 in the morning until closing, her main task is trafficking the flow of food—overseeing the ovens to keep a steady stream of entrées moving out of the fridges into the ovens and over to the runners to the hot food station—and troubleshooting. Michelle takes a suspicious-looking black garbage bag from one of the freezers and slams it on the prep table—meatballs, which she pours into a pan and slides in the eight-rack convection oven.
At the sinks, two students from the church’s A. Fantis pre-K–8 Parochial School are decapitating heads of lettuce. Tzatziki runs out as fast as it gets made.
Michelle’s kitchen staff praises her excellent kitchen management—she’s a pro, after all—and they love the dishes she’s introduced to the menu: rice pudding (her mother’s recipe), cherry preserves over strained yogurt, and her runaway hit—Greek French fries with feta cheese and a dusting of oregano (600 pounds were sold last year). Four years ago she suggested adding gyro to the grill menu. How trite, everyone thought. Now they sell 200 pounds of it each day. When a festival’s purpose is to raise funds for the school, that can add up to a lot of drachmas.
Michelle in turn praises her volunteers. “They’re such hard workers, and since they’re multigenerational, you’re always learning kitchen tips,” she says.
Now let’s talk quantities. They make 40 trays of baklava, 5,000 tiropites (cheese triangles). Galatoboureko (custard squares) have to be made daily, three trays per day. The filo experts (ladies of the congregation who’ve been whipping these dishes up at home for years) are on standby for noon production if supplies of entrées like spanakopita start running low.
The volunteers man every job: grill, bar, hot food station, prep, KP (the whole operation and street gets cleaned up every night). What’s in it for them besides long hours and no pay? Theokli Hotzoglou is an alumna of the church’s school (her daughter is now its Greek dance teacher) and loves being in the festival kitchen. “I come here every day after work,” she says. As she passes the deep-fryer, she yanks out two baskets of French fries that are about to become deep-burned. That’s teamwork.
Monday lunch: The place is filled with cops. It’s not a bust (unless it’s your belt). Souvlaki is moving fast. Elementary school students from St. Connie’s line up for lunch all week—and get extra cinnamon on their loukoumades.
The hundreds of Greek families that used to live in the Brooklyn Heights area moved long ago to greener parts of Brooklyn but they continue to send their children to the school, where Greek traditions are taught along with the standard curriculum. Irene Koutsidis is a floater at the festival; she serves and takes money. She lives in Bensonhurst but grew up on Fourth Place in Carroll Gardens. An alumna of the school, she’s been coming to the festival since she was little. This is her 10th year as a volunteer. New families living in the Heights and Cobble Hill are providing the next generation of students. They are mainly second-generation or families with one Greek parent.
The truth about the grill station: It’s the hottest job (literally) and has the longest lines. None of the grill men have restaurant experience (they’re mostly in the construction business), so it’s different work and it’s intense. Grill regulars are “the two Angelos” and Peter Rogakos (a member of the board of trustees). They serve chicken, lamb, gyro, souvlaki, octopus and sausage (homemade by the father of one of the teachers).
“We order 800 pounds of pork shoulder,” says Angelo Koutsidis, who joined the grill team three years ago. “Each day we go through 200 pounds of gyro, 200 pounds of souvlaki (lamb), 30 pounds of octopus and about 200 pounds each of chicken and pork.” After their longtime spit man died, the festival switched from roasting whole lamb to whole legs of lamb (14 of them at 8 pounds each). Last year’s figures ran an astounding 300 pounds of octopus, 640 pounds of gyro and 30 pounds of sausage. “Tzatziki sauce on your gyro?”—that took 240 pounds of sour cream.
Unlike the earlier generation of volunteers, today’s festival staff no longer comes from the restaurant industry. Angelo says the old-timers were Greek restaurant guys who spent hours together in the church basement slicing hundreds of pounds of pork shoulder. “‘Pay more for sliced when we can do it ourselves?’ was the way they looked at it. We let the butcher slice it now.”
Valerie Saint-Rossy is a Brooklyn Heights resident who thinks Greek food is tops, but only when she isn’t teaching her intensive foreign language class on practical Chinese for Asian food-lovers. She appreciates that both “middle kingdoms” cook squid.
This year’s Greek festival runs June 6 to 12.
My Big Fat Greek Block Party: For 32 years, the first week of June has seen a stretch of Brooklyn Heights become an outdoor taverna.
A DJ keeps a stream of bouzouki and greek pop going all night. Dancing helps burn off your first dinner so you can eat more lamb later.
Photo credit: Valerie Saint-Rossy.